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The Asian-American Story - In Dance

  • Ira Mellman

The modern American choreography of H.T. Chen is partly classical ballet, partly traditional Asian dance. But it is also something new and different, and it serves to tell the history of Asians in America.

"Mr. Chen's background is in Chinese dance, Chinese opera movements as well as modern dance and ballet," said Chen's wife, Dian Dong. "He choreographs using his imagination, but you can't free yourself of your cultural roots, it's always there.”

“The movement has a Chinese feel to it, but it's contemporary,” said Dong, who organizes and designs the educational programs for the Chen Dance Center, located in New York’s Chinatown community.

Chen began creating works about the Chinese-American experience when he immigrated to the United States.

“He said this is my country and their story is my story too. I share this history," his wife explained.

Chen's works include works derived from the experiences of Chinese immigrants arriving at San Francisco's Angel Island immigration station, working in America's west in the mines and on the railroads, serving as strike breakers in Massachusetts or participating in civil rights demonstrations.

Needle and Thread

In New York's Chinatown, members of the Chen Dance Center are rehearsing one of Chen’s recent works, “Needle and Thread.”


It tells the story of Chinese-Americans in Manhattan's Chinatown sewing factories - sweatshops where migrant workers were subjected to hazardous working conditions and abusive practices. Most of the sewing factories were located on Mott Street, a short distance from the Chen Dance Center.

"The sewing factories were a main industry in Chinatown for thirty or forty years,” Dong explained. “Everyone had their shop here from Calvin Klein to DKNY. I think Chinatown and New York City had over six hundred sewing factories before the 9/11. Now, I think you can count them on one hand."

"The provided a livelihood for the residents really gave the working class an opportunity to become middle class," said Dong.

The era came to an end with the September 2001 terrorist attack. The emergency cut-off the nearby community from pedestrian, vehicular, subway and telephone access to the residential community, effectively driving it to economic ruin.

The score for “Need and Thread” was written by composer Charlie Chin. It includes lyrics spoken by the performers as they dance. Dong said the lyrics came from Chin’s interviews with the dancers themselves.

“He asked us, ‘Tell me what your parents do. What do they talk about?,’” said Dong.

“They work in a sewing factory” was their answer. And from those stories Chin created the lyrics that the dancers sing a cappella. Their movement and words are accompanied by the whir of a sewing machine.

Completing the History

"Needle and Thread" is but one portion of an overall historical work by H.T. Chen entitled "Digging for Gold." The choice of that title comes from the draw of California's gold fields for the first wave of Chinese immigrants.

“This story that we tell through dance talks about Chinese miners, those who built the railroads, and those who worked in the garment factories in Chinatown,” said Dong. “ It really talks about their journey and how they helped build America.”

Dong says her husband has not completed his history of America's Chinese immigrants. In 2014, Dong said Chin plans to premier his final piece, which deals with the history of Chinese immigrants in America’s South.
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