Starting when dusk turns tonight and running only until midnight, Summer Mei Ling Lee’s ocean waves appear on the Chinatown pavement.They swish and swirl in an LED-light piece that hints at the geographical and emotional journeys that Chinese immigrants to the United States have made for generations.
Lee knows intimate details of those journeys from interviews with women who told her their hardships, including the physical abuse they suffered at the hands of their partners in the United States. For 20 years, she’s led art workshops for Asian immigrant women who’ve escaped domestic violence — and Liminal Space/Crossings, which opened in mid-January, is inspired by what she learned from her most recent workshops.
“All of them live in incredibly impoverished situations in Chinatown. They occupy, with many generations, spaces that are as big as a bathroom,” Lee tells SF Weekly. “Their hopes and expectations in the U.S. were for a better life and opportunity, but when they arrived, they were feeling quite betrayed. ‘The American Nightmare’ was how one woman characterized it. But the next hope would be that their children would have opportunities that they didn’t have. I used the ocean as a motif, to ask them if the ocean meant anything to them.”
It did — just as it did to Lee’s paternal grandmother, Barbara Chan Lee, who came to the U.S. on a ship across the Pacific and lived briefly in Chinatown before moving to San Mateo, to live in that city’s Chinese community. Organized by the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, Liminal Space/Crossings is a gift to the community — not just as an art project but as a source of nighttime light on Ross Alley, which gets a lot of foot traffic.
“They don’t need another mural,” Lee says. “They don’t need another sculpture. They don’t need another plaque. They need better lighting.”
On the night SF Weekly visited, Chinese-speaking pedestrians walked past Lee’s work and rain fell on its swirling light pattern, creating an aural soundscape of raindrops and voices. The ocean, Lee says, is a metaphor for migration and crossing borders — not just for people from China but elsewhere in the world. And the patterns in Liminal Space/Crossings are meant to encourage thoughtfulness as much as being a visual sensation.
“The piece will be successful,” Lee says, “if people feel it’s a place to find an interiority and reflection.”