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‘Golden Gate’ reveals untold stories of Chinese immigrants

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From left, Ford Lee and Earlena Somera-Ramsey appear in “Golden Gate,” a performance based on interviews with Chinese people who immigrated to America. (Courtesy Lisa Strong)

Thousands of Chinese helped build the American West, but their personal stories are barely known outside their own families.

“Golden Gate,” a multimedia theater work that celebrates its world premiere at Fort Mason’s Southside Theater this weekend, hopes to change that.

Presented by the nonprofit Chinese Whispers, the groundbreaking performance piece aims to expand awareness of the important contributions that history books have largely ignored.

“From the time of the Gold Rush through the end of the 19th century, over a quarter million Chinese came to work on the railroads, in mining, agriculture, fisheries, industries and various enterprises of the West,” says Rene Yung, founder and director of Chinese Whispers. “But there’s hardly any mention of them as individuals in America’s national narrative.”

The performance of interwoven stories is based on interviews conducted by Yung and a team of historians and artists with residents from the Sierra Nevada foothills to the San Francisco Bay.

Yung, who wrote and directed “Golden Gate,” says she was astonished to learn how much the historical stories were influenced by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The law prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers and prevented Chinese who had already arrived and put down roots from becoming U.S. citizens.

Some stories were lost as people moved in search of jobs. Others were never passed along to children and grandchildren by parents who wanted their children to assimilate.

“Golden Gate” is performed by nine actors, who range in age from 32 to 84. All are immigrants or descendants from immigrants.

“These stories that they are telling have intense meaning for themselves,” says Yung, who emigrated from Hong Kong.

One story touches on the arrival of six junks that set sail from the same village. Only three of the boats made it safely to the California coast.

The set is spare, and there are no period costumes. The ancient sailing ships, for example, are represented on stage by six shoes.

“Golden Gate” includes contemporary stories as well. Yung has held storytelling workshops at the YMCA in San Francisco’s Chinatown and heard the experiences of newly arrived immigrants.

“My aim has been to create a ritualized space to honor the past,” says Yung, “to invoke the spirit of the ancestors who paved the way, and to honor the spirit of the immigrants who continue that journey today.”

“Golden Gate” includes an original soundscape by Jeremiah Moore and lighting and projection design by Stephanie Anne Johnson.

“We hope, first of all, that people will learn a good deal,” Yung says. “I want the audience’s imagination to come to life as they hear these stories come to life.”

IF YOU GO
Golden Gate
Presented by Chinese Whispers
When: 8 p.m. March 18-19, 8 p.m. 2 p.m. March 20
Where: Southside Theater, Fort Mason, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, S.F.
Tickets: $20 to $25
Contact: (415) 345-7575, www.fortmason.org

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