Chinese Culture Foundation Champions Chinatown Arts

by Sura Wood

San Francisco’s Chinatown is a growing center of artistic creativity.

On any given day, the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown are teeming with shoppers patronizing an array of local merchants and tourists drawn by the neighborhood’s rich and storied history. What many of these visitors are learning is that Chinatown is also a growing center of artistic creativity. Look no farther than the vibrant murals by Justin Hoover that brighten the red brick walls of Wentworth Alley, a block linking Washington and Jackson streets. A mix of contemporary and traditional art forms and poetry, the murals are part of “Central Subway: Journey to Chinatown,” a two-year art project designed to transform public spaces in the area. Hoover collaborated with the Gold Mountain Society, a local calligraphy group, for his portrayal of Chinese cultural history. “Abstracted (Oceans),” based on poems about the arrival of the Central Subway, which will connect Union Square to Washington Square, evokes the “steel dragon” or train with a color palette of blues and grays, while “Flying Dragon” symbolically depicts the hardships of Chinese immigrants who built the transcontinental railroad. In August, the Chinatown Music Festival, a free, all-day event in Portsmouth Square, features performances by composer/pianist Jon Jang and his ensemble; Jest Jammin,’ a rhythm & blues group affectionately known as “Chinatown’s soul band” for its repertoire of oldies from the ’60s and ’70s; and the Star Valley Children’s Choir. The Chinese Culture Foundation, whose visual art gallery at the Chinese Culture Center is the venue for a new experiential installation by Bay Area artist Summer Mei Ling Lee, sponsors the festival.

Artists of Chinese descent often explore generational relationships, the conflict between old world values and modern American life, but Lee’s evanescent, multimedia installation, “Into the Nearness of Distance,” which examines what she calls “generational estrangement,” takes an unusually poetic, impressionistic approach. Other than her late paternal grandmother, whom she describes as her “soul mate,” Lee says she had virtually no connections to her extended family. “I’m coming at this from a different perspective,” she remarks. “Not only am I disconnected from my roots, but I think the failure to reconnect with them is beautiful. The mystery, the wonder of not knowing is what held my attention. There are some horrific things that happened in my family and some sad stories, but how I fill things in with my imagination is far more interesting to me than a family tree and biographical facts. With all of our technology and access to information, living in our imagination and daydreaming has become a lost art.”

The exhibition consists of three short, dimly lit, nonlinear videos that run consecutively in separate alcoves of the center’s darkened gallery space. Two of the videos were made by Lee’s collaborators, Karen Leslie Ficke, an experimental photographer, and Adam Hathaway, a sculptor and interactive installation artist. All three participated in “Exquisite Corpse,” an artistic exercise in which each artist responded to another’s work. “We thought it would be a metaphoric

way to show how removed and disconnected I am from stories of my ancestors,” explains Lee. Ficke was first up. She responded to an original artifact, the U.S. Certificate of Naturalization belonging to Lee’s grandmother, without showing it to Lee or informing her of the content. For her three-minute video, Ficke used a combination of pans and scrolling shots of 12 different sites. “The alternating shots are intended to run together, like moving snapshots that allude to the passing of time and mark some of the symbolic touchstones in a person’s life,” says Ficke, who sent her interpretation to Hathaway.
“After watching Karen’s video I decided to emulate … [its] meaning as well as its structure, without recreating [it] shot for shot,” Hathaway says.

”I understood [it] as a metaphor describing the arc of one’s life from birth to death; my video documents the life cycle of a single day. We follow the literal arc of the sun across the sky from sunrise to sunset.”

In the project’s final stage, Lee responded to Hathaway’s contribution by projecting an image of her grandmother into the fog outside her window near the coast in Pacifica. She then shot a video of the spectral image, her grandmother’s features no longer perceptible as the photograph morphed in the moist air and silvery light. The process mimics the way the psyche filters memories, fading, changing and altering them over time.

Suspended from the ceiling at the far end of the CCC gallery will hang Lee’s favorite element, a life-sized, unfixed photograph (an image that hasn’t been chemically set on the paper during the developing process) of Lee’s grandmother, taken from the original document. When visitors enter the exhibition they’ll be given lanterns or flashlights, but the illumination that allows them to navigate the space will also diminish their ability to view the projections. Details of the blurred, antique-looking photograph will become indiscernible as it’s exposed to light.

It’s not an accident that Lee’s grandmother figures prominently in the exhibition. “I’ve never been closer to anybody,” Lee says. “She was incredibly progressive for a woman of her generation and background and had a big heart that was so open to me.” Born in Southern China, she arrived, in 1920, at the age of nine, in San Francisco, where her musician parents ran an herbal store. Pulled out of school and put to work when she was very young, she taught herself English through reading comic strips, entered into an arranged marriage at 16 and, following Chinese tradition, eventually became caretaker for her husband’s many younger siblings and his mentally ill mother.

“She sacrificed a lot so I could pursue [my art],” recalls Lee. “I feel indebted to her and that might be a reason she still haunts me. It’s very Chinese to have an awareness of the ancestors who paved the way for your freedom.”

July 10 → December 20

Chinese Culture Center

750 Kearny St., 3rd Floor

(inside the Hilton Hotel)


Note: An additional component of Summer Lee’s “Into the Nearness

of Distance” will be on view at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as part

of the “Bay Area Now 7” exhibition.

July 18 → October 5