The Chinese Rockefeller of Milwaukee

Digital Medium • 5000 x 7000 PX

Printing and Framing by Greenwood Park Gallery, Milwaukee


This piece is one of an 11 canvas installation called "Portrait of Milwaukee Progress" commissioned by the Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC).

Charlie Toy


In spite of anti-Asian laws of the early 20th century denying Asian peoples entry into the US, restricting them from marrying Caucasions or owning land, several Chinese families flourished in Milwaukee. Charlie Toy (Moy Toy Ni), was considered by many to be a patriarch of Milwaukee’s Chinese community in the early 20th century. Toy immigrated to the United States in 1880 at age 18, and worked in various jobs in San Francisco, Portland, Chicago, Appleton and Kaukauna before moving to Oshkosh in 1890 where he established several businesses. A success, Toy decided to take on the larger market of Milwaukee. While not the only Chinese restaurant in town, Charlie Toy’s Shanghai Chinese Restaurant was certainly the most famous. Opened in 1904 at 736 North Second Street, the six-story Chinese styled building housed Toy’s restaurant, Hascall Billiard Parlor, a few small commercial businesses and the Toy (Crystal) Theater capable of holding 460 guests. Toy earned himself the nickname the “Chinese Rockefeller,” although newspapers reported was never too proud to lend a hand in the kitchen peeling water chestnuts or to take on other chores with his employees.  

About this piece

I decided to include Charlie Toy in the 11 piece installation, "Portrait of Milwaukee Progress," because of his influence as a leader in the Chinese community in Milwaukee at a time when there were relatively few Asians living in the area, and laws of the era made it very difficult for Asians in the US to make a living much less thrive. He made a great success of his businesses in Wisconsin despite lingering anti-Chinese sentiment at the time. His efforts popularized Chinese cuisine, and shared Chinese architecture and culture in a place that was at the time mostly populated by people from European cultures. His high profile success paved the way for the minority Asian population to strive to succeed as well, sidestepping adjacent scandals amongst the Chinese laundry community, and raising a large family still productive in the Milwaukee area. In the painting, behind the portrait of Mr Toy, I have pictured the famed 6 story Toy Restaurant - a spectacular architectural anomaly in this midwestern city.


The following 11 pieces comprise the installation, "Portrait of Milwaukee Progress", commissioned by Milwaukee Area Technical College. 

The Founding Mother of Milwaukee

Pioneer for LGBTQ Rights

Fighting for Worker's Rights

Lady of Firsts

Anti Segregation Leader

The Priest Leading the Protest for Fair Housing

Milwaukee's Golda

The Chinese Rockefeller of Milwaukee

Feminist of the 19th Century

Wisconsin's First Female Doctor

Men's Suffrage Leader