On November 8, 2016, writer Jason Ma was finishing a grant proposal for Gold Mountain. The new musical, delving into one Asian immigrant’s experience as a railroad worker laboring on the Central Pacific Railroad, was a way for Ma to reflect on the hardships of immigration and acculturation, but also an acknowledgment of how far the United States had come in a post-Obama (and what he assumed was a pre-Clinton) era. Though the lens through which Gold Mountain may be different for him and his Gold Mountain cohorts, the story and its intention remain the same. “The imperative value of telling the universal stories of our immigrant communities has sadly become more and more self-evident as current events continue to overwhelm us,” says Ma. “Gold Mountain presents an opportunity to bring to light our shared humanity with American immigrants past, present, and future.”
Additionally, as an Asian-American artist Ma specifically wanted to tell the oft-overlooked stories of his ancestors. “It’s also my personal valentine to a traditional Chinese culture that existed for millennia,” he says.
Still, it can be a challenge to think of individual stories when rhetoric forces us to generalize and speak in terms like “the immigrant experience.” Theatre excels in the visceral portrayals of individual stories to which audiences can relate, react, and create change. The concert version of Gold Mountain will be presented October 21 at The Times Center in Manhattan by National Asian Artist Project and the Prospect Theater Company in an attempt to do just that.
In anticipation of the concert, Ma and his Gold Mountain collaborators reach out with their family stories of wild struggle and cherished traditions:
Role in Gold Mountain: Writer
Where is your family from? My father’s side of the family came from a rural farming village. My mother’s side came from the elite ruling class, but had to flee war and revolution during the Communist takeover of China.
Were you told stories about your ancestors and their home country when you were a child, or more recently? As a child we were told stories about everyday life in China—my father playing with water buffalo in his village, my mother telling us how many entire books she had to rote memorize and recite back to her teachers in school. It wasn’t until we were adults that we’d hear about hiding from Japanese soldiers during the Japanese incursion, escaping Communist forces by fleeing to Hong Kong and Taiwan.
What is one story that sticks out in your mind that speaks to their immigrant experience?
The Chinese Exclusion Act was federal law when my father came to the United States illegally as a 15-year-old in order to join my grandfather and work together in a Chinese restaurant in the Midwest. My dad and his cousin boarded a ship and came alone, just the two of them, with their fake biographies memorized along with their forged immigration papers stating that they were twin siblings. When they arrived, they were detained for days at Angel Island and questioned repeatedly by immigration officials. I can’t even begin to imagine how terrifying this must have been for these two young teenagers traveling by themselves with their futures on the line. My mother worked as a live-in nanny while she was studying at Stanford University, and she told me that she lived in a state of constant exhaustion. She’d tell me that every morning before the rest of the household was up, she’d have a cold glass of orange juice, and that it was the coldness of the juice that woke her up. She looked forward to that every day. Such a simple thing, and it breaks my heart a little to know that just a glass of juice could be such a highlight to the young woman that was to be my mother.
What is one tradition that you grew up practicing that speaks to this heritage?
When I was a child, we spoke to each other in Chinese at home, and I really treasure what little I’ve retained as time has passed. Despite how Chinese may sound to American ears, it is quite a poetic language, full of metaphor and nuance. I’ve tried to capture this aspect of the language in the writing of the piece.
Ali Ewoldt, currently Christine in The Phantom of the Opera
Role in Gold Mountain: Mei
Where is your family from? My mom grew up in the Philippines and came to New York while she was in college. Her father was a diplomat and was working for the UN and brought his wife and eight(!) children with him. My dad is from a small town in rural Illinois (his grandparents immigrated from Italy and Germany to Kansas and Iowa).
Were you told stories about your ancestors and their home country when you were a child, or more recently? Not really. We spent most of our holidays with the Filipino side, so I was always aware of Filipino traditions, game, food, etc., and certainly inherited the pride Filipinos have for their own countrymen (worshipping Lea Salonga is the biggest example from my childhood). It’s only been in the past five years or so that my mom has started to talk more about some of the cultural differences, particularly the patriarchy of Filipino culture.
What is one story that sticks out in your mind that speaks to their immigrant experience? For my mother, what her parents (and particularly her father), decided was law. She actually did not want to immigrate to the U.S., but the anti-Marcos protests she participated in on her college campus caused her father to order her to leave. (My guess is that was both because of concerns for her safety as well as concerns for his political standing.) When she arrived in New York she was told she would study accounting at Fordham University and commute from her parents’ home in Queens. End of story. When I was looking at colleges, my mom emphasized the cultural differences between our processes: I was able to choose where I went, what I studied, where I lived, etc., whereas she had to adhere to the decisions of her father, period.
