SiteWorks: San Francisco performance 1969-85

Pier 41 Embarcadero, journey and Angel Island National Park

Suzanne Lacy, Kathleen Chang and Linda Palumbo, The Time and Life of Donaldina Cameron (1977)



The Life and Times of Donaldina Cameron, a performance piece, grew out of two artists’ desire to deal with this historical controversy. As an art form, performance combines experience and ideas into enticing blends, in this case a narrative which opens up inquiry into that powerful abstraction, racism. These elements coalesce in portraits of two women – the zealous Donaldina Caneron and a fictional Chinese woman, Leung Ken-Shun.

The performance took place on a ferry to Angel Island, the historical point of entry for Asian immigrants, and on a hilltop on Angel Island. The audience was constituted of both art supporters bound for a one-day series of installations and park visitors on their way to a tourist site. As they boarded a ferry, all passengers received a broadcast with turn-of-the-century photos and stores of Asian women entering the United States – Chinese women smuggled into the country, Japanese war brides, Korean brides, and so on.

As the ferry approached the island, a schooner sailed past with two women on it, a woman dressed as a turn of the century missionary and a Chinese woman dressed in Chinese clothes from the same period. The women seemed oblivious to the ferry as they gazed out to sea.

Docking on the island at the same time as the ferry, the two women walked slowly up the hill with an audience behind them. At the top, they turned to the audience to present two opposing narratives: Lacy was Donaldina Cameron, a social reformer, and told of girls smuggled into the country for prostitution and slavery; in this era, she stated, the wives of missionaries were generally the only hope for the health and education of women from patriarchal cultures. Leung Ken-Sun was Chang’s fictional re-creation of her husband’s real ancestor, who escaped from China to come to the new world. She indicted the cultural erasure that often took place in forced assimilation and accused Christian missionaries such as Donaldina Cameron of being the leading front of a pernicious form of economic exploitation of immigrants. In the third “act” of the performance, Lacy and Chang left their respective characters and shared a cup of tea from a picnic basket while they conversed intimately with the audience, deconstructing the race/gender barriers, aesthetic differences, and developing friendship they found while making this performance. (Lacy 2010: 57-8)