Rescuing Memories: de Young Artist Fellow Lenora Lee

Lenora Lee is a dancer, a choreographer, and a current de Young Artist Fellow. As the artistic director of Lenora Lee Dance, she has created interdisciplinary performances that integrate dance, martial arts, video projection, music, and text. During her yearlong fellowship, Lee will complete two new performances, The Escape and Rescued Memories: New York Stories, both of which are inspired by stories of Chinese women who immigrated to the United States in the early 20th century.

Lenora Lee by Lei Chen

Photo by Lei Chen

Lee’s work is made in collaboration with other artists and with the support of community organizations, such as the Donaldina Cameron House, which also serves as a collaborating Artist Fellows partner. A place of refuge in Chinatown during the Exclusion Era (1882-1943), the Cameron House also stores extensive archives. Lee dove into these archives, reading court documents and handwritten letters between female immigrants and the missionaries who assisted them by providing services, shelter, as well as gaining legal custody for those women trapped in indentured servitude, or other abusive situations.

Courtesy Donaldina Cameron House

Courtesy Donaldina Cameron House

Initially, most Chinese immigrants that came to America were men. By the mid-1800s, the increased influx of male laborers led to a growing anti-Chinese sentiment, which resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This edict drastically limited the ability of Chinese women and families to immigrate, and when they were able to do so, it was often under false pretenses.

According to Lee’s research, many women who came to the United States looking for a better life—including job prospects and suitable men to marry—were instead forced into servitude. And while Lee acknowledges that this was not the case for all women during this period, these were the stories that inspired her new work.

The Escape 1

Photo be Robbie Sweeny

“I think at the beginning the inquiry was light, but the deeper I went into the interviews of both community members, historians, and advocates, the more complex and complicated I found the subject matter to be. In general, although I speak from the Chinese-American perspective through the body of my work, I find that the works have common themes in that they communicate the challenges and struggles people face when attempting to find a sense of purpose, place, and community in the American society,” says Lee.

Francis Wong, one of Lee’s collaborators, is a composer and saxophonist, as well as the project’s music director. Wong and his ensemble draw from the diverse talents and backgrounds of each musician to tell the intricate tale of these women, and the difficulties they experienced in early Chinese-American history. The performance’s musical score draws on a wide range of influences—including African-American, Sephardic, and Chinese-American traditions—that parallel the movement and media in the performance.

The Escape 2

Photo by Robbie Sweeny

For Lee, the process of creation evolves as an amalgam of histories and perspectives. “In the last few years, the pieces I’ve created really stemmed from my upbringing in various communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. I grew up in the Donaldina Cameron House community, my parents grew up in Chinatown, and I’ve been part of the artist community here in San Francisco since the early 1990s. Through the creation of these works, I’ve been able to integrate community history, appreciation for family history, and the history of the Chinese in America. My personal interest drives the process and research, and then I work with the collaborating artists in a creative and innovative way to tell these key stories in Chinese-American history.”

The Escape 3

Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Lee’s work is strongly informed by her relationships with community organizations, including Asian Improv aRts, The Chinese Historical Society of America Museum, Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center, and Donaldina Cameron House. These institutions are partnering with the de Young to present Lee’s works in progress throughout her fellowship at the museum.

Enjoy an evening of performance by Francis Wong and his ensemble and an excerpt from The Escape by Lenora Lee Dance on Friday, May 17 at 7 pm in the Koret Auditorium. Also mark your calendar for November 8 and 9 for the world premieres of The Escape and Rescued Memories: New York Stories at the de Young.