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Amy Lam's memory boxes use common objects to reveal family history

Wednesday, May 21 2003
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To many American-born Chinese, writes sociologist Rose Hum Lee, China is as much a foreign country as it is to other Americans. The contradictions of Chinese-American cultural identity have provided rich literary material for such West Coast writers as Amy Tan and Frank Chin, whose acerbic novel Donald Duk portrays a 12-year-old who hates his Chinese name and identity and takes tap-dance lessons from a man who calls himself the Chinese Fred Astaire. Amy Lam is a young Bay Area visual artist who confronts this paradoxical terrain in an exhibit at the Chinese Historical Society of America, on view through August. The show, titled "Cultural Fragments," is part of a series of events sponsored this month by the Asia Pacific Islander Cultural Center.

Lam's mixed-media installation is an intensely personal journey conveyed through artifacts evoking her past and her heritage. Found objects, film clips, short narratives, and fortune cookie adages, as well as photographs and family memorabilia, are thematically arranged in nine boxes. As an artistic form, the memory boxes recall the work of Joseph Cornell, although the social and meditative reflections in her pieces are closer in spirit to such 19th-century Philadelphia painters as John Frederick Peto and William Michael Harnett, both of whose paintings look like assemblages of everyday objects. But the American artistic parallels end there. Lam designed and sequenced her boxes according to traditional Chinese aesthetics and cosmology. They combine word and image, drawing from Chinese ideas about the natural order of seasons, the interplay of the five elements (fire, earth, air, water, and metal), and Eastern symbolism associated with the cardinal points of the compass. The visual and literary materials are themselves a kind of identity kit for Lam, whose work reflects on themes such as clothing, language, cinema, song, ancestor worship, ghosts, and the game of mah-jongg.

Each box is an entry point into Lam's search for her origins. The objects she pulls together have been carefully researched for their social history and symbolism, and their often obscure traditions are then examined in short narrative texts presented in booklets or tags within each box. In West, for example, Lam explores the Chinese silk dress known as cheung sam, an example of Chinese couture with a curious history. Though the gowns date back to the 1800s and the waning of the Qing dynasty, a simplified version of these traditionally two- and three-piece garments became popular in Shanghai during the 1920s as an emblem of female sophistication and modernity. The fashionable cheung sam was worn by Shanghai movie stars and the "sing-song girls" of dance halls. It became a staple in the Western-style fashion magazines and calendar posters that emerged in the "Paris of the East," as this most cosmopolitan of Chinese cities was then known. Yet during Mao's Cultural Revolution, this same garment would be banned as a symbol of decadence.

In Lam's memory box, the world of the long gown is invoked by juxtaposing metal stitching needles pinned to a black felt background, a folded, custom-made sewing pattern printed on tissue paper with iron-on transfers, and a written passage that poignantly narrates a family rite of passage:

"Try them on, see if they fit you," my mother beckons, and with that she tears off their cellophane casings and pops them off of their hangers. ... Each dress cocooned her newfound identity as a newlywed, each change in clothing marking another stage in her emergence. They survived the obnoxious wedding games, endured the reverberating bang of chopsticks on dinner plates insisting that husband and wife lean over for another kiss. Since then, Mom has grown both in inches and life experience (although she remains fairly slim); the dresses are no longer her ....

"No, these don't fit me," I say at last, my life and body not mirroring her own.

The dress, for Lam, is an emblem of how the past is recycled and rediscovered, both in China's history and in that of her own Chinese-American family.

What is "west" in this box is overlaid with ironies about the impact of European and American commerce and ideas on the historically xenophobic China. In Chinese thought, the direction west is associated with the element metal (represented by the needles Lam calls "Identity Markers") and the philosophy of materialism that brought radical change (along with Western technology and fashion) to China. The irony is that materialism, a Western notion, was the basis of Mao's Marxist revolution, which so disrupted the ways of "Old China," including its traditional garb and customs. Exiled from the homeland, Lam's family finds a nostalgic connection to the past in these elegant dresses that no longer fit, even in America.

In Northwest, Lam explores the contradictory religious currents within her family. In Hong Kong, her grandmother burned incense for an obscure cult figure known as the "blue-robed god," whose temples on the mainland had been destroyed by the Communists. Later, when she moved to America, she worshipped this figure in a makeshift shrine in the family garage, with two plug-in fake candles casting a garish red light around the object of devotion. Lam's mother, educated in Catholic schools, was uneasy having such supernatural idolatry in their home. To legitimize what the family feared were occult rituals, they told everyone that Grandmother was Buddhist. Later, they discovered another replica of the same figure among dozens of other deities on sale at a curio shop in Walt Disney World.

"Truly," writes Lam, "the divine may be found anywhere."

Curiosity led her to uncover the history of what turned out to be the popular traditional cult figure of Wong Tai Sin, a wandering Taoist version of the Good Samaritan, who attended the poor and the sick. During World War II, he became the patron saint of refugees in Hong Kong, when it was home to thousands of Chinese displaced by the Japanese occupation and brutal bombing of mainland cities. In this box Lam, whose connection to her heritage is also displaced, retraces this character's rich lore (depicted in ancient texts and Hong Kong TV serials) through a palimpsest designed as a delicately shaped accordion-book. The upper lid of the box is decorated with the image of an incense coil, whose form -- like Lam's past -- circles back upon itself.

Lam writes that she constructed each of her pieces to reflect her process of coming to understand the artifacts they contain. In one sense, they follow a quintessentially Chinese aesthetic, in which pictorial image and calligraphic text were juxtaposed and integrated in painted scrolls. Each of Lam's memory boxes is a kind of personal ideogram or picture-word, a chapter in a compelling personal history. Their layering of objects and associations is subtle, and the ensemble brilliantly constructed.

The Chinese mapped the world and the cosmos within a square, whose center was the middle kingdom we call China. This square is the primary geometric form of Lam's boxes. The one called Center draws her entire installation together, using the emblem of a compass displayed on its lid. Inside this box, the relics are arranged as cardinal points. A wooden spirit tablet, occupying "east," is inscribed with the character for her family name, which in Chinese means both "forest" (the ideogram resembles two trees next to each other) and "a collection of literary works" (such as the artist's own offerings). In traditional Chinese symbolism, east is also associated with the element wood, the primary material of her boxes, and spring, the season symbolizing beginnings, the core theme of her work. The artifact for north (water) is a vial filled with Pacific salt water, suggesting the vast ocean her family crossed to come to America. West is a sewing needle, and beneath it, Lam offers this fitting epigram for her art: "When identities no longer fit, make new ones."

About The Author

Carl Nagin

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