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Housed in the Museum of Chinese in America is the Fly to Freedom collection of paper art, which were produced by a traditional folk method of Chinese paper folding. The 123 paper works were created by detainees of the Golden Venture, a freighter used to smuggle undocumented immigrants into the U.S. On the evening of June 6, 1993, the ship ran aground off the Rockaways in New York City and nearly 300 migrants, gaunt from the four-month ordeal at sea, poured out of the cramped windowless hold of the vessel. Several drowned that night, a few escaped, but the majority was detained by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (a precursor to ICE), some for nearly four years, some in rural communities hostile to the refugees.
To help pass the time as they sought political asylum, many of the Golden Venture detainees resorted to the folk art of paper folding and produced sculpture from torn pieces of paper recycled from magazines and newspapers. Using paper folded into small triangles, the paper units were pieced together to create multi-faceted, modular statues of intricate complexity. With the addition of glue, wire, and paint, the detainees produced sculptures of ships, fruit, and birds, especially eagles, which their advocates called “freedom birds.” The eagle, an American symbol of freedom and individuality, was a poignant contrast to the persona non grata status of the detainees, who were caught within the escalating anti-immigration policies of George W. Bush’s and William J. Clinton’s administrations. The blending of Western themes and Eastern craft techniques reflects the transitory nature of the refugees’ status for many were scattered in detention centers across the northeast.
The Golden Venture paper works were given to attorneys and supporters who fought on behalf of the detainees. Detainees, old and young, produced paper sculptures that served as both markers of alterity and expressions of self. By reviving the craft of paper folding, the detainees steadfastly applied a technique associated with their homeland and their culture, simultaneously demonstrating their personal connections to China and their hopes to begin a new home in the States. The elaborate materiality of the papers sculpture speaks to the intensive level of craft production, a metaphor for the labor-intensive employment many detainees expected upon arrival in America. This essay examines issues of transmission (cultural and artistic); the communal and individual agency of the disenfranchised; and the importance of gift giving across cultures of this group who were caught in the political redtape of shifting immigration policy. Left to languish in detention centers with an unknown timetable, the Golden Venture refugees turned to a basic folk technique to express their deepest fears, anxiety, and hope.