Pilgrimage (written by Holly Lee)

Pilgrimage (written by Holly Lee)


In the book Instant Stories Wim Wenders related a small anecdote about meeting a person in CBGB’s adjoining café in New York City:

…That was the end of the conversation. But in turning away she wrote a number on a piece of paper, next to her name ‘Annie’. “If ever you come to San Francisco, give me a call. I’m flying back out there tomorrow.” I pocketed the number and cast a shy smile at her. Fat chance…

That meeting was in 1973, and shortly, perhaps by fate brought him to San Francisco, meeting up with Annie Leibovitz, who would lead him to the open road, leaving San Francisco down the Pacific Coast to Los Angles. The whole experience must have been awe-inspiring, as it kicked off his career of making road movies - the trilogy with film titles as Alice in the Cities (74), The Wrong Move (75) and Kings of the Road (76).

I have a piece of paper, actually a name card with an address written on it by Annie, whom I encountered briefly at the Peak in Hong Kong ten years after, in 1983. In spite of her fame she was friendly, and invited me to visit her if I ever go to New York. On that mild Winter day, both of us were on assignment, she, hunting for locations for a portrait series of celebrities for America Express, and I, shooting fashion for some unknown Hong Kong export sportswear manufacturer. I was heavily pregnant, wearing a blue pullover sweatshirt with a dairy cattle printed on it. I was thinking, a future visit to New York would be great, especially getting a chance to meet Annie.

When I had that opportunity, I went by the address on her card, rang the door bell, but nobody answered. I guess I was not in luck, Annie was on the road again.

Recently I picked up Pilgrimage (2011), a book of words and photographs Annie Leibovitz worked on as a personal, restorative project. For a year, she went to places, homes of artists she loved, and people she respected, photographing interiors, and objects once belonged to them. Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Darwin, Freud, David Thoreau, Georgia O’Keeffe…she lingered in those places, trying to capture their presence in lieu of their absence. It was a project Susan Sontag and she always wanted to do together, sadly but not entirely lost, she could now focus to make up her own list.


Before reading Pilgrimage, I was reading Susan Sontag, her Project For A Trip to China. Interestingly it makes me want to write something similar. My father was in Cuba, he died there. And for years, I’ve been talking about going to Cuba, but that motivation was never strong enough. Cuba was never on the top of my list, I’d rather choose Croatia, Romania, Uzbekistan or India. The most I associate with Cuba, besides the vague image of my father, is Wim Wenders, his film and the music in Buena Vista Social Club. The film, together with the album, sparked a revival of interest in pre-revolutionary period Cuban music (30s to 50s) at end of the last century.

More or less around that time, during an interview I was asked by a Japanese newspaper about my father in Cuba, I wondered why they were interested. Frankly I had nothing to tell them, like, when further investigated about feminism they detected in my pictures, I admitted I hadn’t even thought about that issue. The feeling of a father, my father, is never there, for I have never met him, and will never be able to. I only know him as a Chinese man with business in Cuba, got a bride in Hong Kong, and as 1952 closing in and prompting his return, he sailed en route from Osaka, back to Havana. I know him as a merchant turned soldier. Among the few photographs I have of my father, I found this one with him talking and dinning with some other people who looked like soldiers. He looked comfortable and totally blend in. Now Susan talked about her father in China, suddenly, I feel, once upon a time I had a father, he lived in Cuba.

A friend was there a couple of years ago, she offered to do some research, but to no avail. Perhaps I could ask another friend Steven, who vacations Havana almost every Summer. Perhaps I could just fly there, with my father’s letters and photographs. If all else fails, I could still write, Project For A Trip to Cuba.

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