Hung Liu—a prolific Chinese émigré artist that is known for her paintings taken from historic Chinese photographs—explores her identity as a Chinese women and immigrant in her latest exhibition, Daughter of China: Resident Alien, currently on view at the American University Museum in Washington, D.C.
At once, visitors to Daughter of China: Resident Alien are drawn in by Jiu Jin Shan, “Old Gold Mountain” in Chinese. The 3-dimensional work was made by placing railroad tracks from the B&O Railroad Museum in an X on the ground, and pouring 225,000 fortune cookies over the X in a mountain shape. The powerful, dynamic piece represents the “American Dream” for mid-19th century Chinese Americans, who came in search of gold, but instead became the laborers who built the transcontinental railroad. The piece boldly reflects this continued struggle for success faced by contemporary Chinese American Immigrants today. Liu places the fortune cookies on top of the tracks because fortune cookies were something she had never seen until she came to the US in 1984. It is disputed that a Japanese man may have invented them in San Francisco in the early 20th century, yet they have come to represent Chinese culture in the West.
The glossy, golden fortune cookies represent the gold that originally drew Chinese Immigrants to California, and the tracks represent the stark reality of their futures: working as laborers building a railroad. Jiu Jin Shan also reflects on the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States. Signed in 1882, it is one of the most significant immigrant exclusion acts in American History, and was not repealed until 1943. Jiu Jin Shan portrays both California’s history and the history of Chinese American immigrants. The title aptly describes the work, as Chinese immigrants knew San Francisco as the “Old Gold Mountain.”
Hung Liu immigrated to the United States in 1984 after being accepted into University of California, San Diego’s MFA program in 1981. Initially the Chinese government forbade her from leaving, as she was a highly trained, top-tier Socialist-Realist painter. Once here, Liu began to use her training in realist painting with a much more expressive and direct intention. In her 1988 work Resident Alien, she paints her self-portrait as an Immigration Identification Card with her date of arrival as the date of birth. Liu uses the name “Fortune Cookie” on her ID card, directly relating to Jiu Jin Shan, but also a slang term used in late 19th-century San Francisco for a young Chinese prostitute. Again, she connects her work to the search for these gold nuggets, or “fortune cookies,” and the reality of what many Chinese immigrants had to do to survive in the United States. The use of her date of immigration represents her rebirth as a “Resident Alien” here in the United States. She felt as though she would never fully assimilate into American Culture, but that she also couldn’t return to China, as she would no longer fit in there either.
Daughters of China, a number of large, intense paintings by Liu currently on display at the American University Museum, depict Chinese women aged 13 to 22 who became immortalized as heroines after they sacrificed their lives in the second Sino-Japanese war. In this deeply emotional exhibition, she portrays Chinese women and immigrants in circumstances beyond their control. The work also serves as commentary on the stark dichotomy of the Maoist ideal that women were military equals, and the reality of sexism in post-cultural revolution China. With the election drawing closer, Liu’s work reflects on the treatment and rights of immigrants in the United States today, as well as the power of women throughout history.
The exhibition at American University runs until October 23. Her work can also be found at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York City until October 22, Fresno Art Museum until January 8 and Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History next year from March 3 to June 6.