Star-Bulletin Features

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Lee Chen, second from left, learns from Washington
Intermediate students, from left, Rachel Nicolas,
Jenny Athayasai and Tiffany Calaro.

Uncovering her
‘hana buttah days’

Actress goes back to school
to learn to live her role

By Nadine Kam
Assistant Features Editor

In Mrs. Pottenger's class at Washington Intermediate, Lee Chen is talking up a storm and the teacher is letting her go on and on about her experience walking to class.

Chen's friend, an immigrant student from Hong Kong, had gotten fed up at being teased by boys between classes. "Stop it!" the friend yelled before unleashing a kick into one of the pests' butts, Jackie Chan-style.

Now Chen is getting a laugh out of it, and so are her classmates, who can identify with the tale, even if they are 20 years her junior.

In just a few days on the campus, Chen, a student of drama at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, has learned what "hana buttah days" are all about.

Ah, those slippery, problematic hana buttah days of youth. So many adults recall school days with fondness, one would think they all suffer from amnesia. Kids know the fun and frivolity often comes in direct proportion to the pain and anguish of trying to fit in, trying to be cool. At least some of the fun for one kid comes at the expense of another.

To fulfill requirements for her M.F.A. in youth theater, Chen is helping to re-stage Kennedy Theatre's "Bye Bye, Hana Buttah Days," which opens Saturday. The musical-comedy was written by students in the UHM Youth Theatre Program and first presented in 1990. Almost every ethnic group was represented, but there was no immigrant student, a serious omission given Hawaii's position as a port of entry for people from Asia and the Pacific.

So Chen is creating the role. For research, she first had to experience intermediate school. Hailing from China, she had no experience in American schools below the university level.

She didn't have any experience in Chinese schools, either.

"I grew up during the tail end of the Cultural Revolution, so I was part of Chairman Mao's Propaganda Performing Team," she said.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Lee Chen gets a "make ovah" from her classmates,
from left, Stephanie Sanchez, Emily Beth Grush
and Natalie Mihana McKinney.

"Because of the revolution, we didn't study, but our training was very strict. We were sent to a farm in inner Mongolia and we were trained to be farmers, workers. We learned to shoot guns. It was totally structured, very disciplined."

Chen toured the country until 1976, from age 6 to 13, praising the Communist regime.

"I didn't know there was a political reason for it. I just loved the dancing and reciting the poetry: "Chairman Mao you liberated our country. We love you. Long live Chairman Mao.

"Imagine being a school kid and not having to go to school. You just go have fun."

Although her education wasn't what Americans would call traditional, Chen said it has served her well. "I was trained to perform in front of everybody without being scared, and whatever I wanted to do after that, I strived for success."

The confident Chen wasn't about to allow her character to be a victim or loser. "I wanted to avoid the stereotypical immigrant who's seen as quiet and shy. I wrote the character to have no self-esteem problems. Her parents are intellectuals, professors.

"She knows English. In fact, when she comes to Hawaii she's upset because she doesn't understand anyone. They're all talking pidgin!"

Chen's character is already accepted by her classmates. But because she dresses funny, they bring her cool threads to change into. This is based on a real student whose parents dressed him in attention-grabbing formal shirtsleeves buttoned to the collar -- the exact wrong thing to wear to school in Hawaii. The boy would bring a change of clothes for classes, changing back to his parent-approved wardrobe by day's end.

"It's sad, but the parents don't know," Chen said.

The pidgin bit, too, is based on Chen's experience moving to Hawaii three years ago. Although she had earned her M.A. in cross-cultural education at New Mexico State University and been active in Chicago theater after leaving China in 1987, she said, "When I came to Hawaii I wanted to leave.

"I didn't understand one word of pidgin. In New Mexico, in Chicago, I was always the only Asian, so if I didn't understand something, I could be excused.

"Here, I looked like everybody, but I felt so foreign."

Also, because she is outgoing, she dashed the mystique of the "demure" Chinese woman. "I made at least one local boy scared. Everyone here is so mellow. I come across as pushy and loud."

But Chen has found that assimilation doesn't take long, especially when it comes to the stage.

Although she still complains about the slow pace of Hawaii's theater scene, she teaches beginning acting at the UH and is an instructor for HTY's "Imagine" program. She'll put on a one-woman show about her experiences in China at the Bankoh Talk Story Festival later this month and is translating and training for a Kennedy Theatre Peking Opera presentation in February.

Chen's young Hong Kong friend -- after two years in Hawaii -- is not doing so bad herself. "She's so cool," Chen said. "She goes, 'I didn't bring my math book today. It's too heavy.' "

Bye Bye, Hana Buttah Days

Tamara Hunt directs students in the UH Youth Theatre Program:
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 9-11 and 16-17; and 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 19
Place: Kennedy Theatre
Tickets: $8-$10; $3 for UHM students.
Call: 956-7655

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