FOLD: Golden Venture Paper Sculptures by Chantal McStay

From a tragic shipwreck to an epic, collective political art project.

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Eagle (Fly to Freedom), 1995. Folded magazine pages, cardboard, papier-mâché, liquid glue and colored marker. Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Collections.

On June 6, 1993, the Golden Venture, a cargo ship containing 286 undocumented immigrants from China, ran aground in Queens, New York, following a mutiny among their smugglers. Ten people drowned trying to escape the stranded ship. This brutal scene and the mythos surrounding Sister Ping and other snakehead gangsters behind the disastrous trip became a kind of shorthand in the popular imagination for the horrors of smuggling and human trafficking in East Asia, one that was co-opted in the media at the time in relation to the first World Trade Center attack in 1993 and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 to stir resentment and fear about border security. It was even used as the basis for the opening sequence of Lethal Weapon 4.

Less talked about are the hardships faced by survivors of the Golden Venture after arriving in the United States, where many spent years in immigration prison seeking asylum. While there, they engaged in an epic collective political art project, making more than 10,000 sculptures using Chinese paper folding, papier-mâché, and found materials. These Golden Venture survivors were the first large group of detainees held indefinitely in the United States while their asylum cases were pending. They were made an example as part of a larger crackdown by the Clinton administration on smuggling. The last fifty-three were paroled in 1997, but were not awarded legal status. Additional legislation, such as the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act and the post-9/11 restructuring of immigration enforcement agencies, has led to further increases in immigrants in prison.

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Birthday cake (Happy Birthday Golden Venture 1995), 1995. Rolled colored paper, cardboard, thread, liquid glue, papier-mâché and colored marker. Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Collections. 

The exhibition FOLD: Golden Venture Paper Sculptures at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) displays forty of the sculptures. They sit poised on one side of the room, bookended by two seven-tiered pagodas; their position, lined up facing the viewer, gives them a sense of agency in the space. They feature familiar imagery—birds, ships, flowers, crosses, pineapples—but often juxtaposed in ways that generate striking hybrids. Traditional Chinese motifs mingle with idealized Americana. For example, a Buddha in Lady Liberty’s robes captures a state of duality, of being between two places. An eagle-like bird in a cage subverts another classic American image. The numerous boats evoke affection for the seafaring culture of Fujian province, where many of the immigrants originated, as well as the cruel conditions and tumultuous journey they endured packed on the smuggling ship. This mixture of signifiers reflects simultaneously homesickness and the yearning for a new home. It also finds the detainees playing with their expectations for life in the United States versus their actual experiences as prisoners. Detainees cited persecution under the one-child policy and for their pro-democracy leanings among the reasons they were seeking asylum in the United States. The sculptures were made as gifts for people who helped their cause, including judges (who could not legally accept them). This exhibition draws on the personal collection of Joan Maruskin, a Methodist minister and founder of the People of the Golden Vision, a small, diverse group of activists, including ACLU members and pro-life advocates against the one-child policy, who fought for the Golden Venture passengers.

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Lantern, 1996. Folded legal pad paper, gold foil, thread, plastic beads, liquid glue, papier-mâché and colored marker. Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Collections.  

The sculptures are painstakingly intricate, consisting of many tiny interlinking pieces, just as the individual lives of their creators were impacted by sweeping policies. One piece even makes this metaphor explicit: a large, white-lidded vessel with contributions from each prisoner at York County, where the bulk of the detainees were held in Pennsylvania. Moved outside of New York City where they had landed in order to cut costs, the Golden Venture passengers were given translators who did not speak their Fujian dialect and lawyers with little experience in immigration law, who had to take crash courses from the bar on how to file for asylum.   

These works demonstrate the ability to improvise and make something out of nothing. They are beautiful objects made of the simple materials available. The detainees used plastic cutlery from the cafeteria for tools. The papier-mâché was made using toilet paper. For folding paper, they drew from legal pads provided by their pro bono lawyers. The fibers for the fringe on an intricate lantern were pulled from prison towels. 

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Vessel with lid and two dragons. Folded magazine pages and legal pad paper, cardboard, papier-mâché, liquid glue and colored marker. Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Collections.

Installed behind the sculptures at MOCA are photos from an ongoing project by Katja Heinemann that documents the present-day lives of several detainees. In the intervening years, they have started families and opened businesses in the United States, often in the restaurant industry. A diptych of landscape views of York Country Prison’s immigration detention wing is stitched together to create a not-quite panorama of the guarded, monolithic structure. Moisture covers the lens. Heinemann’s photographs are full of motion and repetition, of time passing and the accumulation of sameness. One is of a former detainee’s family restaurant: his wife peels onions, and his daughter plays paddleball with cardboard from the bottom of a takeout bag and a crumpled ball of plastic wrap. “I hate this work,” the man reflects, “Every day, the same. Eleven years. Twelve hours a day. Seven days a week. Then I get up the next morning, and do the same things all over again. It’s the only work I can do.”

Built into the Golden Venture sculptures is the time spent making them—time spent filling idle hours. The project embodies detainment: waiting. It also speaks to the collective effort and workshop atmosphere among the makers. They demonstrate durational engagement, a commitment to keep making, to keep constructing until freedom is granted.

FOLD: Golden Venture Paper Sculptures is on display at the Museum of Chinese in America until March 25. 

Chantal McStay is BOMB’s Associate Editor. 

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