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Episode: Requiem | 魂想曲


Requiem is 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.

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.

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.

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.


Documentary Film

This film was commissioned to document the creation of the Exhibit.


Jim Choi: Director, Producer, Cinematographer, Location Sound.

Chihiro Wimbush: Editor

Melanie Amano: Assistant Camera, Camera Operator


Artist Statement by Summer Mei-Ling Lee "The dialogue with the dead cannot end until they hand over the future that has been buried with them."-- Heiner Muller When the staff at Tung Wah Group of Hospitals placed the empty bone box on the table in front of me, I broke into tears. This bone box was an improvised straw suitcase from the early 1900's with a hole, as if what had been inside was uncontainable. Inside the suitcase nothing was left but a Chinese name written humbly in pencil. The absence inside the box overwhelmed me in its untranslatability. But I knew the absence of the bone box was inextricably tied to me, a descendent of Chinese immigrants who faced inconceivable struggles in an unwelcoming land. And they were the lucky ones. Because if any one of my ancestors had been repatriated to China in such a box, as most often was the case, I would not exist. When the earliest Han ancestors migrated from northern to southern China thousands of years ago, they brought with them their ancestors' bones. John Berger writes that home exists in the vertical line between the buried dead and the gods, and the Han people must have understood this deeply. Their migration established a second burial practice, whereby after the first temporary burial, the family would unearth the body and clean the bones, placing them in an urn to be buried in an ancestral tomb in their home village. It's as if there was a primordial knowledge that home could exist even in displacement. Second burial is still practiced today. Ever since the first waves of immigrants left their families and clans in China for other countries, family associations became the structure to provide services, including arrangements if the immigrant died abroad. Through a complicated logistical enterprise, Tung Wah Group of Hospitals would coordinate with these family associations located throughout the world, facilitating nearly every bone box repatriation from the late 1800's to 1949, until the border from Hong Kong and China was closed. Through Tung Wah's services, thousands of bone boxes crossed oceans and borders, trying to go home. Nowhere in my research does it explain exactly why an organization such as Tung Wah, already confronted with the task of caring for the social welfare needs of Hong Kong's Chinese community, would choose to use precious resources to care for these dead. They continue this care to this day. This history is very fragile, not just because modernity threatens it at every turn. The fact of bone repatriation would not have existed if just one of the conditions in this story were missing: the Chinese cultural values of duty to family and community, particularly in the afterlife; the practice of second burial (shipping and storing tens of thousands of large coffins would have been physically impossible); the establishment of Tung Wah as a major welfare organization in Hong Kong and intermediary between the diaspora and China; and the network of family associations looking out for their brethren. Perhaps most importantly, and most poignantly, the fragile history remains alive by dint of a rich archive that kept speaking to the staff at Tung Wah. It includes the bone boxes still held in the Tung Wah Coffin Home, waiting to go home. These boxes, like the one they opened for me, have also spoken to me. They give testimony to the timeless narrative of migration, displacement, and the inhospitable conditions that face those who exercise the right to be re-born geographically. But they also speak of the heroic acts of charity and compassion towards strangers, along with a bit of god-given luck -- the conditions for our own survival. As such, the bone boxes ask us to consider what is home, home as a matter of hospitality and reception and not location. When leaving Tung Wah and that bone box in Hong Kong to embark on this exhibition, back to my own temporary un-home, I followed my ancestor's original route over an uncertain ocean to an uncertain new home. I could imagine the bone boxes passing, going the other way. They pass by me, holding things I realized I had also lost, maybe continually losing as I keep living, and they are returning to the spaces I just left.




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.


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