ART REVIEW : History of Chinatown in a Multimedia Environment

Times Art Writer

“Art in the Raw,” a program of installations and performances marking the debut of the Santa Monica Museum of Art, comes to a close with a wistful history of Los Angeles’ Chinatown.

In “L.A./River/China/Town” (extended to Dec. 4), artist May Sun immerses visitors in a multimedia environment that portrays a violent dream world of Chinese immigrants.

The piece is meant to resemble an encampment for Chinese railroad workers who lived along the Los Angeles River in the 1870s. A wooden bridge leads to four white tents that fan out from a central courtyard overhung with a cascade of gongs. The physical elements are arranged with formal clarity, but the emotional impact is complex and conflicted. This art has a light touch and a tough center; it’s as if the artist strokes you with a feather while socking you in the stomach.

In the ambitious installation that fills most of the unfinished museum building, Sun provides haunting music (written by Tom Recchion) and nostalgic trappings--old photographs, letters, dry grasses--that suggest soothing connections to the earth and other people. She has also designed a light-and-sound show that guides you through a half-hour sequence but leaves you free to wander. So effective is the ambiance that the cataclysmic events documented by “L.A./River/China/Town” tend to sink in slowly.


The first tent is lined with upturned shovels holding boxes of remnants evocative of immigrant life. A sound track recalls the 1849 flood that forced many Chinese to leave their country and come to Los Angeles where they laid railroad tracks for a dollar a day. The second tent recounts the strange case of Homer Lea, a Caucasian from Santa Monica who became a highly placed military adviser to China and trained troops in Los Angeles’ Chinatown.

A fragmentary account of the 1871 Los Angeles “massacre” that took the lives of 19 Chinese is offered in the third tent, along with a dead duck and a miniature Chinese building, drenched in red light. The fourth encloses a landscape of sand dunes and tells of a flood in the Los Angeles River--an apocalyptic event that coughed up alligators and trumpeting elephants, and caused dogs to go mad and jump into the roiling water.

Bizarre and dreadful as the recorded narratives are, they contribute to a theme of upheaval and renewal. Sun, a Los Angeles-based artist who was born in Shanghai and lived in Hong Kong until she was 16, has worked with stage director Peter Brosius to produce an effective blend of historic fact and dream-brushed mythology.

The museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 1 to 9 p.m. Shows begin on the hour and half-hour.


“L.A./River/China/Town” is supported by a LACE Grant to Interdisciplinary Artists (funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation) and by the Brody Arts Fund. The entire “Raw Space” series has been underwritten by a National/State/County Partnership grant.