May 6, 2021

Stories of Resilience: Three Asian Americans Who Shaped Filoli

Filoli, a National Trust Historic Site, is a historic house, garden, and nature preserve located south of San Francisco. Over the course of its 100-year history, two families—the Bourns and the Roths—owned the estate, but they represent only one dimension of the story. This spring, Filoli highlights three Asian Americans who helped build the Filoli community and steward the estate: a beloved chef who worked for the Roths, a floriculturist who transformed the garden’s textures, and a famed landscape architect instrumental in preserving Filoli for the public.

These stories are crucial to grounding Filoli—the home of two wealthy white families—in the broader context of California history and are the impetus behind the spring exhibition: “Stories of Resilience.” It explores the histories of exclusion that affected individuals connected to the estate, including discriminatory laws that targeted Asian Americans, like the Chinese Exclusion Act and the forced relocation and incarceration of the Japanese community by the federal government during World War II.

Kee Low (1889-1986)

Kee Low was the chef for the Roths, the second family that lived at Filoli, for more than 50 years. He began as an apprentice to his uncle at age 14 or 15. When hired by the Roths in the 1910s, he already had experience cooking at restaurants and private estates. He cooked from memory and skill, rather than recipe books, and had a talent for duplicating dishes from the Roths’ international travels, from tamales to curry chicken.

Though census records mark Low’s birthplace as California, his descendants state that he emigrated from the Taishan District in China. At the time, Chinese immigration to the United States was suspended by the discriminatory Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—a reaction to the influx of immigrants who came to build railroads across the country and work in mines during the Gold Rush.

A man, Kee Low, sits in front of cabinets dressed in the white jacket and hat typical of a chef.

photo by: Filoli Archives

Kee Low in the Butler’s Pantry at Filoli, 1960.

Americans on the West Coast supported the restriction, using Chinese laborers as scapegoats for declining wages. Some legislators were equally concerned about losing the racial purity of their white communities. The act, which was widely evaded, was not repealed until 1943. The legacy of this discriminatory legislation is with us still today, as anti-Asian bigotry and violence continue to affect our Bay Area community.

Toichi Domoto (1902-2001)

A floriculturist and nurseryman, Toichi Domoto supplied plants for Filoli during the Roth era. Japanese growers were foundational to the Bay Area cut flower industry, and Domoto carried on the tradition of his father and uncles who founded Domoto Brothers, Inc., in the 1880s. Their nursery was the first in Northern California to commercially produce ornamental plants imported from Japan, like wisteria, Japanese maples, azaleas, and camellias. It was nicknamed “Domoto College” since many young Japanese men who trained there later founded their own Bay Area nurseries.

A close of view of a peony hybrid  in Filoli's Garden. This species was created by Toichi Domoto.

photo by: Filoli

Filoli’s Garden features multiple tree peony hybrids created by Toichi Domoto.

An older gentlemen, Toichi Domoto, stands next to a large Bonsai tree.

photo by: Pacific Bonsai Museum, Federal Way, WA

Toichi Domoto in his nursery in Hayward, California, in 1988.

Domoto opened his own nursery in 1926, shortly before his father’s nursery closed due to the Great Depression. During World War II, Domoto had to leave the business in the hands of his bank manager when his family was forcibly incarcerated at the Amache camp in Colorado. Domoto’s daughter Marilyn was born the day before they reported to the assembly center—they called her an “evacuation baby.” Domoto’s father died in the camp at age 77.

Japanese Incarceration resulted in a massive loss of property and community in the Bay Area. Despite returning to continued discrimination, Domoto rebuilt his business. The Domoto family remained influential in the introduction of Japanese plants and cultivars to California gardens like Filoli.

Mai Kitazawa Arbegast (1922-2012)

A celebrated Bay Area landscape architect, Mai Kitazawa Arbegast had strong ties to Filoli. She grew up in San Jose, where her family ran the Kitazawa Seed Company. They supplied Asian vegetable seeds to Japanese American farmers in California and Oregon. Arbegast and her family were also forcibly incarcerated during World War II.

A group of people, three men and one woman, inside a greenhouse. The image is black and white.

photo by: Courtesy of UC Berkeley, Environmental Design Archives.

Mai Kitazawa Arbegast in a U.C. Berkeley greenhouse with another professor and students from the Landscape Architecture department.

Arbegast was a professor of landscape architecture at U.C. Berkeley before she opened her own firm in 1967. She specialized in planting design and notably worked on the planting restoration of Hearst Castle and the renovation of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor.

Arbegast was instrumental in persuading Lurline Roth to donate Filoli to the National Trust. She painted a picture of it becoming the “Wisley of the West,” referencing an iconic garden in England. Once the donation was official, Arbegast briefly oversaw Filoli’s garden operations and hired a head gardener to care for the estate. She went on to be a member of Filoli’s Board of Trustees.

Arbegast was a good friend of Domoto. As he began downsizing his nursery, she worked with him to donate Japanese maples and tree peonies to Filoli. These collections still thrive in Filoli’s garden, along with the camellias and azaleas he cultivated for the Roths. Domoto’s horticultural vision and Arbegast’s advocacy were instrumental to Filoli becoming a place of respite and beauty where all people are welcomed.

Filoli is dedicated to nurturing and growing diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion in all that we do. View our DEAI message and learn more about Filoli’s bonsai and Asian art collections at filoli.org.

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Willa Brock is the interpretation manager at Filoli. When she's not exploring new stories about the historic house and garden, she enjoys hiking, reading Agatha Christie mysteries, and watching the sunset from the Bernal Heights summit in San Francisco.

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By: Willa Brock

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