Regarded as “permanent aliens” under the 1882-approved Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese immigrants in the U.S. wanted to be buried in their ancestral homes in China, where they felt they belonged, after their death. Through the charitable effort of a Hong Kong hospital, the remains of tens of thousands of immigrants, transported across the Pacific in bone boxes, made the journey.
An evocative art installation — with music, murals, film and a bone box — in San Francisco’s Chinatown looks at this little-known story.
Running at the Chinese Culture Center through Dec. 23, “Requiem,” by contemporary artist Summer Mei-Ling Lee, is a personal and cultural exploration of the Chinese diaspora, with current relevance and universal themes, such as immigration, exclusion and respect for the dead.
Under the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943), Chinese immigrants who couldn’t become U.S. citizens experienced displacement and discrimination. Most didn’t want to be buried on American soil, potentially forgotten by their families back home, so, in accordance with the Chinese tradition of secondary burials — exhuming the body, cleaning the bones and reburying them at another site — immigrants arranged for the return of their remains to their ancestral homes.
The repatriation was coordinated by the Tung Wah Hospital, a charitable institution in Hong Kong; U.S.-based family associations provided assistance.
Once the bone boxes reached Hong Kong, the hospital kept them at its Coffin Home until they could reach their final destination.
Commissioned by the Chinese Culture Center to create an art presentation about the story, Lee, a third-generation Chinese-American, traveled to pertinent places.
In Hong Kong, she visited the Coffin Home and viewed one of the many unclaimed bone boxes the institution continues to house. It was empty (the body was likely irretrievable or vandalized), but contained the name of the deceased individual involved.
“Requiem” reflects Lee’s emotional response to her journey of ancestry, immigration and home. It also recognizes today’s Tung Wah hospital network for its history of charitable work, as well as commemorates the 135th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
The installation contains murals representing the Chinese diaspora, painted with ash collected at sites in Hong Kong and San Francisco. Hanging scrolls partially block the view of the murals, while projections of light in the darkened gallery space allow for glimpses.
“Requiem” culminates with the empty bone box that Lee viewed in Hong Kong — a straw case with a large hole.
On the floor, Lee has placed ash, so that visitors, leaving footprints, can symbolically connect with the past.
Music, film and performance-art elements complete the exhibition.
The overall mood is mournful, reflective and a little ghostly.
IF YOU GO
Where: Chinese Culture Center, 750 Kearny St., third floor (inside Hilton Hotel), S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; closes Dec. 23
Contact: (415) 986-1822, www.cccsf.us