Two months since reopening in its new Maya Lin–designed space, the Museum of Chinese in America has made no secret of its ambitions to become the national focal point for Chinese immigration and its impact on American society. That means not only sifting through history with a curator's eye, says playwright and museum trustee David Henry Hwang, but also examining the changing complexities of how US-China relations affect Chinese Americans today.
In Friday's panel The Evolving Cultural Identity of Chinese American Artists, held in conjunction with Carnegie Hall's Ancient Paths, Modern Voices, Hwang will gather composer-conductor Bright Sheng and San Francisco Chronicle "Asian pop" columnist Jeff Yang to share their perspectives.
"The Chinese American identity has become more international," says Hwang. "The movement started out saying, 'We're American, not Chinese.' We wanted to be treated as Americans, and didn't want much to do with China proper in the 1980s. That's now changed, and many more people go back and forth freely between both."
Shanghai-born Sheng, who came to the US in the 1980s, has his own perspective. "I was very angry about the Cultural Revolution and what it did to China. At the same time, I'd selfishly left the motherland behind me in search of a better life," he says. "As I began making headway here, China also began picking up. This made it more complicated: I feel happy for China's rise, even though I had no part in it."
Hwang and Sheng, whose 1997 opera The Silver River was an exploration of cross-cultural Chinese identity, have begun to re-examine that dynamic today. Shifting cultural identities has also been a frequent topic for New York–based Yang.
"Jeff and I have talked about the fact that lots of things that were negative when we were growing up have now become positive," says Hwang. "Obviously, our well-being depends on the relationship between the US and China. But what does it mean when we were trying to disassociate ourselves from China when it was poor and powerless, yet claim that we're Chinese when China is on the rise? Where's the line between personal identity and opportunism?"
Posted by Ken Smith