Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, February 15, 1999

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin

her past

Actor Lee Chen talks about growing up
in Communist China as a member of its
Propaganda Performance Troupe
and her life in the United States

By Nadine Kam
Star-Bulletin Features Editor


POLITICAL correctness disappears when Lee Chen takes the stage. Her eyes gleam, her voice raises in pitch, and suddenly the actress is a 6 year old again, learning for the first time the power of her voice and the strength of her body as she performs in the name of Communist Chairman Mao Zedong.

"I loved singing, dancing and reciting poetry -- 'I love you Chairman Mao. You are a great man. You are the savior of our country!'

"Everybody in this country thinks the Cultural Revolution was bad. It's true that it brought turmoil to China. But my experience growing up there was as a kid. I didn't know there was a political reason for our performances. I only knew I didn't have to go to school. The training I received gave me discipline that helped me to perform in America."

Chen recounts her adventures as a child growing up in Mongolia as a member of Mao's Propaganda Performance Troupe in the '60s and her adjustment to life in America in an original one-woman performance, "Life Flies," being performed at local schools. Her drama was taped for airing on 'Olelo in March. Next month, Chen also takes her act home to Los Angeles where she will give three performances in recognition of Women's History Month.

Through her piece, Chen -- who holds a master's of fine arts degree in youth theater from the University of Hawai'i at Manoa -- aims to promote an understanding of immigrants and the experience of Asians in America.

Chen's story is one of upheaval, confusion, perseverance and remembering one's roots -- heavy fare for her teen audiences. Yet they seem to understand. Following one performance at Castle High School, Sheena Rosario wrote, "I thought the reason for the big map that you laid on the ground was because you were looking for your father's passport, but then later I understood that you were looking for where you were, where you were going to go next, and your home."

Telling her own story didn't come easy to Chen. "When I was performing in Chicago a lot of people asked me if I wanted to get my story out, but I wasn't ready."

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
The gestures of a young revolutionary still come
natural for Lee Chen after some 30 years.

In Hawaii, she was encouraged and assisted by her drama instructor Joyce Lu. Said Chen, "Joyce was born in Seattle. I grew up in Mongolia. She could understand me in some ways, but in other ways she couldn't. She had a better concept of conveying the story to American audiences."

When Chen performed "Life Flies" the first few times, she wasn't prepared for the memories that came back to her. "It was much harder than portraying a character that you can walk away from," she said.

"Some things I felt I had gotten over. I have no regrets about my childhood, but I got letters from students saying, 'I'm sorry about what happened to your marriage.'

"My marriage didn't work out. I didn't have time to dwell about that when it happened, but I do believe it's important to have love in one's life, so I found going through it again was very emotionally draining. After the first few performances I just had to go home and go to sleep.

"I'm still sad that the marriage didn't work out. We went through a lot of trouble to get married."

The trouble included visits from the Communist party secretary, when the party learned of her dalliance with an American professor in the mid-'80s.

"They said, 'How could you fall in love with the foreign devil? Don't you know they're our enemies? You cannot trust them."

Chen, who needed party permission to marry, found herself torn between party doctrine and her own belief in the goodness of individuals. "I said, 'But he's a human being!' They always said he's a spy; he's trying to get information from you."

The couple finally did marry and moved to Chicago, where Chen became active in teaching and community theater, performing with Lifeline Theatre, Bailiwich Repertory, and Angel Island Asian-American Theatre.

Between her busy schedule and her husband's writing and teaching, they rarely saw each other, and divorced after five years.

By virtue of her American citizenship, however, she was able to bring her parents to Monterey Park, Calif., where they now live together in a large Chinese-speaking community.

Chen also staged her show for children at the Immigration Center here, and said, "They could relate because they have parents who don't speak English. When you parents don't speak English, you have to help them with everything. You become the parent.

"But I tell them it is a mutual obligation. They helped take care of you when you were growing up, so now you must take care of them. You will have setbacks, but you get up and keep trying. My grandmother always told me, 'Grow wings. Fly high in life.' "

For Chen, that means she isn't sitting around, moping about the lack of roles for Asians. She just signed with two agents in L.A., one for TV and one for commercials, but she says, "I'm doing my own things, more serious drama. The stage is still my primary love."

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