Show brings lost history to life

Updated: 2016-03-17 10:52

By LIA ZHU in San Francisco(

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A multi-media theater work titled Golden Gate will highlight the overlooked history and experiences of the early Chinese immigrants who helped build the American West. Through storytelling by local community members, the performance aims to reinvigorate a forgotten cultural heritage.

Show brings lost history to life

Story tellers rehearse for the multi-media theater piece Golden Gate, which will be premiered at Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture in San Francisco on March 18. [Provided to China Daily] 

The evening-long show, which will be premiered at Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture in San Francisco on Friday and run three days, is produced by Chinese Whispers, a community-based storytelling group dedicated to unearthing and sharing the stories of early Chinese immigrants to America.

About a quarter million Chinese came to California between 1849 and the early 1880s to work on the railroads and in the mines, agriculture, fisheries, industries and other services on the American frontier.

"But we know very little about them as individuals, as people. Who were they, these early immigrants? What else did they do? What were their stories?" said Rene Yung, artistic and founding director of Chinese Whispers.

"We have been excavating this very history and gathering forgotten stories about everyday people who helped transform the west," she said, because many of their stories were obscured or purposely erased.

Different from a traditional play, the production features nine storytellers who represent themselves, telling true stories in live performances and exchanges with the audience.

Among the nine storytellers, three are first-generation immigrants and the others are second, third or fourth generation. Coming from different walks of life, they all have had professional theatrical training and have prior acting experience.

Ford Lee, 84, tells stories of his family in San Francisco's Chinatown over three generations. Another storyteller shares the experiences of his ancestor arriving in San Francisco at age 7 as an orphan and later learning to read and write, and finally establishing his own commercial enterprise, said Yung.

Show brings lost history to life

Ford Lee (center), 84, a story teller, tells about his family in San Francisco Chinatown over three generations during a rehearsal of the multi-media theater work Golden Gate to be premiered at Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture in San Francisco on March 18. [Provided to China Daily] 

"These are the stories seldom told outside of the families. These stories have not been given voice back then or now," she said. "The Chinese have a tradition of not telling family stories to their kids, which is true now, so very little was carried down."

The production is also intended to pay tribute to the unsung heroes of the everyday, who paved the way for later generations in the land of immigrants.

Developed from five years of research including oral history interviews with community elders, the fragmentary stories of individual lives are interwoven with the larger historical context, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.

"They are amazing stories. It makes sense to put them together even if they are fragmentary," Yung said.

She wrote the scripts herself and interwove them with an original contemporary soundscape, music and projected imagery of abstract and symbolic pictures mostly taken from nature.

The multimedia approach is designed to help the story reach out to the imagination of the audience, and enhance the mood of isolation, worry and anxiety, said Yung.

A previous project by Chinese Whispers was Bay Chronicles, which retraced the overlooked history of Chinese shrimp fishing in San Francisco Bay through a series of research voyages on a replica 19th century Chinese shrimp junk and a multimedia art installation by Yung that featured sound and video captured on the voyages.