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.

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How does this generational conflict relate to the “composite portraits” you discovered while doing background research for this opera? Why were these collages such important symbols?

Catherine Filloux: The portraits are in the Museum of Chinese in the Americas and as soon as I saw them I was really blown away by the fact that people would go out of their way to cut and paste and create these. I was further impressed by the fact that these portraits exist not only in Chinese culture but in several other cultures as well. Ellis Island had an exhibit that showed different types of portraits of this kind and they just seemed to embody the incredible attempt to let people float across oceans so that they could all be in the same photograph.

Jason Hwang: Also, let me address a question which your readers may have. When I was in the process of looking for a librettist I had spoken to a lot of Asian American playwrights. The librettist and I had to be aesthetically compatible and share an emotional commitment to the work. I was surprised by the number of Asian American writers who had no interest in the subject of Chinatown. Ethnicity and identity can be complex.

Jean Randich: I think the composite family portrait that unites on paper people who might never again be united in the flesh is a powerful metaphor for the act of memory, theater, and creation itself. Why do we picture certain people we are fond of always in the same way? Why do we continue to desire and imagine certain things we may never attain? The beauty of the cut and pasted photograph in The Floating Box is that it was once the handiwork of the mother who has since become a shut-in. Once she had the strength and courage to create iconic images to help uprooted immigrants sustain their dreams. The imagination and spirit are always there, waiting for us. But we must make the effort to summon them. Eva [the opera's main character] must also learn to cut and paste if she is to piece together a more comprehensive picture of who her parents are and who she can be.

Why is opera an appropriate medium to articulate the story of The Floating Box?

Jason Hwang: We call The Floating Box an opera but there are hybrid elements to this work. The orchestra is an untraditional ensemble. Flutes, clarinets, vibraphone, world percussion (including Chinese opera percussion), accordion and cello with the Chinese pipa and erhu create an evocative sound, expressing both the physical and psychological landscape of the story. Through this combinaton of European and Chinese instruments, the score has a "world" music dimension. I am fortunate to have Wang Guo Wei (erhu), Min Xiao Fen (pipa), William Schimmel (accordion), Satoshi Takeishi (percussion), Thomas Ulrich (cello), Diana Herold (vibraphone), and the rest of the orchestra, who are all outstanding musicians, playing my music. One reason why I composed for traditional opera singers is that they have the technical skills to sing the music I wished to compose. Soprano Sandia Ang, mezzo Makiko Narumi and baritone Zheng Zhou form our stellar cast. I have them singing in a "contemporary" style which will include passages influenced by jazz, blues and Chinese opera.

It was also my experience as a violinst in the jazz/new music improvisation scene that stirred my interest in operatic voices. I had performed in Butch Morris's Modette of which an early version featured an operatic baritone. I also performed in Henry Threadgill's oratorio Run Silent, Run Deep at BAM and in Anthony Braxton's operas created under his MacArthur grant. I didn't play with Anthony Davis, but am inspired by his groundbreaking opera, X. My approach to opera is through these experiences, which is not the usual path.

Finally, our opera is a story full of intimate gestures, not the broad strokes of grand opera. The music is composed to fulfill this story, not provide a platform for operatic performance. The Floating Box is perhaps opera approaching theater.

Has jazz been much of an influence on instrumentation? Jason, much of your work in the past has often been characterized by improvisation. Does this opera include any improvisation?

Jason Hwang: Improvisation informs the language and structure of my music. What I hear and how I listen is drawn from my many years as an improvisational/ "jazz" violinist. Improvisation is the inspired moment in which sound is created. So my score is a stream of such moments written down. With exceptions in the percussion part, this music was completely and precisely composed. It is the right approach to this story.

As for jazz influences, having played with Butch Morris throughout the 1980s in his creative ensembles was a great orchestration lesson. Performing in Dr. Makanda MacIntyre's jazz orchestra for three years influenced my rhythmic language. I have worked with many creative artists, like Butch, Makanda, and Reggie Workman, who were unconcerned with fulfilling the narrow notions of genre, even if the public considers them "jazz" artists. I don't think that word, especially by today's definitions, can embrace the breadth of their visions. The ideas of "jazz" influenced me less than the people I have been fortunate enough to know.

In addition to jazz, the score draws upon blues, rock, impressionism, minimalism and nature. As the story is told, the music ranges from moments of great delicacy to brutal rhythmic power. Four mallets on the vibraphone along with two hands on the accordion, gives this octet a huge sound when called for.

Catherine, I know this project is very similar to the Cambodian projects you’ve worked on, but how does it differ?

Catherine Filloux: Mostly the fact that it is an opera is different. I think that language is music. What better thing to do with language than to make music with it? I think it’s permitted a poetic language that grew out of the experience.

How do you think The Floating Box will be received by the people of Chinatown?

Jason Hwang: There will be the inspiration of seeing a reflection of themselves on-stage. In the story will be their stories; in the music, their sound. The opera may have this personal impact upon this specific community. But the work is intended for, and can be appreciated by, all people.

The opera may spark healthy discussions regarding the representation of Chinatown. There is an anxiety out there grappling with what is right and more fundamentally, who we are.

First, Chinatown is not only Chinese America. Our opera is about a Chinese American family, however there are many ethnicities living in Chinatown. The title of our story is purposefully singular.

There are elements of Chinese music in the score, but the vernacular from many other musical traditions, including European, are also present. What should the music and sound of the Asian American experience be? Which tools of composition are being employed and for what purpose? How does this differ from "Orientalist" compositions? I believe this is less a question of form than of content, spirit and heart. It is a question of intent. We aspire to create a truthful art, not an exotic experience. This opera aspires to give and express, not take and exploit.

Catherine Filloux: I think it’s also interesting because America is made up of towns. It’s remarkable that a place like Chinatown exists in America, but there are also areas in the Bronx, for example, that are full of Dominican people and make up a kind of town. The Floating Box is a story about America. I also think Jason was quite passionate about the idea of stereotypes that have been presented about Chinatown. When you think about Chinatown the movie, which is considered to be a classic, what does it really have to do with Chinatown? The Floating Box is different.

Jason Hwang: I agree. The Floating Box is a story of a Chinese American family which resonates universal themes and hopefully will interest a broad audience of open minds.

If you are a parent or if you are or were a child, a story of generational conflict could be interesting. Opera lovers might find the hybridity of The Floating Box and lyrical vocal writing appealing. If you have followed my work as a jazz/new music violinist, the score might intrigue. If you love classical music, a composer independent of the conservatories could be engaging. Educators and historians might find the opera useful.

The idea of this opera began five years ago. The libretto and score has taken three years to complete. Director Jean Randich, conductor Juan Rivas, set designer Alexander Dodge, lighting designer Clifton Taylor and costume designer Linda Cho form a gifted creative team which will produce an extraordinary production. We hope many people will come to our opera this fall.

Jean Randich: In many ways, the story is Eva's coming of age tale, an unknown girl in an unknown land. Her particular land is Chinatown, but what resonates is that even though her parents' generation helped to create this place, it will grow beyond them, as she also must. All people are afraid of change, because change threatens to rip you away from the people and things you love. Language, photographs, music, stories, theater, and even opera can be meditations to help us remember what has gone before, as well as prepare us for what we must be.

Interview conducted by Michelle Caswell