Curious Journalist

A Forgotten Narrative

Modern Dance Concert Highlights History

of Chinese Immigrants in the South

Posted by Laura Latzko on March 27, 2015

Event Details:                                                                                                               South of Gold Mountain  

March 27 and 28  

7:30 p.m.  

Tempe Center for the Arts  

700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe  

$18 adult tickets, $15 senior tickets, $13 student tickets, $12 for groups of 10 or more,  $10 Friends of Desert Dance Theatre


Photo Credit: Joe Boniello

For Lisa Chow, the artistic director and choreographer for Desert Dance Theatre, the production has a very personal meaning. Chow grew up in Greenville, Miss., and her grandfather came to the United States at the turn of the century to open up a grocery store with men from his village.  

“They had to make enough money to bring the whole family over because of course back then, only one person could come over at a time. So they worked really hard to raise a lot of money to bring each of their family members over from China to work in the store and keep the business open,” Chow said.  

A picture of her grandfather’s store is part of the video slide show for “South of Gold Mountain.”

“Basically, the story is about my family, not a literal story but everybody has a similar experience from those times,” said Chow, who portrays a mother character in the production.

On Friday and Saturday following the performances, post-show Q&A sessions give audiences a chance to ask more about life in the South for Chinese-Americans.

Lecturers will include “Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton: Lives of the Mississippi Delta Chinese Grocers” author John Jung, former Arizona State Representative and former Arizona Corporate Commissioner Barry Wong, ASU Asian Pacific American Studies professor Dr. Wei Li and former Chinese American Citizens Alliance National President Carolyn Hong Chan. 

Photo Courtesy of Desert Dance Theatre

Before putting together the show, Chen and Dong conducted oral history interviews in the South for two-and-a-half years.  

Through their research, they found that many families in the South have been living in the country for five or six generations. The population of Chinese-Americans in the South has been diminishing in recent years, as young people have moved to larger cities.  

In Southern states such as Mississippi, the closing of commissary stores led Chinese immigrants to open up grocery stores. It started when they would write home and have their relatives send them food, and other field workers began going to them for supplies.

Dong said during oral interviews, many people held back at first, but they started telling their stories after she talked to them in her family’s mother tongue.  

“Once they heard me say a few phrases, they opened up their home. They made us cancel our hotel reservations. They opened their homes and their photograph albums to us. They called over the neighbors, and they came running over to meet us, and they shared stories. It was an incredible outpouring from the community. They wanted us to hear their stories,” Dong said.                                        

Many of the interviewees had grown up in the South during the time leading up to World War II, and their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents had come over to the United States to work as indentured servants in the fields following the American Civil War.  

The show highlights how Chinese immigrants and their families preserved their cultural heritage in the South while also adapting to the ways of their new home.  

“The beauty inside this society is they survived by holding onto their cultural traditions and also having a strong faith. They all became very religious, and they practiced. They sang Christian songs in Chinese, and they even spoke Chinese with a bit of a Southern accent,”
Dong said. 

​Photo Credit: Joe Boniello

Chen, who trained in Chinese opera movements, said in parts of the show, he used traditional Chinese dance forms, such as inverted arm movements.

The show brings to light the silent history of Chinese Americans lured to the United States from the mid-1800s to the 1940s by the California Gold Rush. Many of these immigrants were seeking a better life during the fall of the Qing Dynasty, a time of civil unrest, draught and famine in China.  

To them, America was considered “Gold Mountain. “

In 1882, around 300,000 Chinese immigrants came into the United States.

Chen said “South of Gold Mountain” teaches younger generations of Chinese Americans about their roots.

Chen, who moved from China to the United States in 1971, said the oral histories from elders in the South shaped the production and made it different from any others he has done.

Dong is a fifth-generation American. Her great-great grandfather on her mother’s side came to the United States in 1864, and her relatives on her father’s side arrived in the country in the 1870s.

“This is a hidden story because few people realize the Chinese were in the South for many generations, but it’s a real American story to see how this minority group really helped to build America despite all obstacles,” Dong said. “I think through the art of dance, audiences will be moved to learn about the integrity of these people.”  

​Photo Credit: Joe Boniello

In the South, Chinese immigrants played major roles in shaping the economy and culture, but their contributions to society have often been forgotten. 

​A new modern dance concert from H.T. Chen and Dancers, the largest Asian-American dance company in the country, chronicles the history of Chinese immigrants in America during the years following the American Civil War up until World War II. 

Dancers from the New-York-based company and Desert Dance Theatre, a local company out of Phoenix, will bring alive the stories of these immigrants and their families through modern dance during performances of “South of Gold Mountain” on March 27 and 28. 

​​The performances are part of a week-long residency by the company, which also put on master classes and lectures for dancers.

Local community members and dancers from the two companies will perform in the multi-generational dance concert.

Arizona becomes the second place to showcase the full production. The dance company premiered it in February in Mississippi, the site of the new Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum, and plans to take it to Alabama in April.  

The musical score, developed by James Lo, incorporates American blues and traditional Chinese music, children’s songs and stories in the Taishanese language and oral histories.

A video slide show with historical images of Chinese grocery stores and laundromats represents the experience of Chinese immigrations in the South pictorially. 

​Within the production, renowned choreographer and artistic director H.T. Chen used dance to represent the journey to America and daily existence of Chinese immigrants in the South during the 19th and 20th centuries.

One scene depicts homeschooled children studying in their homes, as they weren’t allowed to attend regular schools; another scene, Chinese workers toiling in the fields and other scenes, immigrants working in a laundromat, grocery store and restaurant.  

“We want to evoke not just memories in those that know this history but also the intensity of the situation and environment that these Chinese were living in. They were deeply isolated in these segregated communities. The hardships that they went through, sometimes you can’t just use words to describe,” said Dian Dong, Chen’s wife and the co-choreographer and associate director of the company. 

Photo ​Courtesy of Desert Dance Theatre