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Episode 2017: Requiem

Chinese Culture Center (CCC) is pleased to present Requiem, a large-scale art installation by contemporary artist Summer Mei-ling Lee specially commissioned to illuminate the unique story of the role of a Hong Kong charity, Tung Wah Group of Hospitals (TWGHs), in the history of the Chinese diaspora in San Francisco and across the nation.

December 23, 2017 5:00pm

Chinese Culture Center (CCC) is pleased to present Requiem, a large-scale art installation by contemporary artist Summer Mei-ling Lee specially commissioned to illuminate the unique story of the role of a Hong Kong charity, Tung Wah Group of Hospitals (TWGHs), in the history of the Chinese diaspora in San Francisco and across the nation.

After the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, it became difficult to bury Chinese bodies in the United States. The Chinese immigrants already living here were considered permanent aliens until its repeal in 1943, excluded from citizenship and also unable to return if they left the country. As such, most were not at all eager to be laid to rest permanently so far from ancestral land, running the risk of being forgotten in family ritual worship. Secondary burial—exhuming the dead, cleaning the bones, and then burying them again—had a long tradition in Southern China as well.

So, each paid $5 to one of the many family associations that were established in America in the earliest years of Chinese immigration in order to ensure that their bones made it back home. At the heart of this repatriation effort was Tung Wah Hospital, Colonial Hong Kong’s first hospital and charity for the care of Chinese people, which oversaw the respectful return of tens of thousands of bone boxes, housing them temporarily in the Tung Wah Coffin Home, facilitating family claims of the remains, and even delivering them back to home towns and villages.

On the occasion of the 135th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act and in an effort to bring new attention to the Hospital’s critically important role in the history of the Chinese American diaspora, CCC with support from the present day TWGHs commissioned third generation Chinese-American contemporary artist Summer Mei Ling Lee to create a new work in response to this legacy.

In early 2017, Lee made her way to Hong Kong where hospital historians shared the story of their remarkable efforts, and, on one of her visits to the Coffin Home, opened for her one of the many unclaimed bone boxes they continue to protect. This one, like one third of the boxes shipped over the seas from the United States, was empty—a ‘soul summoning box’ with just a name in it for an individual whose body was likely vandalized or in some way unrecoverable. Lee peered inside at the name and cried.

Requiem is the artist’s effort to give expression to that moment. In an installation work that occupies the entirety of CCC’s gallery, Lee investigates the experience of dislocation and immigration and pays homage to TWGHs’ extraordinary effort to seek a final resting place for so many and its continuing custodianship of scores of forgotten ancestors.

The installation work leads visitors through darkened galleries where hanging scrolls partially obscure wall murals painted with ash. Light projections occasionally reveal these paintings in brief glimpses. Deep within the exhibition, visitors encounter the bone box that was opened for Lee in Hong Kong. Lee has commissioned a new interpretation of ‘Pie Jesu’ from Gabriel Fauré’s mass Requiem, op. 48—this one composed for erhu and cello—which will be audible throughout. Clips from film footage shot both in Hong Kong and of a performance piece by Lee, that took place in and around the abandoned Chinese tombstones at the margins of the Lincoln Park Golf Course near San Francisco’s Legion of Honor museum, will also be on view.

“On the occasion of the 135th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act, this exhibition reexamines the journey of the Chinese immigrant through innovative art and artistic interpretation,” says Mabel Teng, CCC Executive Director. “CCC’s work is about creating impactful stories that are relevant for our communities, being a voice for equality, and bringing world class artists together to dialogue on relevant issues of today. By imagining this homecoming journey of an immigrant, we hope viewers will see immigration stories in a new light and understand their universal import.” “The 147 years of history of Tung Wah Group of Hospitals intertwines with the history of Hong Kong, modern China, and the world. It has a wealth of built and documentary heritage to reflect its philanthropic spirit and Chinese culture,” says Albert Su, Chief Executive of TWGHs. “[TWGHs] has a long-standing history of serving Chinese. It takes care of people from cradle to grave in Hong Kong,” says TWGHs Chairman Alan Lee. “This project shines a light on the irreplaceable role of Hong Kong in the Chinese American community,” says Abby Chen, CCC Artistic Director and Curator. “We are all proud of the history that Tung Wah contributed to, which we felt needed to be told in a way that is true to the Chinese American narrative.”

Requiem is made possible by Tung Wah Group of Hospitals and is curated by CCC. Requiem is part of CCC’s ongoing Episode exhibition series that engages guest curators, collectors, artists, and community organizations in the presentation of a broad view of diverse works in Chinese culture and art. Additional support has been provided by Grants for the Arts, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Wells Fargo Foundation, and CCC Contemporaries. Requiem opens with a free reception on October 26, 2017 from 4-6pm (RSVP to or by phone 415-986-1822) and is on view October 26-December 23, 2017; Tuesdays – Saturdays 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. at Chinese Culture Center, 750 Kearny St., 3rd Floor (inside the Hilton Hotel). Admission to the gallery is free.

For more information, the public should visit or call 415-986-1822.

About the Artist

Summer Mei Ling Lee graduated from Stanford University in 1997 and received her MFA in painting and sculpture from the San Francisco Art Institute in 2011. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and Chicago and has exhibited internationally. Recent exhibitions include Shenzhen Fine Art Institute (Shenzhen), Italian Institute of Culture (San Francisco), San Francisco Arts Commission, He Xiangning Museum Permanent Collection (Shenzhen), Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (San Francisco), Southern Exposure (San Franicsco), Woman-Made Gallery (Chicago), and Fei Contemporary Art Center (Shanghai). In 2014, Lee had her solo exhibition Into the Nearness of Distance at Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco. Her recent public art installation “Liminal Space/Crossings,” funded by the NEA, is a finalist for the Robert E. Gard Award. Nominations include the Fleishhacker and Joan Mitchell Fellowships and the Frey Norris Bay Area Artist Award. About Tung Wah Group of Hospitals Tung Wah Group of Hospitals (TWGHs) started with the Tung Wah Hospital, a humble hospital and the first charitable organization established in Hong Kong under law in 1870 to provide free Chinese medicine to the poor, and later free burial and education. It also provided disaster relief and bone repatriation services for Chinese around the world until the mid-twentieth century. Today, it offers a diverse range of services including Chinese and Western medicine, education, senior services, youth and family services, and rehabilitation, as well as cultural and heritage conservation services. Transcending boundaries of clan, citizenship, kindred, and religion, TWGHs is now the largest charitable organization in Hong Kong.

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