Installation at Chinese Cultural Center Explores the Healing Power of Ritual

by Jean Schiffman

Artist Summer Mei Ling Lee explores the meaning of a “bone box.”

“This is a big, big story,” says artist Summer Mei Ling Lee, of her new installation, “Requiem,” at the Chinese Culture Center. In the four bays of the gallery, “Requiem” loosely depicts, through delicate murals, an imagined journey of a “bone box” from China to Hong Kong to San Francisco’s Chinatown, then back to Hong Kong and finally to a cemetery in China.

With the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Chinese immigrants in America became aliens, and burial here was restricted. The charitable Tung Wah Hospital in Hong Kong, coordinating with family associations in the diaspora, began accepting tens of thousands of bone boxes—receptacles sent across the ocean, containing the cleaned bones of those who’d died far from home. Once in Hong Kong, their families could claim them for burial in their ancestral tombs. After the Chinese Revolution of 1949, unclaimed boxes couldn't be transported beyond Tung Wah. Now, on the 135th anniversary of the Exclusion Act (repealed in 1943), “Requiem” pays tribute to the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals, which protects the boxes, both in a “coffin home” and also in a cemetery on the Chinese-Hong Kong border. 

“These issues are still very contemporary—we’re still dealing with notions of hospitality and the right to be reborn geographically, and borders and walls,” points out Lee.

“Timing wise, this is relevant to what’s happening now with immigrants,” agrees CCC artistic director and curator Abby Chen. “Summer is interested in ritual, in memory and
absence, and that makes her the perfect candidate to retell this story.”

In fact, Lee has a personal connection to the story of the boxes, and to the role that Tung Wah continues to play in the saga. Lee herself traced the journey back to Tung Wah recently to prepare for “Requiem.” She traveled with an old suitcase, empty, representing a great-uncle she’d never met, the brother of her beloved Chinese grandmother, who died 20 years ago and now rests at Skylawn Cemetery near Half Moon Bay. The brother was 21 in 1924 when he emigrated to Chicago from China with his family, but died only months after arrival and was buried in Chicago. “I always thought if I had enough money, I’d exhume him and bring him back to China,” says Lee, who is Chinese on her father’s side, white on her mother’s side and a descendent of Chinatown residents. Instead, she took the symbolic suitcase. 

In the late 1800s, a third of the bone boxes shipped to Hong Kong were actually empty—they were called “spirit summoning boxes,” and this, for Lee, was such a box, for her great-uncle. “This whole project has turned out to be a very traditional Chinese endeavor,” she says, “which is to repatriate your ancestors and to honor my grandmother.”

On her visit to Tung Wah, the staff opened a random empty wicker bone box for her to see, with a name inscribed faintly in pencil. It was a deeply emotional moment for her.

“It’s a very visceral feeling,” she says, “especially when you have this consciousness that a lot of people suffered in this area of China where my family is from, and then you see a lot of suffering of the families who came here especially during the Great Depression, which was when my family emigrated—and then, still, the suffering is going on. And then you peer into this empty box, somehow the culmination of this story of suffering, and also the attempt of an organization to preserve a remembrance of them. Because if you remember them they still exist.” Like human bones themselves, the story is fragile, observes Lee. Most of the remaining bone boxes are empty, identities gone. 

The bone box she was shown at Tung Wah now appears in the exhibit’s fourth bay. “We don’t know what happened to the bones in this particular box,” muses Lee, “and a lot of my work plays on this absence and presence, and to me sometimes absence has such a strong presence. I’m always trying to find a transmutation between those two.” 

As for her great-uncle, she realized after her trip—during which she visited the 700-year-old village that her family came from, spirit summoning box in tow—that his bones do not belong there, partly because she can’t go back to China every year to pay respects to him, as a descendent should, and partly because he needs to be here in the United States, where her grandmother is.

Oct. 26 → Dec. 23

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