‘Remnants’ examines Chinese-American lives

Courtesy PhotoA widely circulated photo of the Golden Spike celebration in 1869 excluded Chinese laborers who built the Transcontinental Railroad.

An opium pipe in a museum exhibit is an awkward sight, a fact not lost on  veteran Bay Area designer Gordon Chun, curator of the current exhibit at the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum in San Francisco, which includes such paraphernalia in a display about Chinatown’s 19th-century “Bachelor Society.”

“Remnants: Artists Respond to the Chinese American Experience” illustrates and comments on Chinese immigration over two centuries. It does not extol virtues without showing warts.

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Chun says he wants the exhibition to reveal “stereotypes as ambiguous expressions of racial identity.”
The opium pipe represents a real aspect of life among many single male immigrants who worked backbreaking

16-hour days, every day, and turned to opium for consolation.

Another poignant souvenir of the era is the all-white crowd at the 1869 Golden Spike celebration, marking the completion of the vital Transcontinental Railroad. The Central Pacific portion was built by Chinese laborers, not one of whom is shown in the photo published around the world.

Combining history and art, “Remnants” marks the Chinese Historical Society’s first major exhibit in its landmark building on Clay Street.

Built by Julia Morgan in 1932, it originally served as the Chinatown YWCA. Purchased by the society in 2001 and renovated, it is now the repository of artistic treatments covering a vital part of California history.

Works selected for the installation focus on personal narratives, memory and family. The centerpiece is a site-specific installation from the performance “Passages” by Lenora Lee. The narrative and visual work is an emotional portrayal of Lee’s grandmother’s journey through Angel Island and into American life.

Nancy Hom’s “All That I Am: a Chinese American Story” is a site-specific installation — including an old sewing machine, streaming multicultural patterns and a quilt — that the artist says challenges “society’s preconceived notions of what it means to be Chinese in America. It is a tribute to, as well as an exorcism of, the values that have been ingrained in me by my parents.”

Michael Jang’s “The Jangs” is a collection of photos from the 1970s that capture Jang’s father’s and uncle’s family lives. The images come from Jang’s photography workshop project, which, he says, depicts “America of the 1970s seen through the lens of Chinese Americans trying to assimilate into the mainstream.”

Other participating artists include Cynthia Tom and Flo Oy Wong.

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