#OGEntrepreneurs: Look Tin Eli

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Look Tin Eli was a first generation Chinese-American born in California in 1870 but educated in part in China. His independent spirit and ability to advocate for himself were evident from an early age. When he was 14, he attempted to return to the United States but was denied entry under the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was instituted while Look was away in China. This Act prevented immigration from China to the United States, and even though Look had been born in the U.S., the country would not let him in. So he sued. When he won his lawsuit, it was one of the first cases that established that a person born in the U.S. is an American citizen regardless of their ethnic origin. 

Look became the first Chinese person to graduate from Mendocino High School. Then he married a Chinese-born woman and soon moved his family to San Francisco where he found success in banking and established himself as a stalwart of the Chinese American business community. 

After the famous 1906 earthquake destroyed much of San Francisco, including Chinatown, many of the city’s Chinese were displaced. City officials took this as an opportunity to try to move Chinatown away from its prime location just north of the financial center of the city. However, Look Tin Eli joined with other Chinese entrepreneurs to prevent the relocation. The entrepreneurs threatened to start importing Chinese goods through ports in Seattle and Oakland instead of San Francisco and the city backed down. The Chinese entrepreneurs rebuilt Chinatown to be a tourist attraction in order to establish it as an important part of San Francisco’s financial future. Look’s new bank, Canton Bank of San Francisco, was part of the rebuilding effort. It was the first Chinese-owned bank in the country and an important facet of Chinatown’s rebuilding project because it gave the entrepreneurs a safe and trustworthy place to keep their money. 

But Look Tin Eli wasn’t done. In 1917, the Pacific Mail Steamship Company stopped delivering to China, among other Asian countries, and in response Chinese American entrepreneurs formed the first Chinese steamship company, China Mail Steamship Company. Look again stepped up to serve his community and became the company’s first president. 

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Katie Pruitt