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  • This is Not Your Bone (China) BoxA Conversation between Kyoo Lee and Summer Mei Ling Lee
  • Kyoo Lee (bio) and Summer Mei Ling Lee (bio)

During the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, it was difficult to bury the remains of Chinese immigrants in the U.S. Permanent aliens until its repeal in 1943, Chinese Americans were excluded from citizenship and unable to return if they left the country. As such, most did not want to be buried so far from ancestral homes, where they would be forgotten and left out of family ritual customs, particularly second burial. This rite of

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Figure 1.

Kyoo Lee and Summer Mei Ling Lee in conversation. Stills from An Initiation into Personal Mystery. Film by Jim Choi (2018). Image courtesy of the artist.

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exhuming the dead, cleaning the bones, and burying them again is a long tradition in southern China, dating back thousands of years to when the Han Chinese migrated from the north.

With assistance from family associations established by the first immigrants to America, Chinese Americans were able to ship bones back home. At the heart of this enormous repatriation effort was Tung Wah Hospital (TWGH), Hong Kong's first hospital and charity for the care of Chinese people. TWGH facilitated the return of tens of thousands of bone boxes, housing them temporarily for family retrieval, and even delivering many back to hometowns and villages.

On the occasion of the 135th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act and in an effort to bring new attention to the hospital's critically important role in the history of the Chinese American diaspora, the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, with support from the present-day TWGH, commissioned third-generation Chinese American artist Summer Mei Ling Lee to create a new work in response to this legacy.

In early 2017, Lee traveled to Hong Kong where TWGH historians shared the story of their remarkable efforts and, on one of her visits to the archives, opened for her one of the many unclaimed bone boxes they continue to protect. This one, like one-third of the boxes shipped overseas from the U.S., was empty—perhaps a "soul summoning box," with just a name in it for an individual whose body was likely vandalized or in some way unrecoverable.

Lee's exhibition, Requiem, is her expression of that discovery. In an installation that occupies the entirety of the Chinese Culture Center gallery, Lee investigates the experience of dislocation and immigration and pays homage to TWGH's extraordinary effort to seek a home for the displaced and its continuing custodianship of scores of forgotten ancestors.

The installation leads visitors through dark galleries where hanging veils partially obscure murals painted with ash collected from the incense that TWGH lights daily for the bone boxes still under their care. Video projections of geese flocks reveal these paintings in brief glimpses. Deep within the exhibition, visitors encounter the exact bone box that was opened for Lee in Hong Kong. [End Page 328]

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Figure 2.

Summer Mei Ling Lee, Installation component of Requiem (Bone Box). Courtesy of Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco. Photography by Pamela Gentile.Image courtesy of the artist.

The following is a condensed and edited script of a philosophical conversation between Summer Mei Ling Lee and Kyoo Lee about the exhibition and the history of the bone boxes. The conversation took place in October 2017 in Hoy Sun Ning Yung Cemetery, San Francisco, one of the oldest Chinese cemeteries in the U.S., where Summer's great grandmother is buried. Their discussion, which lasted nearly two hours, covers ideas ranging from the broadness of absence and presence, to the almost invisible subtleties of dust and memory. While querying on the dead from one's life who are no longer here but remain here, Summer and Kyoo draw luminous reflections on how art can bring the infinite and finite into coincidence.

kyoo lee/

Your connection to the immigrants in this history, in this exhibition, who were repatriated in bone boxes back to China, concerns your relationship to your own grandmother. The...


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