“Like an image from the past, two women in 19th-century costume stand at the bow, waving slowly to ferry passengers”
This (re)enactment of a (never happened) voyage by a Chinese immigrant (and a 20th century female reformer) to Angel Island occurred in 1977 as part of a site-specific performance series organized by the artist Lynn Hershman as a counterweight to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s pioneering exhibition of site-specific sculpture that included only men. Located in the San Francisco Bay, Angel Island provided the central point of Asian immigration to the United States. One of the invited artists, Suzanne Lacy, began conducting research about the history of Angel Island, in which she discovered that
“Chinese women were brought here illegally for wives, for slavery, for servants, and so on since the exclusionary laws prevented legal immigration. Americans didn’t want to build up populations of various cultures brought here to work on the railroad, so they made it difficult to start families. An illegal trade in Chinese women developed.”
This historical example of trafficking in women resonated with work Lacy had been doing on the topic of violence against women in contemporary society and with her prior work exploring the lives of prostitutes in Los Angeles. Although best known at this point for Three Weeks in May (1977), a piece that drew attention to rape in Los Angeles, Lacy’s earlier work explored relationships between women.
Lacy viewed collaborative performance art as a means to facilitate feminist community. Initially Lacy identified with the plight of the Asian woman, seeing a similarity in the sexual victimization of women across time. She envisioned a collaborative piece produced with members of the Asian American community of San Francisco. As she explained, wanting to “expand the limits of my white feminist perspective so that I could identify more fully, I contacted women in the Chinese community who might be willing to collaborate.” While Lacy made some successful contacts, eventually none wanted to work with her, a situation Lacy explained as distrust of her “a white artist, and as a feminist interested in Chinese prostitution.” Discouraged by her inability to build collaborative relationships, she almost gave up on the piece until she recalled a woman she’d come across in the process of her historical research. Donaldina Cameron, an early 20th century protestant missionary, was an extremely well known white women who “rescued” Chinese women from the brothels of San Francisco. A settlement house was named for her and in 1977 a biography of her had just been published. Lacy “realized that the problems here were that I was a white woman trying to be involved with another ethnic community, not unlike the position the missionary found herself in.” Working from that perceived affinity with the historical figure and with the difficulties she faced, Lacy began to think of telling another story, one about the challenges of working cross racial divides.
At this point the piece was (re)titled The Life and Times of Donaldina Cameron. Lacy reconceived the work to explore the “two polar points of view” the Anglo and the Chinese, the reformer and the reformed.” What began as a historical narrative about “the courage and resolution of the Asian people” and focused on the migratory experience of Chinese women became as much an account of the heroism of a white woman. Lacy claimed Cameron as a sort of fictionalized historical foremother, describing her as “a missionary woman who was actually Australian, of Scottish and Welsh descent—very similar to my background. She looked like one of my grandmothers.” Lacy extended the notion of identification to Chang as well, writing in an 1978 essay documenting the piece that “Kathleen and I identified with our characters, I with the woman who was committed to exploring injustice against women and she with her Chinese people and the historical and contemporary racism they faced.” Lacy’s phrasing here emphasizes her preference for a gendered identity as “women” while Chang’s is depicted as with “Chinese people,” which presumable includes Chinese women, but privileges Chang’s ethnic identity.
While Lacy selected a figure from history to embody, Chang pointed out that “knowing one’s history does not always guarantee that there will be one Chinese-American women to express it, especially in view of the scanty records available.” Without access to the sort of complete history that existed for Cameron, Chang created a composite character called Leung Ken-sun based “on a friend’s grandmother who had been forced to leave China at 15 for her radical politics” and perhaps parts of her own family history since Chang’s parents, both professors, immigrated to the States following the Cultural Revolution.
It is unclear at what point the women decided to costume themselves as historical figures, but Chang came from an acting background and Lacy had already began to do performance work in various personae. While the idea may seem “cringe-worthy” as one contemporary critic described it, the historical context is crucial to understanding this strategy. As Cherise Smith notes
These were watershed years when many women artists explored gender identity through what Moira Roth has termed “persona-play” performances. Incorporating equal parts autobiography and mythology, feminist persona-play artists dressed as and acted out characters thought to represent or embody gender types.
Lacy described her “character explorations” as a process of “moving inside a character who represented social status and condition rather than a specific person.” In Lacy’s first piece to use costuming and the assumption of a persona, Lacy became a “bag lady’ wandering the streets of Los Angeles. At least for Lacy, the notion of “becoming” rested on a powerful gendered identification as “woman” “I wondered who they were, these women whose lives were such powerful icons for my gender. How did I carry their condition inside my own head?” (5). The notion that one could “be” someone else, hinged on a belief in a commonly gendered identity despite the profoundly scocio-economic gap that separated Lacy’s life and that of a street person in 1970s Los Angeles.
Unlike the better-known examples from Butler’s theory of performative gender, such as drag, The Life and Times of Donaldina Cameron like Lacy’s prior embodied performance, relied not on parody, but intense earnestness. What Katie King has called “experimental archeology” is at work here as the “costumed figures” engaged in “fictionalized historical flashbacks.” Being and becoming figures from the past reflects the very emotional relationship these activists had with history. The colliding discourses, those on feminism, history and race, were harnessed to explore the spaces between them in the present via ways of knowing that relied as much on affect as they did analysis.
The piece both relied on history and produced alternate histories at the same time. Unlike Butler’s “stylized repetition of acts” that perform gender, TLTDC relies on acts of willful anachronism. Lacy and Chang translocated figures from the past in period dress in order to make them address present day concerns. Using the format of a historical document, but using contemporary histories, Lacy and Chang recreated a fictive newspaper, reenacted an imagined historical event, and then engaged in a historically impossible conversation.