Lenora Lee, a native San Franciscan dancer and choreographer, makes large-scale interdisciplinary work that tells the stories of Asians in America – stories that she says aren’t represented in the mainstream media or in art. And her latest piece, "Reflections," is a response to what Lee says she witnessed as a Chinese American growing up in San Francisco.
“Particularly the Chinese, Asian American men struggled and were challenged with figuring out what their paths were in life and what their journeys were,” she explains.
“Reflections” is dedicated to the stories of three generations of men in Lee’s family. Her paternal grandfather came to the United States from an area in Southern China called Toisan as what’s called a “paper son,” meaning he bought the identity of somebody who had legal U.S. citizenship in order to immigrate. He was just one of many who left their families and risked their lives to build a new life in San Francisco. Lee’s own father was born in the United States, but being raised in a traditional Chinese family, Lee’s father suddenly became responsible for his five younger siblings after his parents passed away. He was straddling two worlds: loyalty to his family and tradition, and finding his own path, Lee says.
It’s the story of this struggle that Lee tells through the choreography of “Reflections,” which she describes as a collage rather than a straight narrative. In addition to the immigration story, Lee discusses the violence that many Chinese Americans faced when arriving in the U.S. One of the performance’s main characters, Raymond Fong, lived through the ‘70s and ‘80s in San Francisco’s Chinatown, when gang violence was the main connection between those born in America and those born in China.
“There were a large influx of Chinese coming from Hong Kong and mainland China. A lot of the tension was between these two groups. Ray witnessed a lot of his friends pass away because of this violence,” Lee explains.
Lee also says Chinese immigrants were subjected to racial profiling in Chinatown during this period. They were routinely stopped and searched by the police randomly, “just because they were young Chinese males.”
Lee says these are hard stories to tell, especially for the Chinese community. “Those are hush-hush topics. We are taught not to bring shame to the family, not to talk about things that are bad, not to talk about things that could shed some bad light to the communities and to the family members. So in a way there is certain amount of courage for people particularly like my father, the other artist, and Ray to step foreword and say, ‘Hey, this is what was happening at that time.'”
Lee wants to explore that history – and debunk many stereotypes of Asian culture, like the myth of the martial arts. “There is strength in the form that is so deeply rooted in Asian culture that practice martial arts,” she says.
For Lee, "Reflections" is a way to remember her family's journey from China to San Francisco and back. It connects her to her history and her cultural heritage – to the stories that are hard to put in words, but live on through dance. And, Lee hopes, it'll be an inspiration to others – Chinese or not – to honor their family struggles and heal the wounds of the past.