Beginning of discussion of The Life and Times of Donaldina Cameron, here.
The audience, comprised of intentional viewers as well as unsuspecting tourists traveling that day to Angel Island on the ferry received the Angel Island Times Past a fictionalized historical newspaper that both relied on history and produced alternate histories at the same time. The Angel Island Times Past featured historical photographs and the recently discovered poetry scratched into the walls of the detention center alongside “fictionalized” articles about the immigration station, the prostitution of Asian women, and the experiences of detainees. The newspaper also introduced the character Leung Ken-Sen by presenting her biography alongside that of Donaldina Cameron, with a photograph of an unidentified woman (meant to represent) Leung alongside an archival photograph of Cameron.
This blending of the imagined and the real, without distinction, reflects the uses of history in The Life and Times of Donaldina Cameron. Nowhere is it made clear that the newspaper is a creation rather than a fictionalized document. Although a small box notes “art performance today” and the masthead states “performance by Kathleen Chang and Suzanne Lacy” “sponsored by The Floating Museum,” the document appropriates a historical format in order to do some complicate history making. Because of the very attitudes expressed by white reformers like Cameron who viewed the Chinese people as complicit in the exploitation of women, and as innately less moral than whites, a prominent narrative in the Angel Island Times Past is a corrective view, which attempted to situate practices historically, culturally, and economically. A narrative that attempted to normalize Asian cultural practices and shift the focus to the racism of the United States, was joined to a story about the oppression of white women, and the exploitation of Asian women. The past addressed the present to produced a narrative that ultimately justified The Life and Times of Donalidina Cameron. The first goal was to offset the racism of the past in the interpretation of history. This occurred by contextualizing some of the cultural practices that had been previously used by racists. The second was to reveal the victimized status of Asian immigrants in the past, which paralleled contemporary racism. Finally however, the largest narrative situated both white women and Asian women as shared victims of male oppression.
The historical information provided in the articles about the “Immigration Station at Angel Island,” “Humiliating experience” and “Prostitution of Asian Women” emphasized the victimization of the Chinese people due to racism encountered in the United States. The prolonged detention of Asian immigrants at the immigration station was explained as unique “although all arriving immigrants to the west cost were detained there, it is the Asian peoples who were held prisoner for months, sometimes years while they waited in uncertainty for their possible deportation under successive exclusion regulations created specially for their race.” The historical detention of immigrants was connected to “the exploitation and racism” Asian settlers experienced in the United States, and to “continued racism and economic exploitation.” The article on prostitution alludes to “the development of virulent anti-Chinese sentiment. ” Similarly, the caption under a photograph of “Japanese Picture Brides” notes “ the developing anti-Japanese movement.
“Humiliating experiences” continued the story by providing selected details about life on Angel Island including the communal toilets and showers, and the “humiliation of waiting for doctors to inspect their private parts looking for ‘oriental’ diseases.” This emphasis on the bodily mechanisms of “humiliation” was meant to evoke the most visceral empathy in the audience. The body also stood as the singular signifier of common identity for women, the ultimate target audience. The reference to the bodily invasion of “private parts” resonated with contemporary feminist concerns about violation and assault.
History was then used to offset these historical examples of racism. This largely occurred by providing a historical context for actions that appeared “immoral” in the past. The caption underneath the photograph of Japanese Picture Brides explained that the matrimonial practices of Japanese immigrants in the States were perfectly in accord with “Japanese custom and society” even though racists used the practice “to spur” the anti-Japanese movement. The article about prostitution contextualized it as a response to the “limitation of the development of domestic life” forced on “the Chinese laborer” and highlights that prostitution was “used by” racists as evidence of “Chinese corruptness.” It also offered the explanation that women were not sold directly by their families into prostitution, but first to men in Hong Kong, presumably as servants although that is not explained, who then trafficked them into prostitution.
After producing histories that offset the examples of historical racism, the next narrative shifted the blame from Asian cultural practices to capitalistic white men. The immigration station article note that immigration was driven by “the need for a constant stream of cheap labor” and blamed “western capitalists.” Similarly, the poem transcribed from the walls of the detention center describes the immigrant as a “western slave” and depicts “the pursuit of wealth” as innately exploitative “based on rise and fall.” The article on prostitution noted that many “white men, including bribed officials, profited directly form the system.” The photo caption of Katherine Mauer refers to “a racist and oppressive system” furthering the linkage between racism and capitalism.
