Fold: Golden Venture Paper Sculptures at the Museum of Chinese in America tells the story of some of the passengers on board the Golden Venture when it ran aground near Rockaway Beach Queens at 2:00am on June 6, 1993. I remember the confusion in the initial TV, radio and newspaper reports – how many passengers (often referred to as “aliens” or “illegal aliens”), where they came from (“Asia”, “China”) what happened, why they were on the boat, how many died…
Perhaps the best place to start your tour is in the smaller gallery across from the main exhibition space in which you’ll find the below sculpture and an eye-opening video edited by David Tan & Ya Yun Teng, that provides context for the exhibit and also ties it into today’s debates around immigration. Made in 2017, the video features lawyers and residents of York, Pennsylvania, talking about not only their efforts to obtain justice for the Golden Venture passengers who were detained in the York County prison, but also about the actions taken over the last 20-odd years to restrict immigration to the U.S.
In many ways, the story of the Golden Venture begins in 1989/90, when President George H. W. Bush, angry about the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square, issued directives and an Executive Order, which had the net effect of allowing Chinese nationals – even those here illegally – to stay in the US while their applications for permanent residency wended their way through the system. However, that opened the floodgates for smugglers (a/k/a snakeheads).
When the Golden Venture crashed, there were 286 migrants on board, mostly from Fujian Province, who had embarked on a 6-month ocean voyage that took them to Thailand, then to Kenya, then around the Cape of Good Hope, and on to the U.S. Each passenger (and/or their families) had paid the equivalent of US$5,000 to smugglers, and agreed to work off the balance (US$30,000) mainly by laboring in restaurants and sweatshops.
The Golden Venture posed a problem for the U.S.: ten passengers died when they jumped off the ship in the Rockaways and tried to swim to shore. There was a lot of media attention, and it gave the impression that the authorities did not have things under control. The World Trade Center had been bombed a few months earlier. Anti-immigrant sentiment was starting to grow, and in the previous two years, a number of ships with passengers smuggled in from China had been apprehended in US waters.
Previously, foreigners in the US illegally were not imprisoned – they were required to report to US Immigration periodically, but were effectively at liberty until their cases were adjudicated. In order to deter other smugglers, the Clinton administration took a hard line, detaining the Golden Venture passengers in various prisons across the country. Speedy deportation hearings were held; about half the passengers were returned to China, and another 50 were sent to other countries. A group of men were held in the York County Prison in Pennsylvania, where most of them stayed for 3 years and 8 months. The exhibit is about their experiences, as well as about the art they created.
A grass roots group, People of the Golden Vision comprised of residents of York County and pro bono lawyers formed to help the detainees obtain better conditions and asylum; they organized letter writing campaigns, held vigils and fundraisers for over three years, keeping the plight of the detainees before the public.
In 1996, a small group of exceptionally artistically talented detainees were released and given a special visa for “aliens of extraordinary ability.” In 1996, President Clinton paroled the remaining detainees. Today, 15 former detainees are in the US and still have no clear path to permanent legal residence, even though they work, pay taxes, and even own businesses.
The exhibit features some 40 objects made collectively from papier-mâché (which the detainees fashioned from toilet paper, glue and water) and from folded and rolled paper (mostly magazines and legal pads). Over the course of their detention, the detainees made these works as gifts to the people who helped them, or to be sold at fundraisers to pay for their defense.
Many of the sculptures in the exhibit are quite elaborate, and certain images dominate: eagles, peacocks, boats and bird cages. Many, such as the pagodas, are also very large.
While the sculptures are amazing, be sure to watch the videos in this room: one of the male detainees singing Amazing Grace in Chinese and thanking their supporters; another featuring the paper sculptures made by the detainees, who we don’t see (many didn’t want to appear on screen), but we hear them talking about their quest for freedom, the boredom of prison, learning to fold paper, and their yearning for a better life.
I also encourage you to visit MOCA’s core exhibit With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America, which details the history of Chinese immigrants in America, beginning in 1784 when the Empress of China left New York City for Canton, to trade tradition Appalachian ginseng, furs, and Mexican silver for Chinese luxury goods such as porcelains, teas and silks.
Through photos, paintings and political cartoons, you’ll learn about the Chinese Americans who contributed to the American economy and culture: the anonymous workers who built ships and constructed the railroads; the entertainers who worked on the “Chop Suey Circuit” (Anna May Wong being the most famous); and current icons such as YoYo Ma and Vera Wang. Renowned Chinese American architect Maya Lin designed the Museum. There are also, sadly, artifacts detailing the devastating effects of the Chinese Exclusionary Laws, and also the ways in which Chinese Americans were caricatured and discriminated against.
The Museum provides a relevant and much needed lens on the history of immigration in the U.S., reminding us how easy it is for government and citizens to demonize “the other,” and how harsh measures to restrict immigration damage not only the targeted groups, but all of us.
Fold: Golden Venture Paper Sculptures will be at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) until March 25th, 2018. But get there much sooner.
MOCA is located at 215 Centre Street.