SAN FRANCISCO — This year is the 135th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which halted Chinese immigration to the US. To mark this date, the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco commissioned Summer Mei-Ling Lee to create a large-scale installation. She made Requiem, which focuses on the lesser known history of the Tung Wah Hospital and charity in Hong Kong, which orchestrated the shipment of thousands of boxes full of bones from the US to China. From the late 19th century to the mid-20th century the hospital gathered the remains of Chinese immigrants in the United States — then considered permanent aliens under the Act — and sent them back to China to be buried. The hospital is the only known organization to have done this.
Since 2016, Lee has made several visits to Hong Kong and the still-operating Tung Wah Hospital, where one time she was led to the coffin home. There, the staff opened one of the many unclaimed bone boxes for her, a straw suitcase with a hole. It was empty, like one third of the boxes shipped from the United States — a “soul summoning box” with just a name in it for an individual whose body was likely vandalized or in some way unrecoverable. Lee broke into tears when it was opened and made it the center of her exhibition.
In Requiem, visitors walk through darkened galleries lined with white, gauzy hanging scrolls; wall murals show scenes from San Francisco’s Chinatown, Hong Kong, and the entrance to the Tung Wah Coffin Home — all painted with ash from incense. Light projections of migrating geese play on the walls, and the actual bone box that was opened for Lee is in the back of the exhibition galleries. Lee also commissioned an interpretation of “Pie Jesu” from Gabriel Fauré’s mass Requiem, op. 48, played on the erhu and cello, which is heard throughout the galleries. The overall effect is haunting and moving.
In a conversation at the Chinese Cultural Center, Lee talked about ancestral sacrifice, how art communicates the ineffable, and how the opening of the bone box was her North Star in creating Requiem.
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Emily Wilson: How did you decide to focus on the bone box in this exhibit?
Summer Mei-Ling Lee: On my first trip with Tung Wah, they showed me everything — their schools and rehab centers and the home for the blind. Their organization is very vast and impressive. I went into their archives, and they unwrapped this bone box, and I just cried. I remember looking at the archivists in the room, and they weren’t emotional like I was. I said, “I’m emotional and you guys aren’t,” and one said, “Yeah, the touching point is different, and that’s why we’re glad you’re here.” She said, “We didn’t leave, and we’re emotionally involved too, but this story is about the diaspora.” That moment was really strong. It was my North Star, and whenever I felt like I was losing my way or getting bogged down by pressures, I just kept going back to moment when they opened the bone box for me.
EW: Why was it so emotional?
SM-RL: I think this is where art is best — it was probably an untranslatable moment. If I were a musician, I probably would have crafted a song about that moment, but I’m a visual artist, so I tried my best to visually communicate what that moment was for me. I think a lot of it was ineffable. There were a lot of conditions that led to that ineffable moment, like my being a descendant of Chinese immigrants and understanding it tied into this Chinese cultural tradition and understanding of ancestral sacrifice for my own ability to even make art. I’m very aware of that, and that’s part of the context I was raised in by my Chinese grandmother. I was a descendant, in a strange way, of that emptiness in the box and it made me reflect on the fragility of my own existence.
EW: What was the process of what you decided to include in the exhibition?
SM-RL: They brought me to a memorial in Hong Kong where a horse race stadium collapsed and hundreds of people died, and Tung Wah created this giant memorial by the existing horse track. When we were touring there, I had just heard Fauré’s “Requiem” at the symphony, and the title just came right to me. The Chinese Cultural Center needed a proposal ahead of time and to know the materials. I’m familiar with the space, and the problems of space, so I felt like some materials I had to use were very site specific, and had to play with the architecture of the space. I felt like the fabric had to change it or soften it, so it wasn’t these four bays. Also it has this long corridor and clearly the back had to be the altar because I’m elevating the box to this sort of altar-like space, but I think entering too quickly and seeing too directly the altar — I knew I had to put something to mediate that space.
The second trip to Hong Kong, we revisited the bone boxes in the coffin home. I was interviewing the caretaker who watches over the bones stuck there, and I was struck by the idea that this organization lights incense and makes offerings for these bone boxes every day even though they’re strangers. The caretaker there has no relationship to these bones, but he has this duty to them that is beautiful and poetic and charitable. I became emotional again that those boxes stand as a question — that they’re in a perpetual state of not going home but they’re in a coffin home. They’re in ongoing displacement. So I was sitting there, and I saw this incense had built up — there are these mounds and mounds of incense from burning every day. I said, “Can I take these?” and he was like, “You’re crazy, but sure.” I just had a little Ziploc bag, and I filled that, and it ended up being just the right amount to paint the gallery.
EW: How did you decide what to paint?
SM-RL: I started very conceptually. I was going to divide the portion of the galleries into the requiem acts, but it turns out requiems are pretty repetitive. In my work, I try to resist narrative. I’m more of a minimalist, and I like situations that are more meditative, but I felt like, how can I resist a narrative? This is a life and death thing, a migration thing. So I thought, OK, I’ll do a loose chronology of an immigration. More so, it was the journey of a being, including the afterlife. What I love, that is sort of accidental, is you enter in through a Chinese village and you exit through a Chinese village.
EW: What were you trying to evoke?
SM-RL: Welcome home to unhome. Also absence and presence. I really do think what I was looking at in that box they first presented to me was this emptiness that exploded into a huge presence. My work tends to have that theme anyway, about the transmutation from absence to presence. I’m hoping there’s a transmutation between parceling out all these images, but then you arrive at the bone box and everything should stop there.
Summer Mei-Ling Lee’s Requiem continues at the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco (750 Kearny St, San Francisco) through December 23.