Written by Annie Luong
Esther Lee Johnson was born in 1930 during the Great Depression. In 1936, her family moved to Los Angeles’s old Chinatown and they would later on move into China City, where she would become one of the first Chinese Americans to participate in the film industry. One among four girls in her family, Esther recalls beginning work at a young age to help contribute to her family.
She reflects, “we were not wealthy but we always have food on the table… I give credit to my parents for raising us right to make us a hard workers and a good workers.�?
At the age of 12, Esther remembers working at Man Sing Bakery with her older sister. The bakery was run by a man named Mr. Lee. While working at the bakery, Esther also sold flowers on street corners to earn extra cash. Her introduction onto the big screen, as a movie extra, began with Tom Gubbins, a mustached and bearded man who was among one of the few Caucasian people in Chinatown. Esther recalls, “they would have a bus pick all of us up, loaded in the bus and then we worked in the studio.�?
The first movie she worked on was called “Good Earth.�? Work was assigned through word of mouth and in irregular intervals. Payments were made through vouchers and given to her parents. The Chinese usually played as coolies, restaurant workers, laundrymen, and other stereotypical roles. Esther recalls that at the time, many of the extras were just satisfied to have work. Besides “Good Earth,�? she worked on other films such as “Keys of the Kingdom�? and “Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing.�? As well as several TV series, Esther also worked on a musical called “Flower Drum Song.”
She attended Castelar Elementary School and Central Junior High School. While Castelar was composed mainly of Chinese students, her years at Belmont High School would bring a more diverse environment. Esther did not recall much racial tension between the students. She remembers wearing badges displaying her Chinese origin after Pearl Harbor was attacked. She describes that “it had a Chinese flag and an American flag to let the Caucasian people know that we are Chinese… because lots of them couldn’t tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese and then.�?
Growing up, it was a rare event for Esther and her sisters to watch movies or have materialistic things. They lived on the top floor of a gift shop in one big room, a kitchen, and a bathroom with no bathtub. She recalls, “my mother had a carpenter come in and partition two bedrooms and that big living room and so my mother and father and the younger sister slept in one room which was partition and then the other room is the three of us girls.�? Though life was certainly not easy, Esther states, “I really feel that in some ways we were blessed that we didn’t have a lot of material things [because it] makes us more humble.�?