Journey of the Hungry Ghost

Artist

Lena Chen

Date

2021

Location

Greater Pittsburgh, PA

Commissioning Organization

Office of Public Art

About the Project

Journey of the Hungry Ghost is a participatory, physically-distanced, site-specific ritual based on Chinese ancestral worship practices. It celebrates the Hungry Ghost Festival traditionally held on the 15th night of the seventh lunar month. Led by artist Lena Chen, Journey of the Hungry Ghost honors early Chinese migrants to the Pittsburgh region who are buried at Homewood Cemetery.

Ancestral Worship

Ancestral worship is a crucial Chinese cultural practice. The Hungry Ghost Festival takes place on a full moon during the seventh month of the lunar calendar, when the deceased are believed to visit the living realm. Hungry ghosts are believed to be ancestors of those who forgot to pay tribute to them or who were not given proper funerals. Therefore, it is important to offer them food and joss paper (believed to have value in the afterlife), in order to appease the ghosts, relieve their suffering, and prevent bad fortune.

Homewood Cemetery

Homewood Cemetery contains the earliest Chinese cemetery in the Eastern United States. In 1901, the Chinese Funeral Association purchased a plot at the Homewood Cemetery as a temporary burial site for Chinese migrant laborers who passed away abroad. Although it was intended that their remains eventually be sent home, the deceased often lacked the required resources and connections to do so. Homewood Cemetery has therefore become a permanent resting ground for 283 migrants, mostly from the Taishan and Kaiping region, where the artist’s own ancestors originate.

The Ritual

Journey of the Hungry Ghost honors the contributions of those buried, many of whom faced barriers to transit, housing, and employment through xenophobic policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act. Visitors will learn about these histories while confronting contemporary xenophobia as they tend gravesites, make offerings, and transcribe the names of the deceased on a collective scroll. Socially distanced, visitors will engage in traditional activities such as burning joss sticks and creating altars. The outdoor nature of the event will allow community members to be together on a significant day and in a climate of racism and pandemic, to celebrate continued survival and resilience.

Journey of the Hungry Ghost will take place in late summer/early fall of 2021. More information will be posted on the OPA website when available.

Panel Discussion

In early summer, Chen will host a panel discussion about East Asian ancestral worship practices. Planned in partnership with cultural organizations for Chinese and Asian community members, the discussion will invite community elders into dialogue with younger generations. More information will be posted on the OPA website when available.

Online Resources

Website

Learn more about Lena Chen and her other projects on her website.

About the Artist

Lena Chen (born San Francisco, 1987) is a Chinese American artist working across performance and social practice. Raised by immigrant parents working in the hospitality and garment industries, she grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, an Asian enclave of Los Angeles. Named “Best Emerging Talent” at the B3 Biennial of the Moving Image (Frankfurt), she has performed and exhibited at Transmediale (Berlin), Museum of Modern Art (Antwerp), Färgfabriken (Stockholm), and Baltimore Museum of Art, among others. She has spoken at Oxford, Yale, Stanford, and SXSW and been an artist-in-residence with performance space (Folkestone, UK), INVERSE Performance Festival (Bentonville, Arkansas), and Construction Festival (Dnipro, Ukraine).

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Headshot of Lena Chen; photo courtesy of the artist

“Engaging ancestor worship as anti-racist resistance and cultural uplift, I propose a participatory physically-distanced, site-specific ritual at the Homewood Cemetery to unify past and present narratives of the Chinese in our region.”

Lena Chen

Image credits

Gallery, top:
All images and photos courtesy the artist

Artist Headshot:
Artist Lena Chen, photo courtesy artist

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