What often follows years of cultural assimilation for Asian-Americans and children of immigrants is a yearning to touch base with their roots; it might mean learning how to cook traditional recipes, picking up the mother tongue or simply talking to their parents with an open mind.
But for Nancy Wang — co-founding director of Eth-Noh-Tec, a nonprofit arts organization, and a fifth-generation Chinese American — the process entails a full-on investigation of a cold-case mystery surrounding her grandfather’s untimely death and dedicating a play to it.
On Sunday at Fort Mason, as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival – an 11-day program with theater, dance, performance art and music by local artists and guests from across the world — Wang, a kinetic storyteller, performed a staged reading of her new work, “Shadows & Secrets.”
In the hour-long presentation, in which she becomes various characters including her mother and grandmother, Wang compiled a dossier of scattered historical facts, newspaper clippings and memories of her late grandfather Chin F. Foin, whose demise in March 1924 was understood to be an accident. (Foin fell to his death, down the shaft of the elevator in a restaurant he owned.)
In revisiting the story, Wang became suspicious about one of Foin’s motives, something contradictory to the experience of many Asian immigrants. Foin, who gradually amassed wealth and success as a restaurateur in Chicago, was preparing his family to leave everything behind and go back to China.
“This doesn’t make sense,” said Wang, 76, a Bay Area resident and New Orleans native. “Why were they leaving in the first place? Why was [my family] leaving and my grandfather was to join them later when he was so successful?”
Further digging revealed more clues: her grandfather purchased a new building, possibly to open up a new restaurant; mounting debt; a large insurance policy; and ties with the Tong — a secret society of Chinese immigrants often tied to criminal activities and later ubiquitous in American Chinatowns.
Wang, unsure what to make of her findings, asked audience members what they think might have happened to her grandfather — murder, suicide, or accident — and for investigative “notes” on the back of the program.
While her investigation is incomplete, Wang is determined to continue, and to present her findings in the form of a more structured, longer play at next year’s San Francisco International Arts Festival.
She also sees the show as opportunity to provide a real portrayal of Chinese-Americans, even if it means presenting the uglier sides.
“It makes us human,” she said in an interview. “We always try and show how wonderful Chinese are, but this one makes us more full.”
IF YOU GO
San Francisco International Arts Festival
Where: Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd., S.F.
When: Through June 2
Tickets: $15 to $33 most single shows; $40 to $75 for passes; some free events
Contact: (415) 399-9554, www.sfiaf.org