Growing up, dancer and choreographer Lenora Lee went to youth groups and summer programs at the Donaldina Cameron House in San Francisco's Chinatown. A conversation several years ago with the filmmaker James Q. Chan, a friend who attended these programs with her, led Lee to create, The Escape, which deals with the human trafficking of Chinese women at the end of the 1800s and in the early 1900s.
"I wanted to do research about what these women had to go through and learn their stories," Lee said. "I went to the Cameron House which provided services for these women and young girls. I was reading first hand accounts of what they had to go through, and it became clear to me this was really modern day slavery."
For the past year, Lee has been an artist fellow at the de Young Museum, working on The Escape, along with Rescued Memories: New York Stories, which focuses more on labor trafficking.Having the support and resources of the de Young has been a phenomenal experience, Lee says. When her work was on display in May, she enjoyed interacting with patrons of the museum. "We're revealing information the general public wouldn't necessarily have known," she said. "This history is fascinating for people, and we tell it in an interdisciplinary way." Along with dance, Lee uses music by Francis Wong, text by poet Genny Lim, and videography directed by Tatsu Aoki in her performances. Renee Baldocchi, director of public programs for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, says the multimedia adds to the beauty of Lee's work, while shedding light on a heartbreaking topic. "It will affect people deeply and make them more aware of this horrible problem. Through Lenora I've learned about the plight of the Chinese immigrant," she said. "This program is all about touching the individual, and these fellows are chosen because they have an amazing ability to tell stories though their art." Lee takes her research seriously. In Rescued Memories, she is telling the story of Bessie Lee, a woman who was brought to New York by a wealthy Chinese couple and ran away when they didn't pay her for her work. Lee interviewed her grandson, the director of the New York Asian Women's Shelter and went to New York to shoot video in Chinatown for the piece. She has also spoken with groups here who provide services for women being trafficked now. "The challenges they face are pretty much the same, but it's more intricate and complex now," Lee said. "There's this assumption that all trafficking is sex trafficking, but there's quite a bit of labor trafficking that doesn't get as much attention." Lee says she hopes to bring awareness to what could be going on with women cooking in restaurants or cleaning rooms in hotels. Abuse goes beyond the physical, she says. "What I try to bring out in the stories are the emotional and psychological repercussions of having to endure this type of experience," she said. "There's a lot of psychological brainwashing with women who are brought over and isolated and threatened so they're too afraid to seek help. I'm trying to shed light on what those experiences are." The premiere performances of The Escape and Rescued Memories: New York Stories are Friday, Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. and Saturday, Nov. 9 at 8 p.m. at the de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden. Please visit the deyoungmuseum.org or call 415-750-3600 for more details.