5+Infinity, (detail), 1996
© Betty Lee

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Artist Statement
Betty Lee

As a Chinese-American I have always been compelled by issues dealing with two intertwined but different heritages. One is best represented by my parentage and the way I look. The other is internal, unconsciously and consciously dictated by what is considered "American." Unavoidably, this conflation naturally leads to issues which further complicate cultural identity. Ideological, economic and political factors play as well, fuelling multiplicity that is rarely addressed in describing Asian-Americans.

Thus what I am left with is the description of the "homogenous Asian" for a working concept. Representations of Asians are extremely limited and those models are reinforced by what has been "mediatized." On the most basic level, I would like to insist that being American does not mean white American, and that Asians, as well as other under-represented groups of peoples, have long been a part of American culture and American history. More complicated, however, is the fact that Asians have figured historically, but invisibly. I contend that they are part of the cultural fabric that should be made more visible. In other words, the notion that Asian-Americans are described as an integral part of American's citizenry is vitally important.

In my art, my goal has been and will continue to be to address these issues, and hopefully project some of the complexities of race and culture that are not always apparent.

5+Infinity, (detail), 1996
© Betty Lee

5+Infinity is an exploration of five generations of Lee women which starts in 1891 with the artist's great grandmothers, and ends in this image with the youngest Lee female born in 1988.

Metaphorically linking DNA with a visa to the United States, the artist explores issues of migration and Diaspora which are at the heart of this work. In time-line form, the photographic images constitute a small, distilled chronicle of a family lineage whose known links connect from China to the United States. It starts with historical (and genetic) references of these Chinese women in China, and extends to later evolving generations of Chinese-American women. Symbols of food and regeneration, as well as war and livelihood, speak specifically of each of these women from the present-time viewpoint of the artist.

The factual information of 5 + Infinity is based on the oral histories of family members, and like most oral histories, this one defies connection and also shifts in degrees of accuracy. But the images cannot resist collaborating with each other to romanticize grim realities of patriarchy, war, illness, poverty and starvation. The stories themselves have also become complicit as family members relay their accounts. If some of the stories were intentionally cloaked, the secrets are eerily felt. We can only speculate, for example, on the life of an unknown Lee woman only referred to as the Number Two wife of a great grandfather.

Nevertheless, the stories resonate true and their essence is that which survives. Although some of the women's lives remain illusive, ironically each woman's photographic image exists because of the artist's grandfather's obsession with maintaining the family picture archive.

Documented Memory I, Livelihood - Work in Progress
© Betty Lee, 1995

Livelihood -Work in Progress
When I was a child I wanted to be like everyone else. Or did I? The color of my skin and my Chinese appearance made that desire seem impossible. Then came a fanciful illusion in my mind - that of a pagoda in the middle of a street of ranch-style homes. That pagoda would be my home. If others insist that I am so different from them, then I should be genuinely different and retain all of my Asian culture, right down to the architectural elements of my house.

This reality is apparent even to a child - that the acceptance of cultural difference does not easily happen just because there is desire or action. Current events mirror this well. The numbers of those wanting to immigrate to the United States are told in our news magazines and on television, and become evident as the ethnic makeup of our neighborhoods change. The sentiments about that desire to immigrate, whether ideological, political, and/or economically induced, are highly charged.

Migration is really an old story, a story that has gone around only to come back again and again. I am focusing on a small element of that immense story which revolves around the Chinese laundry, an enterprise that had been the livelihood of thousands of Chinese since the late 1800s. My story is about a family's laundry in a small town in the Midwest. The voice is that of a young girl who, at that time, did not realize that she fully understood the politics of difference.

Unchangeable Alien, Authentic History
© Betty Lee, 1995

Authentic History
Authentic History refers specifically to the Chinese Exclusion Law enacted by Congress in 1882 to ban the immigration of Chinese laborers into the United States. The Chinese became the first people to be excluded based on race, and it took World War II, when China became a war front ally in 1943, for the law to be rescinded.

For nearly 60 years, some Chinese were allowed to enter the United States as merchants, students and a few other groups designated allowable in an "exempted" class status. During that time period, there was significant struggle for rights by these immigrants, especially in the courts.

Operating in a climate similar to the current immigration debate, the Chinese Exclusion Act became a reality because of the projected fears of an immigration group wanting access to a country not of their origin. Hysteria about Chinese presence was extremely forceful in the late 1880s.

The language on each of the photographs is the crystallized form of the fears expressed by the American people. The text was extracted from documented sources: The Marin Journal in 1876; Robert Cleland's A History of California, the American Period, published in 1922 and Senate Report #689, Joint Special Committee on Chinese, 44th Congress, 2nd session in 1876-1877. Through the dynamics of politics, economics, and most important, ethnicity, the sentiments toward the Chinese were whipped into community energy that resulted in governmental action. This language is deadly in its descriptions of Chinese people.

The text is juxtaposed with both casual and formal photographs made by Chinese immigrants belonging to the "exempted" class. The visual descriptions are not unlike those of snapshots taken by Americans. However, they are unlike where references are made to their "homeland."The photo of the woman who wears her Chinese "cheong sam" dress for example, may specifically allude to her cultural past, but it is unable to escape the New York City setting of the image.

The goal of this work is to reflect on and expand the concept of the "American." The visual inclusion of mapping, including those referring to Chinese astrology, grave sites, astronomy and ancient geography, is meant to stress that the idea of "home" is no longer found in concepts of ethnicity or geographic location. The definition of what it is to be American is less reliant on the idea of ethnicity and more convoluted than the requirements of citizenry.

Cold War Story Opening, 1997
© Betty Lee

Cold War Story: http://www.cultural-trespass.org. Based on a true story, Cold War Story is a narrative about a young Korean woman in the 1960s who marries an American GI. After moving to the Midwest, Jun immerses herself in American culture, but begins to realize her husband is unhappy. The photographs are influenced by Richard Condon's The Manchurian Candidate, bringing up issues of brainwashing and the identity constructions of linking Asians to villains.

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