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Chinatown's Ross Alley Transformed with Ripples of Immigrant History

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Passersby study the "Liminal Space/Crossings" projects on Ross Alley.  (Courtesy of Summer Mei Ling Lee)

Recent visitors to Chinatown’s narrow Ross Alley will have noticed its new illumination: rippling LED lights shine on the ground, mimicking ocean waves along the length of its path. But the luminescence serves as more than a practical solution to the dimly-lit thoroughfare. It also transforms a short walk down this alley into a glimpse of Chinatown’s history from its very beginnings, a story of forward-looking immigrants leaving their homes behind to make a new life across the ocean.


In Summer Mei-Ling Lee’s outdoor installation, Liminal Space/Crossings, immigrant history mingles in Ross Alley with current conversations around immigration — and the ways all these journeys are mediated by the ocean.

A partnership with the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, Lee’s piece is a culmination of her year-long workshops with immigrant families living in Chinatown, as well as a reflection on her own grandmother’s experience of immigrating to the United States through Canada to avoid being held at Angel Island. Her research brought up the idea of the ocean as a motif — a shared ground for the Asian diaspora, the refugee crises and the larger immigrant experience.


“Crossing an ocean is a specific moment,” Lee says. “You’re taking a risk going into the completely unknown and taking the harrowing journey over water.”

While Liminal Space/Crossings physically immerses passersby in a similar experience that immigrants undergo on their way to America, Lee says her ultimate goal is not to impress a directly political message. Instead, she hopes that the ocean can provide people an inward privacy and an opportunity to reflect on the inherent changes within their own selves.

Correspondence with Laura Boles Faw, 2017. Desks, Lanterns, Invisible Ink and Passers-by in Ross Alley, Chinatown
Correspondence with Laura Boles Faw, 2017. Desks, Lanterns, Invisible Ink and Passers-by in Ross Alley, Chinatown (Courtesy of Summer Mei-Ling Lee)

“When art moves people beyond a message and makes them feel something that’s untranslatable, that’s when it survives the time,” she says.


Liminal Space/Crossings is an ongoing installation on 41 Ross Alley in San Francisco’s Chinatown. For more information, visit cccsf.us.


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