Building ‘Requiem’: An interview with artist Summer Mei Ling Lee

Jessica Khauv/Staff

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“Requiem” — which means “token of remembrance” — is the title of the large-scale installation by Summer Mei Ling Lee, inspired by the 135th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act. By exploring the fragile duality between life and death, the exhibition brings light to the untold stories of the Chinese migrant diaspora and the work of a Hong Kong charity, Tung Wah Group of Hospitals, or TWGHs.

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in the United States, placing a 10-year moratorium on the migration of Chinese laborers into the nation. The passage of the act is widely remembered for stories of those who wanted to enter, but couldn’t; however, the legislation also posed problems for those who were already settled.

“People suffered for leaving, but they also suffered for staying,” Lee said. “The Chinese Exclusion Act was the lack of hospitality that the U.S. showed to people that they didn’t have the right to be reborn geographically.”

One of these problems was the issue of the burial of the body. Family rituals that pay respect to the deceased ancestors are deeply ingrained in the cultural tradition of China. But because the act rendered Chinese immigrants as permanent aliens, most immigrants were reluctant to be buried in a land far away from their own, fearing the uncertainty of their posthumous rest and the risk of being forever forgotten.

This is where TWGHs stepped in. Hoping to give rest to those who passed away from home, Tung Wah Hospital — the first hospital in colonial Hong Kong — oversaw the return of tens of thousands of bone boxes. The process included housing the boxes, facilitating family claims and even delivering them back to hometowns and villages.

“They want to extend the history of this story so that it’s not forgotten, as well as the legacy of Tung Wah as an organization that had a reach across the diaspora,” Lee explained. “To me, the most personal part is that every time I was in a cemetery or sitting in front of the bone boxes, I felt each one contained voices that were speaking to me to try to honor them, and honor them in a contemporary way.”

Located in San Francisco’s Chinese Culture Center, Lee’s contemporary exhibition aims to recreate the inexpressible moment of dislocation that she experienced when she first peered into the bone box on her commissioned visit to Hong Kong.

“I think this is the part that’s not translatable into language, and that’s the part I hope my exhibit would show. I wanted to try to capture that moment, or that feeling, or that emptiness,” Lee explained. “I kind of want to leave it in that untranslatable space, because that’s where art does its best work.”

The installation invites viewers to walk through darkened galleries, where each wall is painted with ashes from the daily offerings to the unreturned and unidentified bone boxes, still under the care of Tung Wah. Each mural portrays a scene that the bodies in the bone boxes potentially experienced during their journey.

The murals are obscured by hanging scrolls, and the artist invites the viewers to use flashlights to view the walls and to cast their own shadows against the pictorial diaspora of the remains of the displaced. Small hanging door frames — proxies for the threshold between life and death — mark the way from one space to the next, and projections of birds occasionally flicker onto the murals.

“Philosophically, I’m just really interested in these transmutations between one state to another and the most profound transmutation for me is from living to dying, from here to there, from being to not being,” Lee explained. “I’ve always thought about birds as being these agents between heaven and earth. So again, they get to transmute between sky and earth.”

The final destination of the visitor is the bone box, placed upon a podium and open for the viewers to have their own inexpressible “peer-in” moments. Site specificity plays a role here, as the ashes that are sprinkled on the fabric around the bone box are from the offerings made from the Tin How Temple in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Because the bone box is the pinnacle of the artistic and philosophical message, no other decorations or obscurities accompany the box.

The music in the background is an interpretation of “Pie Jesu,” taken from the installation’s namesake: “Requiem” by Gabriel Fauré. It is adapted for a duet between an erhu and a cello, symbolizing both the Western and Chinese sides of the migrant diaspora illustrated by the installation.

Through the short but moving walk through the dark galleries, the visitors vicariously experience Lee’s journey of historical discovery through Hong Kong, but more importantly, the journey of the Chinese migrants who were displaced 135 years ago and still have yet to return to their homes.

In the end, the exhibit is about the fragility of life and death and the paradox of the human condition.

“I hope that there are fragile moments that each person experiences in the exhibit, whether it is that they see the affected shadows that they cast on the paintings, or that they hear the boom that frightens them out of this comfort place, or that they have a moment where the emptiness of the box affects them in the same way that it affected me,” Lee said. “I hope those experiences lets them touch on the fragility that I am invested in.”

Contact Jennifer Jeong at [email protected].