The Kelley House Museum in Mendocino is pleased to announce the publication of its latest book, Look Tin Eli – The Mendocino-Born Visionary Who Helped Shape the Chinese-American Experience. 

Book cover with a studio portrait of an Asian man on a map background

New Publication Explores the remarkable life of Mendocino-born Look Tin Eli, now available for purchase online and in bookstores.

With almost fifty historic images, the 114-page publication is the first to present a comprehensive life history of the innovative Look Tin Eli (LTE). Bringing together Look family memorabilia, government documents and extensive research, authors Jane Tillis and Robert Becker have told a remarkable story.

As a teenager returning home from China in 1884, LTE’s illegal detention instigated a court battle that set the precedent for birthright citizenship being written into the U. S. constitution during a later immigration battle. After the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, he was instrumental in establishing Chinatown as a business center and tourist destination. He founded the first Chinese-owned bank, the Canton Bank of San Francisco, and he started the China Mail steamship company. 

The creation of this book has its own story that began more than four years ago when a member of the Look family contacted the Kelley House to arrange a group visit to Mendocino. Approximately thirty descendants of LTE arrived to see where their notable great-grandfather was born. Widely dispersed family members had traveled from Hong Kong, Colorado, the San Francisco Bay Area, Singapore, and Australia. 

Led by the Museum’s head docent, Jane Tillis, the group toured the area where Mendocino’s Chinatown had existed for many decades, pointed out where LTE was born, and saw where the family grocery store had prospered. At the Temple of Kwan Tai, Jane was enthralled as Mona Look-Mazza spoke eloquently of LTE’s life and decided at that moment that his was a significant life that deserved wider visibility.

Jane began learning everything she could about this man and was fortunate to receive the support and encouragement of brothers Guy Look and Michael Look, who offered essential information and intriguing family photos. 

She was assisted in her research by many talented people, including San Francisco–based media producer Carol Liu who served as cultural consultant, and Lorraine-Hee-Chorley from the Temple of Kwan Tai in Mendocino. Former Museum Director-Curator Anne Cooper directed the initial research and later provided editing, while volunteer archivist Carolyn Zeitler and the late Kelley House volunteer Bette Duke did much of the early research on his immigration battle. With the help of Cornelia Reynolds, the Museum received a grant from the State of California that funded a 2019 exhibit that included LTE’s story. 

With the research completed, Jane then asked Kelley House tour docent, history buff, and online writer, Robert Becker, to compose a narrative that incorporated all the material. Robert’s background in California history and American literature, plus years of online writing on politics and culture, allowed him to frame LTE’s exceptional life amidst larger historical patterns. 

As the manuscript came together, he called on Robert Eric Barde, a UC Berkeley immigration scholar, and Gary Kamiya, author of the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Portals of the Past,” to provide critical feedback on documentation, interpretation, and language. Other writers that provided support and feedback included Professor Clay Reynolds, and wife and author Katy Pye.

When Robert was done, Museum Board member Sarah Nathe stepped in to edit the final manuscript, and long-time Kelley House supporter and professional editor Annette Jarvie proofed the final copy. Finally, talented graphic designer Michelle Noe transformed words and images into a beautiful, printed book that we are proud to add to our bookshelf.

The Kelley House Museum is deeply grateful to all who dedicated their talents and time to create this publication, especially volunteers Robert Becker and Jane Tillis, who inspired everyone with her conviction and enthusiasm.

You can purchase the Look Tin Eli book at local bookstores or at the Kelley House’s online store.