This year is the 135th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which halted Chinese immigration to the US. To mark this date, the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco commissioned Summer Mei-Ling Lee to create a large-scale installation. She made Requiem, which focuses on the lesser known history of the Tung Wah Hospital and charity in Hong Kong, which orchestrated the shipment of thousands of boxes full of bones from the US to China. From the late 19th century to the mid-20th century the hospital gathered the remains of Chinese immigrants in the United States — then considered permanent aliens under the Act — and sent them back to China to be buried. The hospital is the only known organization to have done this.
Since 2016, Lee has made several visits to Hong Kong and the still-operating Tung Wah Hospital, where one time she was led to the coffin home. There, the staff opened one of the many unclaimed bone boxes for her, a straw suitcase with a hole. It was empty, like one third of the boxes shipped from the United States — a “soul summoning box” with just a name in it for an individual whose body was likely vandalized or in some way unrecoverable. Lee broke into tears when it was opened and made it the center of her exhibition.
In Requiem, visitors walk through darkened galleries lined with white, gauzy hanging scrolls; wall murals show scenes from San Francisco’s Chinatown, Hong Kong, and the entrance to the Tung Wah Coffin Home — all painted with ash from incense. Light projections of migrating geese play on the walls, and the actual bone box that was opened for Lee is in the back of the exhibition galleries. Lee also commissioned an interpretation of “Pie Jesu” from Gabriel Fauré’s mass Reqiem, op. 48, played on the erhu and cello, which is heard throughout the galleries. The overall effect is haunting and moving.
Read the full interview to Lee here.