SALT LAKE CITY — When Richard Chang got a call from his agent offering him a voiceover role in Bill Moyers’ docu-series “Becoming American: The Chinese Experience,” he didn’t expect much to come out of it. However, as he read the part of Wong Chin Foo, he was “just amazed at all the history that most people don’t know about,” he told the Deseret News in a phone interview.
Chang had no idea who Wong was before doing the voiceover, but as he read Wong’s story, he immediately thought a script could come out of it. Wong was a social activist and one of the first Chinese immigrants to become a naturalized citizen. Throughout his life, he fought for Chinese rights in America, testifying before Congress against the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Chang and David Henry Hwang, two Asian American playwrights, are now giving Utah theatergoers the chance to learn the history that they didn’t learn growing up. Chang’s work “Citizen Wong” and Hwang’s play “The Dance and the Railroad” are being featured as part of Utah’s Golden Spike 150 celebration, which commemorates the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad's completion.
Finding a forgotten history
When the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific Railroad Companies first started working to connect the West and East coasts in the early 1860s, pervasive racial prejudice made foremen hesitant to hire Chinese workers. However, according to uscitizenship.info, there were around 40,000 Chinese immigrants living in the West at the time, and as the Central Pacific Railroad Company struggled to recruit workers, they turned to the Chinese population. By the end of the transcontinental railroad project, Chinese workers made up 90 percent of Central Pacific’s labor force.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Hwang became interested in Chinese American history while he was in college, but there wasn't a whole lot of scholarship available to him at the time. He was especially interested in debunking the stereotype that Asian men made good workers because they were subservient and docile, so he learned about the Chinese railroad strike of 1867, when Chinese laborers protested beatings as well as lower wages than white workers.
“The strike said to me, ‘no, these guys … actually did advocate for themselves, that they were very proactive, and they were very assertive. And whatever the outcome of the strike was, they fought for their rights,'” Hwang told the Deseret News.
Hwang, who went on to have a successful writing career that has included writing the book for the hit musical "Aida" and winning a Tony for his Broadway play “M. Butterfly," has stuck with his early fascination in Chinese American experiences for many of his plays. But it is one of his earliest — “The Dance and the Railroad,” which tells the story of two Chinese railroad laborers who bond over Chinese opera during the strike of 1867 — that the Salt Lake Acting Company will present on May 6 and 7.
“When we think of the Chinese hands that … exploded the rock, and literally laid the tracks that connected east and west of our country, to be able to bring that conversation to light, to be able to personalize it in two really wonderfully messy, complicated characters who are grappling with the cost of the American dream in the context of our show — I think that’s a really important conversation to have,” said director Billy Bustamante, who is directing this Utah production.
The play, which first opened off-Broadway in 1981, explores the beauties of traditional Chinese opera and friendship, as well as the struggles of working as an immigrant in a largely hostile country.
Hwang hoped to use these characters and their stories as a way to help his audiences realize that “the Chinese have been part of America for much longer than is in the popular American consciousness,” he said.
The stories of those who got us where we are today
While both Chang and Hwang were interested in teaching their audiences about Chinese American history, they also wanted to bring their subject's personal stories to the forefront.
"Citizen Wong" is Chang’s first work about Chinese American history, although he has written several comedies. “Citizen Wong,” which will debut in Ogden on May 7, Orem on May 8 and Salt Lake on May 9, presents a fictionalized story that draws from the historical life of Wong Chin Foo, who Chang called “a Martin Luther King, Jr. who just disappeared from history."
“I didn’t want to write a docu-drama,” Chang said. “I knew that you could write a hundred history books and people wouldn’t care. I want people to relate to (Wong) in a personal way.”
To accomplish his goal, he presents Wong in a sweeping narrative that includes interracial romance, railroad tycoons, the suffrage movement and some of Wong’s original speeches, which “are like Southern Baptist sermons — they just have that kind of musicality and the cadence,” Chang said.
And for those involved with these productions, the distance between the stories of their plays and today isn't as long as audiences might think.
“I think … the most powerful conversation that ("The Dance and the Railroad') starts is to shine a light on a time where people at the top of the cultural food chain might not have acted with the most integrity," Bustamante said. "And I feel, once again, we are at a time in our country and the world where a lot of people at the top of many food chains are not acting with integrity.”
Chang agreed. He is surprised that “Citizen Wong,” which features Wong fighting against an act that excludes certain races from immigration and the proposal of an anti-Chinese wall, seems to parallel contemporary political rhetoric.
Hwang also mentioned the modern relevance these plays have, citing “a certain amount of anxiety or scapegoating about immigration and refugees” as an important theme in “The Dance and the Railroad” and one he feels is still relevant today.
Neither play offers a complete solution, but as the country celebrates the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad, both playwrights hope their works will provide historical meditations that can give audience members insight into past, as well as current issues.
“When we look at how this country was built, it’s important to acknowledge all the people who got us where we (are) today,” Hwang said.
If you go …
What: The Salt Lake Acting Company presents "The Dance and the Railroad"
When: May 6-7, 7 p.m.
Where: Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North
How much: $20
What: “Citizen Wong” presented by Pan Asian Repertory Theatre
When: Tuesday, May 7, 6:30 p.m.
Where: 2501 Wall Avenue, Ogden
How much: Free
When: Wednesday, May 8, 7 p.m.
Where: Noorda Center for the Performing Arts, 800 West University Parkway, Orem
How much: Free
When: Thursday, May 9, 7 p.m.
Where: Salt Lake City Public Library, 210 E. 400 South
How much: Free
For a full list of Golden Spike 150 events, go to: https://spike150.org