The object that inexplicably opens this exhibition is a clip-on lamp, shining like a beacon beside the fusebox, without any accompanying text. What was it clipped to, where it came from? What gave it its scuffs, its wear? What texts, rooms, dreams, did it illuminate? If not loved, it was certainly used—a form of love, for an object—and likely not far from here, either. Each of these “heirlooms”—also the title of this exhibition at Loong Mah—holds some special significance for its contributors: Asian American artists, curators, writers, and individuals, all of whom are connected in some way to Chinatown.
Some of these objects are heirlooms by a strict definition. Olivia Shao, the show's curator, presents a century-old jar of chun pei—dried Mandarin peel. Others have been passed not to the donor of the objects but by them: Eugenia Lai gifted a pearl with a delicately inscribed poem to her language-loving husband. That said, some of the most moving objects in this show are those which are distinctly un-precious, as in the case of Karen L. Lew Biney-Amissah's self-consciously orientalizing mass-produced miniature ornamental lantern, which holds value only recognized by her, given that it was sold by her grandmother’s store [pictured]. In other instances, items are outright missing—Doris Guo contributes only a text, written on a word processor and printed on ordinary 8.5” x 11” paper, detailing the loss of an heirloom: during the Cultural Revolution, her great-grandfather was forced to shred paintings to sell as scrap paper and whittle their wooden ends into toys. Full legibility of each object is beside the point as each one tells of the aura of a place and life, deeply felt, even if undivulged.
Object selected by Karen L. Lew Biney-Amissah. Photo: Lisa Yin Zhang