This final, most complicated narrative, yet most central to the overall piece, navigated highlighting the vicitimization of Chinese women without blaming Chinese culture exclusively, and granting agency to white women without ignoring their racism or demonizing Chinese culture. A photograph titled “the Angel of Angel Island” showed a detention cell of women holding small children presided over by a White woman. The caption described yet another historical rescuer Katherine Mauer, a Methodist missionary active at the same time as Cameron although most of her work occurred on Angel Island with the detainees themselves. The caption noted the ‘ambivalent responses by those to whom she applied her attentions.” It described Mauer, and implicitly the other female missionaries, as part of the white cultures’ “individual charitable” efforts that “bandaged” the results but never challenged the cause, immigration practices. It also noted “patronizing attempts to Christianize a heathen people bring justifiable criticism of an attempted colonialization.”
However, the caption also offered discussion of the mitigating circumstances for Mauer’s actions. Not only does the text recognized the contributions of Mauer and other charitable ladies “it is certain that she and others like her brought some cheer and comfort to the detainees. It is also probable that she was acting from humane responses to suffering” the text also offers and excuse for their participation by suggesting that at worst women were passive agents, victims themselves of definitions of womanhood imposed on them. “American women were used as tools of enculturation into the very system that created the oppression.“ They are less to blame that the masters of capitalism who control “the very system” that exploits both Chinese immigrants, as cheap labor, and white women, “as tools.”
Similarly, the “biography” provided for Cameron seems to follow the account in Chinatown’s Angry Angel, a biography of Cameron published just months before TLTDC, which as one reviewer noted, positioned her as “the heroine in white” who “almost singled handedly wiped out prostitution in the Chinese community.” Unlike the discussion of Mauer, which stressed her complicitity with the forces of exploitation, the description of Cameron emphasized her bonds with the Chinese. Cameron, it was noted, was also an immigrant, born in New Zealand, later naturalized an American citizen (an option not available to the Chinese until 1943). The account lauded “her devotion and zeal for these people, largely Chinese.” The reciprocated love and devotion of her charges was exemplified in their naming her “lo Mo” the mother,” unlike Mauer who was “resented.” Cameron was afforded a history of agency and accomplishments, as opposed to the description of Mauer as passive “tool.” The biography lauded her heroism: she ”led fearless raids upon Chinatown brothels.” The account also stressed the fear she struck in her opponents, “known as Fahn Quai, the white devil” by her opponents, the male Chinese who controlled the brothels and the tongs.
The “biography” created by Chang for Leung Ken-Sun positioned her as a similarly active participant in history. She “joined a band of revolutionaries” and “participated in a bombing assassination.” Her revolutionary activities echo the lines in the transcribed poem in which the speaker dreams of taking “over America to right earlier wrongs.” Still Leung is something of a victim. In order to protect her from the death penalty, her father “placed her under house arrest and married her to a man twice her age who would take her to America.” This aspect of her biography echoes the reference in the article on prostitution to women who attempted to escape prostitution only to be met such efforts were met with “severe punishment” as well as the references in the transcribed poem to being “imprisoned” and “deprived of my freedom.”
The position of immigrant and rescuer could not be equalized, a fact that historians were beginning to grapple with as Lacy and Chang created their performance. Just as the embodiment by Chang and Lacy of their characters was driven by an earnest belief that art could address racism, this historical simulacrum was intended to address historical narratives of racism, without really engaging with history. At the very bottom of the Angel Island Times Past, a small notation indicates that “all photographs credited to Visual Communications. Much information for this paper condensed from In Movement.” The photographs of course are not “from visual communications” but from different historical archives. The “condensed” information was written by various scholars and activists. In King’s language the various communities of knowledge creators have been subsumed under the artistic creation. The debates, divergences and differences that matter here are defined by Lacy and Chang, not academics or even other communities of activists, such as those women in the Asian American community who refused to collaborate with Lacy. They appear only obliquely via reference in part of a sentence that explains the art piece “in the process of creating the performance a series of questions came up which seriously challenged the ability of a white woman to create such a piece in a non-imperialistic way.” Note the use of the passive voice. The questions weren’t raised by these activists they “came up” deus ex machina to provide the dramatic tension of the piece that is to be performed by Chang and Lacy. Instead, “the two collaborators … generated a structure in which the meeting between a white missionary woman and an Asian Woman serves as a metaphor for the discussion of issues in socially responsive art.”
History is in no sense what this piece is about. History provides a “metaphor” for figuring out “what are the problems and responsibilities involved with inter-racial investigation, art making, and social action?” But what is involved when the metaphor is construed from history? TLTDC did have considerable overlaps with histories concomitantly being produced as made clear in the 1978 ex post facto documentation of the performance, which seems to have been produced solely by Lacy. I want to consider that, and subsequent productions of history about Angel Island by Judy Yung and about Cameron by Peggy Pascoe, alongside Lacy’s discussion of the piece in a 1990 oral history interview, a recreation she did in 2006, and a 2010 editing of the 1978 documentation.