New York Live Arts, New York, NY
October 17, 2015

David Mead

H T Chen & Dancers in South of Gold Mountain Photo Joe Boniello

H T Chen & Dancers in South of Gold Mountain
Photo Joe Boniello

Although the Chinese community in big cities like New York is widely known about, less well-known is that fact that Chinese immigrants also settled in the southern states where they worked on cotton plantations, and helped widen the Augusta Canal and build the railroads. H. T. Chen (陳學同) admits that he has long wanted to make a work exploring the histories of the settlers, and after long research, it is finally here.

It’s not without issues, but South of Gold Mountain (金山以南) is an absorbing work on a fascinating subject. The seventy minutes or so just flew past. The title is a reference to the fact that early Chinese settlers used to refer to the US as ‘Gold Mountain’, incidentally.

Created by Chen and his wife, Dian Dong (曾佩媜), the work does not purport to tell a single story but many. In many ways it’s a tribute. Based on collected images and oral histories gathered during three years of research and travels through the deep South, it represents the collective journey of the community through struggle and hardship to acceptance and the point today where they feel free to celebrate their history and culture.

The couple take us through on a journey from arrival through the cotton fields, grocery stores, laundries, and restaurants, all accompanied by recorded reminiscences and projections of old photographs that give a good sense of time and place and remove the need for a set other than the occasional table and chair.

The dance shifts between approaches. Weakest sections are those that rely almost entirely on outright realistic movement as in the early Fresh Sprouts section where the cast use their hands to dig, scrape the soil and plant cotton seeds. And while the scenes at home and in the laundry with the lean, elegant Dian Dong and Renouard Gee as the parents, and in which their children do their schoolwork (some towns prohibited Chinese children from attending public school) and fold and play with clothes, are pleasant enough, the interest fades sooner than it should.

The Joy Young Restaurant in Birmingham, AL., inspiration for the restaurant scenes in South of Gold Mountain

The Joy Young Restaurant in Birmingham, AL., inspiration for the restaurant scenes in South of Gold Mountain
Photo courtesy H T Chen & Dancers

Better are those scenes where everyday movement and gesture is worked into the dance and one gets more of a feeling for the situation. In a grocery store, dancers are lifted as if reaching for goods on the highest shelf and struggle as if hauling heavy sacks. One of the best moments comes in a restaurant. Gee, as the cook, takes great delight in preparing a duck, a scene then repeated after a fashion using one of the female dancers as the fowl. Then, in an inspired moment, and with no little humour, the dancers depict restaurant waiters to the sound of the Dance of the Cygnets from Swan Lake – complete with a few pas de chats. Elsewhere, James Lo’s eclectic and effective score incorporates blues, traditional Chinese music, sounds from nature and even Ladysmith Black Mamzabo.

The Chinese incomers weren’t above translating cuisine and introducing things to attract the locals, of course. Simple dishes became exotic, and then there were fortune cookies – invented in America for the American market (in that sense, not unlike Chicken Tikka Masala in the UK, a supposedly Indian dish that does not exist in India) – and to which the audience were treated. And nice they were too!

Maki Shinagawa in South of Gold Mountain Photo Joe Boniello

Maki Shinagawa in South of Gold Mountain
Photo Joe Boniello

Among the near pure dance sections is an effective one set to projections of cypress bogs in which the dancers almost seem to merge with the background photo, and the uplifting finale in which the dancers appear in a riotous rainbow of colour and perform a bright, energetic dance that, maybe like the Chinese community today, is a mix of influences, East and West. “We are proud of who we are,” seems to be message.

South of Gold Mountain is very much a tribute and a celebration. While there are scenes of struggle, and some of the dance includes moments of pulling away and arms reaching out, issues of discrimination and racial tension remain rather obscured. As noted in a post-show talk, neither black nor white, the Chinese learned to be invisible – keeping themselves to themselves. During race riots, though, they became an easy target. Perhaps such topics are for another work, but it seems an opportunity missed. Comments expressing a sense of regret do appear in the spoken text that forms part of the score. “I never learned to be very Chinese,” says one person. “I never wanted to be Chinese – I saw what happened in other towns.” But none of them are not expanded upon in the dance as much as they could have been.

Works that consider the stories of immigrant communities and their collective experiences seem to be coming more to the fore; there have been a number elsewhere recently including in the UK and Singapore. Dance is certainly proving an effective means of telling those histories. So why are such works only appearing now? Perhaps there needs to be a certain distance before people become comfortable with the subject? Maybe it takes several generations to pass. Maybe only now there’s a sense that such histories could be lost. And maybe, with some of the harder issues, we are not there yet. For those topics, perhaps my fortune cookie sort of gives part of the answer: “Don’t ask, don’t say. Everything lies in silence.”

South of Gold Mountain will tour to Williamstown, MA and Houston, TX in 2016. Details will be on www.chendancecenter.org when available.