A little-known part of Chinese history, in dance performance

| 13 Oct 2015 | 12:00

It took one couple three years on multiple trips to five states--to finish creating an hour-long dance.

South of Golden Mountain, Chen Dance Center’s newsiest opus, is set to premiere Oct. 14 at New York Live Arts, bringing to the stage a nutshell of an epic of Chinese immigrants in the southern part of the U.S.

“This is an important piece to celebrate our heritage,” said Dian Dong, the associate director of Chen Dance Center. She co-choreographed the dance with her husband, H.T. Chen, the founder of the center and a recipient of the 2012 Martha Hill Dance Fund’s Mid-Career Award.

Dong is a native New Yorker whose great-great grandfather relocated to the United States in 1864; Chen was born in Shanghai, China and was raised in Taiwan. He came to the city in the 1970’s to study modern dance in the Julliard School, where he met Dong.

“I have a cross training of western dance technique and eastern Chinese dance background,” said Chen. “So I combined them together to come out with my own movement vocabulary.” A resident of Manhattan for 45 years, he has created numerous pieces about Asian Americans, including “Mott Street” in 1984 and the 2013 piece “Needle and Thread” about Chinatown’s sweatshop sewing factories.

“Once he became a naturalized citizen,” Dong explained. “Chen said this is my country, and this is my history, too.”

South of Golden Mountain is an attempt by the couple to revisit the oftentimes unspoken history of Chinese immigrants in the south. The hardships of struggling through discrimination and segregation, generation by generation, rendered the community largely silent, until today.

“When I asked my grandparents what was it like, why did you move from town to town--they didn’t want to talk,” said Dong. “They would say ‘Don’t ask these kind of questions’.” However, the couple knew too well the power of dance. “It speaks a universal language,” said Dong. “If you don’t want to talk about it, fine; let’s dance it out.”

“Gold Mountain” refers to America, when the gold rush of 1849 lured many Chinese people out of the crippling late Qing Dynasty China, by the promise of a better life. They signed contracts to work for cotton plantations and hopped onto western-bound ships.

Workers on the cotton field became the first scene of the dance. Titled “Fresh Sprout”, the scene shows Chinese laborers planting seeds on the plantation. “Chinese people did not come here to pick cotton, they came here to plant seeds for themselves,” Dian explained.

Once the seeds were planted in the country, the settled immigrants opened up grocery stores, restaurants and laundry shops, thriving in the region. Chen and his wife translated those daily scenarios into dance, accompanied by old photographs on the screen behind the dancers.

The photos were collected during their research trips to Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Arizona and Texas over the course of three years. They have interviewed hundreds of immigrants and their descendants, many in their 80’s and 90’s, including some veterans of World War II. The oral histories make up a vital part of the project. “They are vanishing populations,” said Dong. “We are proud to tell the story--if we don’t tell, soon it will all be gone.”

Dong will be playing a prototype of the Chinese immigrant mother who reoccurs as different characters throughout the dance—farmer, laundry lady, restaurateur, etc. She pairs up with her long-time partner, Renouard Gee, who plays the father. Dong choreographed this part of the piece, which is far less abstract than the rest, which borrowed Chen’s Avant Garde modern art imagination.

“The piece needs some Yin and Yang in order to be presented back to where this history belonged,” said Dong. As a fifth generation in America, Dong understands how the old immigrants feel. “They are like my uncles and aunts. In order for them to connect deeper, we’d have to do something that could hang on to it.”

Dong doesn’t really care if someone criticizes the dance’s swing between literal and abstract; or at least, less than how she cares what a 90-year-old Mississippian thinks. “If they see the piece and say that’s bullshit, that’s not our history, we will stop performing the piece.”