Next month, H.T. Chen & Dancers presents the New York premiere of their latest work, South of Gold Mountain. This unique work tells a powerful story of immigration, civil rights, and the struggle, courage, and strength that underlie generations of Chinese American experience. The work is based on extensive research and interviews, funded by the Ford Foundation, with Chinese immigrants and their descendants throughout the southern United States. The World Dances spoke with husband and wife choreographers H.T. Chen and Dian Dong about the inspiration behind this piece, the stories they hope to convey, and the challenges and rewards of honoring history through dance. Tickets for the New York premiere, October 15-18 are available here.
What inspired you to create this piece?
We’re excited because this history that we’re covering in the new work is quite hidden, but Chinese Americans played a vital part in the building of America. It’s just finally being recognized. The U.S. Department of Labor last August issued a statement to acknowledge those who helped build the transcontinental railroad, which was long overdue! For myself, I’m fifth generation Chinese American on my mother’s side. My great grandfather came here in 1864. For many generations in my family, we always knew ourselves as a minority. There are deep, unspoken stories of the family we never asked about when we were young. I felt I needed to honor our elders by sharing their stories.
First of all, I am a new immigrant. In my country, we never really have a sense of minorities—everyone is Chinese. When I came to the United States, it was very surprising. I met a Chinese gentleman who lived in the south, and I saw he had a lot of scars. He explained that he took care of his parents’ grocery store in Mississippi when he was young. The store was looted and burned many times. He said while he was growing up, he was always beaten. Neither white nor black, the Chinese didn’t fit into a segregated community—they were just in between. The people who talked to me and shared their families’ stories were very moving and inspiring to me.
How did you approach the creative process?
Everything is a true story, but the difficulty and challenge is how to express on stage the more abstract aspects—the senses of failing or strength for example.
It’s hard to do a dance about this history because it’s so detailed and so realistic. We kept explaining that we’re not making a documentary. If you ask Picasso to do your portrait, you might be shocked at the representation at the end. In co-creating the work, we would each choreograph every other scene. H.T. would create a more abstract scene and I would do a more literal one, so that it would alternate. We brought the piece to Mississippi, Alabama, and Arizona to preview it in communities where we’d done our interviews. We were worried. If the people whose stories we’re telling didn’t didn’t approve of the work, we’d know we had missed the mark. But they loved it!
How does your work address the question of cultural identity for a diaspora community?
There are two sides of that coin. On one, like my family, there are those who came over 5 or more generations ago and have kept the ways of China, which can sometimes feel anachronistic. My grandmother lived with our family. When you have multiple generations under one roof, you really continue the ways of the old country. On the other side, sometimes in order to survive you really have to blend in. We actually have bits of oral history woven into the score. You hear someone say, “When I was growing up I never wanted to speak Chinese. I saw what happened to people who seemed too Chinese. But I really regret growing up and not knowing how to speak my own language.” Another person describes not realizing that black-eyed peas weren’t traditional Chinese food. Some of it’s funny and some of it’s really poignant. It ends on a high note, because these people are hardworking and joyous and their children became college educated and now work successfully all over the country. But the elders are left where they settled, so it’s a vanishing society.
You spoke about some of the challenges of telling actual histories through dance. What are some of the strengths of this medium for sharing these stories?
Dance really speaks a universal language. You can say things very powerfully in dance without words, and really make it poetic.
What do you hope people take away from this piece?
I think it is a celebration. No pain, no progress. If people don’t have pain they don’t understand happiness. In the end, I’m very proud of what all Chinese Americans have been through, but not only Chinese Americans—we all go through hard times. It’s not only about Chinese; it’s about humans. The work is about people.