What is one tradition that you grew up practicing that speaks to this heritage? We were taught to “amen” our elders and particularly our godparents: a sign of respect that involves touching your forehead to your elders’ right hand. We also played a lot of mahjong during the holidays.
Why is it important to you to be involved in Gold Mountain? Unless we are of pure Native American heritage, all of our families have immigrant experiences that relate to Gold Mountain’s story in some way. It is easy to forget about the immigrants that helped build America into the country we know, but now more than ever we need to be conscious of our history so that we can move forward together.
Alan Muraoka, currently in Off-Broadway’s Curvy Widow
Role in Gold Mountain: Director
Where is your family from? I am a fourth generation Japanese American, which in Japanese is called yonsei. My ancestors are from Okinawa.
Were you told stories about your ancestors and their home country when you were a child, or more recently? I really don’t know much about my ancestors, which is unfortunate. I know more about my maternal grandparents and their journey from the Big Island of Hawaii (where my mother was born) and their struggle to get to California. My grandfather moved first to Los Angeles alone to get work as a gardener, and then sent for my grandmother and mother after a few years. They settled in Southern California.
What is one story that sticks out in your mind that speaks to their immigrant experience? The Japanese Interment of World War II had a huge impact on both sides of my family. My father’s family was interned at Manazar Relocation Camp in Central California, and my mother’s side were sent first to the Santa Anita Racetrack, then shipped off to Heart Mountain, Wyoming. This was a very difficult time for them as you can imagine, being imprisoned by your own country. When I was young I remember stopping at Manzanar on our way to some other vacation destination. At that time there was only one small reminder of the camp: A deserted sentry hut surrounded by flat, windswept desert with the mountains looming on the horizon.
What is one tradition that you grew up practicing that speaks to this heritage? My dad belonged to a VFW troop comprised of Japanese Americans who fought in the Korea War. Every August there would be an elaborate Obon Festival, which is a Buddhist custom of honoring the spirits of one’s ancestors with lanterns, food, and a huge circle dance with taiko drums called the bon odori. We would dress in hapi coats and kimonos and dance these traditional dances that we would taught by elder members of the organization. It was my favorite celebration.
Why is it important to you to be involved in Gold Mountain? All immigrant stories that illustrate the struggle to participate in the American Experience are important, but especially right now with the rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric by our government. Events like the Japanese Internment and the Chinese building the transcontinental railroad usually only get a small paragraph in any history book. These are events that shaped history and people need to be reminded of them.
Billy Bustamante, currently in Miss Saigon
Role in Gold Mountain: Choreographer
Where is your family from? The Philippines! Pinoy Power!
What is one story that sticks out in your mind that speaks to their immigrant experience? This isn’t a story I was told but more my own experience seeing my grandparents emigrate to the U.S. Her parents came over to help with her new family (us!). My grandfather got a job in a whole new field and my grandmother ran a daycare, a small baking business and together they cobbled together a life for themselves as we grew our family.
What is one tradition that you grew up practicing that speaks to this heritage? Definitely gathering together over food. Food continues to be the common language we communicate through to show love, support, and kindness.
Why is it important to you to be involved in Gold Mountain? I’m so excited to be working on a story for Asians by Asians!
Steven Eng, co-founder of National Asian Artists Project
Role in Gold Mountain: Loong
Where is your family from? Guangdong province, China
Were you told stories about your ancestors and their home country when you were a child, or more recently? I was told stories of the difficult and poverty stricken life of the rural countryside that was endured by some family, where even the basic necessities of food and shelter could be a challenge to find. Being able to migrate to the United States was akin to winning the lottery.
What is one story that sticks out in your mind that speaks to their immigrant experience? I don’t have a specific story to offer, but a history of witnessing how hard it is to navigate a system and society where you don’t speak the language and all your waking hours are dedicated to exhausting and physically demanding work to ensure that your children don't struggle the way you do. It's a real story that I watched every day as a child.
What is one tradition that you grew up practicing that speaks to this heritage? One tradition that my father brought over from China was his dragon (lion) dancing. For many years in my youth, my family would go to Chinatown to celebrate Chinese (lunar) New Year and watch the parade wind its way through city blocks downtown. My father was often playing the large drums on the back of a flatbed truck following the dragon dancers that were visiting the local shops and warding off the evil spirits for the coming new year. I discovered that my father used to be one of the dancers. Not only that, he was also known as "father of the dragon dance" in Houston, an honor I would never have believed until I saw him interviewed on local television with the title underneath his name.
Why is it important to you to be involved in Gold Mountain? Gold Mountain tells a history that connects directly to my lineage as a first-generation American born child of Chinese immigrant parents. There aren't enough opportunities to tell this story, and to my experience, not at the caliber that I believe Jason Ma has achieved. Telling their story is a part of reclaiming their duly-owed right as contributors to the creation of these United States.