Join us today, September 24, for “Lantern Stories,” a lighting exhibition, featuring the iconic photo of my 13 year old self and my Hudson Street house, by Yu Wen Wu launching at Chinatown Gate, 6–7:30 p.m., and at 8–9 p.m., enjoy a 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, “Duck,” is a tribute to the Chinese immigrant women garment workers of my Boston Chinatown childhood. The video is produced by Daphne Xu of the Chinatown Community Land Trust in cooperation with me. The text and the recording were 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, American 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.
4 thoughts on ““My MaMa’s Back” — 29 Oak Street Projections”
What an evocation. I can see her slender back, see the child listening. I wish I could see and hear this outside! A brilliant idea for presenting art.
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Again, I am loving every word that you write! I can’t wait to read this next piece in its entirety. You are still my favorite writer! Love your descriptions! Love your word choices! Love all your writing!
Thank you,🙏🥮❤️ Bonnie!
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Love all your stories! Brings back memories of sewing with my mom. Well done! Still waiting for more
Thank you, my SF Chinatown sister!!
Love it ! Typical Cynthia ‘s writing style: descriptive and evocative! Reading the short excerpt you can feel the rhythm of the sewing machine and maternal closeness. Keep on writing and sharing. Thank you.
Thank you so much, Therese, for reading and commenting! Thanks for your compliments❤️ too!