Ken Lum is the chair of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design and co-founder of the Monument Lab. Before joining Zócalo at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis for “Why Isn’t Remembering Enough to Repair?”—the third public program in our two-year events and editorial series, “How Should Societies Remember Their Sins?,” presented in partnership with the Mellon Foundation—he shared stories in the green room about art and travel, trying prime rib in Chinatown, and his new screenplay.
You’re from Vancouver. Where was your favorite place to go as a kid?
I grew up in Chinatown. At that time, it truly was an enclave. It wasn't that it was illegal for Chinese Canadians to venture beyond Chinatown. But it was just run by English expats generally, and it was a very undiverse, circumscribed world. And so we would go to Chinatown every week, basically. And then maybe a nearby park. That was the extent of it for the first, I would say, eight or nine years. And then Vancouver, like many places in the world, started to get more complicated in terms of demographics, and even in terms of license to move around.
Did you have a favorite spot in Chinatown that you'd like to go?
One place I loved to go was a place called the Hong Kong Cafe. It was a place that served Western food for Chinese Canadian citizens. And so I was introduced to like apple pie and prime rib, and so on. It was all served by our former coolies, who, when they got old, never went back to China and got a job there as waiters. So it was interesting, because temporarily speaking, you had multiple generations of people who'd been there since the 1880s. I’m of that age where I feel I was lucky enough to witness the last of the coolies.
Where are some of your favorite places to go today?
I love many places. I love teaching in Fort-de-France. I love the Caribbean. I love places like Jamaica, because there's the history of the indentured labor. And then you see the demographics of that. And the challenges of that as well, because the character of colonialization still endures in such places. I love going to places that tourists don't go to, for example, speaking about Jamaica, people go to Ocho Rios. I've never been there. I always end up in Kingston itself, where there’s no tourism because people see it as dangerous, see it as too many Jamaicans, ironically enough.
We just published a piece rethinking travel in the Instagram age, and if there’s ever a good way to travel.
I wrote for LondonArt, which was one of the first online art magazines—this is in the early ’90s. And really, maybe the first, and I wrote a kind of travel blog, which is published in my book of writings, and yeah, it's very different to do so now, which is instant publishing; instant, daily images, and so on. So I feel lucky to have been able to reflect on all these travels. When I travel, I never think about it outside of the questions of why am I here? What have I learned? What's different about this place? What's kind of wonderful? What's the same in this place? I love going to a place and then even mundane observations of seeing people that I've met before, who might be the shoe polish, or the dry cleaner, or the carpenter, you know, whatever. And I'll go back and see that same person. Sometimes I've never even met the person, I just see the same person. And I find that really kind of poignant. I like that aspect of travel. A lot of my artwork comes out of such reflections.
What’s your earliest creative memory?
Doodling. I love comic books, and did a lot of copying from comic books. That's how I learned how to draw, I guess. I never really developed it beyond a certain level. But most people say, oh, you draw, you know how to draw. And I go well, up to a point, right? I mean, I think that, if I had been taught how to draw, it’d be better.
That’s interesting because you’ve spoken before about how you’re glad you didn't have that formalism growing up, because it expanded your idea of art.
I guess I'm feeling a duality about it. Because I also think that if you have certain skills, and I have some modicum of skills, it helps you visualize very quickly. I don't have to rely on someone. I don't have to say, oh, I need to contact so and so to render it for me. I can do a sketch first. Just like that.
What’s on your fridge?
Several magnets of Scottish Terriers because our pet is a Scottish Terrier. And then a magnet of the Metropolitan Museum. My son, when he was very little, loved the museums in New York. We also have notes. Don't forget to do this. Or don't forget to, you know, something mundane. I need milk.
Are you one of those people that always remembers? Or are you the one that needs the note?
No, I generally remember. But sometimes, I also need to remember. I'm not, like, an elephant.
Where can we find you on a typical Saturday?
I don't know whether I ever have a typical Saturday. I’m quite an old dad with relatively young kids, so I always try to think about where my kids want to go. So last week, we got to New York. And then the week before that, we went to Cape May on the southern end of the Jersey Shore. It's beautiful. And then this weekend, we're going to D.C. because Monument Lab, which I co-founded as a think tank, is producing a show on the mall of temporary monuments.
I try to vary my Saturdays, even though I am a person of routines. I like to go to the same diner, I like to go to certain places. I'm glad my kids are around because I love them, but also because they force me to go, OK, what should we do that’s different? We often go to the movies, actually. I took my kids to see Monty Python and the Holy Grail—"Comedy Mondays” at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. It’s from the mid ’70s, so I saw it years ago, but they loved it. And it was packed. I just couldn’t believe it. This movie has been around for 40-plus years.
We heard you're working on a screenplay. Can you tell us about it?
I finished two screenplays and one did get picked up. It's set in 1868. It’s a travelogue. It's bracketed by nine days of travel between Astoria, Oregon, and Idaho City, during the Idaho Gold Rush. It’s the wagon train, and two of the wagons are carrying contracted laborers fresh off the boat from China. One of the wagons overturns at some point. They encounter different people. And then there's a kind of a big conflagration in the little Chinatown near Idaho City.
There’s never been a feature on Chinese laborers in the 19th century. I mean they kind of show up as glimpses in Once Upon a Time in the West or McCabe & Mrs. Miller, but they're in the background. There's never been one where they’re central characters.
Have you experienced a genuine effort to repair?
Monument Lab. That's a pretty big thing. I'm really proud of it. It's a very diverse organization. I think it's made a real difference in terms of the projects for all kinds of cities.