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Interview: Meet the Creative Team Behind 'The Floating Box: A Story in Chinatown'

NEW YORK, October 2001 — As part of an inaugural season celebrating the opening of the new Asia Society and Museum, Asia Society, in collaboration with Museum of Chinese in the Americas and Music from China, will present a groundbreaking new opera, The Floating Box: A Story in Chinatown, with music by Jason Kao Hwang, libretto by Catherine Filloux, and direction by Jean Randich. Inspired by oral histories taken in New York's Chinatown, the opera is the culminating work of Hwang's three-year residency supported by a Meet the Composer/New Residencies grant.

Asia Society spoke with the group at Asia Society's New York office.

I want to start off talking about the origins of The Floating Box. How did this project begin and how did each of you become involved?

Jason Hwang: The opera was initiated by the Meet the Composer/New Residencies program. In New Residencies, a composer collaborates with partnership organizations to create works which impact that community. With Music From China, the Museum of Chinese in the Americas and Asia Society as the lead organizations, I worked in the community of New York City's Chinatown for three years. Education was an important component to the residency. Music From China and I worked with the 3rd graders of PS102 in conjunction with Asia Society's Annenberg program. I also led the Student Advisory Committee at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas, a great group of high school kids, for one year. This opera is the culminating work of the residency. The opera began with the musical act of listening. To create music of the community, we listened to the community via oral histories. Catherine Filloux had written several plays about Cambodian people which were drawn from her experiences teaching ESL to immigrants in the Bronx. With her personal identification with the immigrant experience and ability to create original dramas from oral histories, Catherine was an ideal collaborator for this opera.

Catherine Filloux: Jason’s interest was in doing oral histories of the community and then taking that oral history and distilling it into a fictitious story for the opera. Really it had a lot to do with our own stories: Jason’s story being a Chinese American and to a certain degree, my work with oral histories in the Bronx with a group of Cambodian women that had fueled two plays that I had written. Also my experience as an immigrant having learned French as a first language and trying to integrate into American society as a child was relevant.

Jean, how did you get involved with The Floating Box?

Jean Randich: They were looking for a director and I came in for a couple of interviews. I had read the libretto and responded to the story of what is lost and what remains when a family journeys across oceans, languages, and decades. I described to Jason and Catherine the images that cropped up in my imagination. We spoke of scrims of projected images of family photos, dissolving into nothing, like the erhu swallowed by the sea [in The Floating Box] . I first came on as a dramaturg working on story development and editing. Then I staged a reading of the libretto with actors at New Dramatists.

Can you speak a little about the interviews you conducted in Chinatown in preparation for The Floating Box? What did you discover during these interviews that surprised you and how were they incorporated into the opera? Why was it important for you to include these personal histories in The Floating Box?

Jason Hwang: We were stunned by how many of the people we recorded shared their family's history with such emotion and honesty. The recordings became a medium through which they honored their past. The Floating Box, A Story in Chinatown has given them voice by weaving elements of their lives into this original story. Catherine's mother is from Algeria and her father from France. There are many aspects of her life which bond her to the experiences of this community, to the characters in this opera. My parents arrived in the U.S. from Hunan in the 1940s. My wife's family arrived in NYC's Chinatown from Hong Kong in 1970 and still reside there.

The libretto was created in close collaboration with Catherine, and later, with director Jean Randich, who made invaluable contributions.

Catherine Filloux: Jason had a list of a group of people to interview that seemed carefully culled in the sense that they weren’t just strangers. I think there must have been an initial trust factor that came from people knowing Jason and his wife Gennevieve. We were so surprised at the way people would sit down and start to share their incredibly deep emotions with us. There were so many themes that kept on coming back such as staying inside, not learning the language, providing for the children so that the next generation could have something that the generation before didn’t, and those particular themes were so gut-wrenching. People would cry and really move us so that by the end of the oral histories that we heard we felt very privileged to have partaken in them. These experiences made me all the more interested in capturing the community that I was writing about.

Did you interview mostly older people?

Jason Hwang: It was a cross-section of the population. We mainly spoke to first or second generation [immigrants] who spoke English, but we also went to a senior citizen center and Susan Cheng from Music From China translated for us. Also concurrent with the 40 hours of oral history we recorded was my work with the high school kids at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas. We created a CD installation which included their personal poetry and oral histories — what went on in the playgrounds, in the classroom and after school — and we also recorded a song. They loved overdubbing vocals to rhythm tracks I composed. We did not draw from the [kids'] oral histories in [The Floating Box] story, but their CD certainly gave us another vivid perspective of the characters .

One of the themes of both the CD you recorded with the kids from the Museum of the Chinese in the Americas and The Floating Box is generational conflict, and how the differences between generations are further exacerbated by the immigration experience. Why was this an important issue for you to address?

Jason Hwang: It's common for young immigrants or for the American-born children of immigrants, like me, to know very little about the lives of our parents in China. Language, of course, is a huge wall. I don't speak Chinese. There were only two Chinese families in the town I grew up in, and during that era of the "melting pot," bilingual education was unheard of. My parents spoke excellent English, but it was a second language. My wife communicates to her parents only with her limited Cantonese. Generational differences and change are important themes.

Catherine Filloux: There’s a sense of this "other place" with the older generation coming from somewhere else that immediately becomes something to push against emotionally. Sometimes I find a sense of having to respect parents in a way that makes it difficult to see who the real person behind that figurehead is. So those are two themes.

Video: Excerpt from The Floating Box (2 min., 29 sec.)