Join us today, September 24, for “Lantern Stories” a lighting exhibition (which features my photo of my 13 year old self and my Hudson Street house) by Yu Wen Wu is launching at Chinatown Gate, 6–7:30 p.m., and at 8–9 p.m., to enjoy program of text, still, and moving image artwork by local artists projected on the brick rowhouse wall of 29 Oak Street, in Boston’s Chinatown.
“My MaMa’s Back,” an excerpt from a longer story called, “Duck,” is a tribute to the Chinese immigrant women garment workers of my Boston Chinatown childhood. The text and the recording, done by me in 2020, the photograph, by my father, Walter Yee, c.1952. In the photo, I sit with my mother inside 133 Hudson Street, our first American home, located where the first American community of Taishanese immigrant families settled after the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1945. The subjects are my mother, May Soon Gee Yee, myself, and in the dark shadows, longing,
unseen, my two left behind sisters. Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, my parents were separated for 15 years before I was born. My mother and two older sisters, surviving the Japanese invasion of China, while my father, a US Army Corporal, fought in Europe. My mother entered Boston in 1948, under the War Brides Act of 1945, leaving two daughters behind. My parents’ granddaughter, Sarah Cheung, born in Guangzhou, emigrating to Boston in 1979, translated the text.
“My MaMa’s Back” is a voice over photo narration that tells the story of a childhood in a fragmented family, dominated by the ever present sound and rhythm of a sewing machine. Separated by socio-political upheaval, exclusionary laws, war and revolution, three generations meet across time and space in this artistic creation, centering on the sewing together of fabric.
“My MaMa’s Back”
By Cynthia Yee
What I remember most about my MaMa was her back, her slender back. Bent over fabric. Fabric slithering away through her thin fingers and tiny palms. The needle going up and down, puncturing fabric. Her silk slippered feet, side by side on the pedal, pressed hard, pressed light. Fabric moved fast, fabric moved slow. Machine plugged into magic current. Electricity in old thin walls. I, watching. She, chatting about eggnog and chocolate milk, about White teachers and washing hands, about drunken men and not to fear, money and courage, rice and strength, life and death. She never lifted her head to look at me, never lifted her feet to walk to me, never lifted her hands to caress me. Only her voice, the sound of the machine. Her bent back soothe my childish heart.
When I had been an infant, she’d hoisted me up on her back, bundled me in her silk embroidered bai, had tied me close to her, four cords crisscrossing her breasts, a knot against her heart. My face leaned in, hugging her warm back, I slept. Her hands free, she worked and worked.