In 1970 I arrived in New York from Taipei with $40 and a suitcase. Several of my friends and I shared an apartment in the South Bronx and I enrolled in classes at the American Dance Center (now known as the Ailey School) and at the Martha Graham School. To support myself, I worked on Wall Street as a delivery boy for Chinese take-out. The first winter was especially difficult because I didn’t have a coat or boots and people would inevitably order in food whenever it was snowing or bad weather. To save the $0.35 subway fare, I would walk from the South Bronx to the Graham School (then located on East 63rd St), and then down to Wall Street to deliver take-out food.
At that time, Taiwan was still under martial law. I came to America – the land of democracy but wondered why people were not happy. The residents in Chinatown were protesting the building of Confucius Plaza, the first residential high rise in the neighborhood. No Chinese workers had been employed and the community had taken to the streets with placards. Then I learned that African Americans had just won the right to vote only 5 years earlier. How could this be?
My experience in New York was surprising in other ways. Ellen Stewart, Founder/ Director of La MaMa Experimental Theater Club generously welcomed international artists and provided opportunities to work collaboratively without using words. Even though I couldn’t communicate verbally, I was able to participate in workshops with world reknown directors such as Peter Brook, Andrei Serban and others. I became a founding member of the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, and performed in and choreographed for many of their productions.
When I went to visit The Juilliard School’s Dance Division I could barely speak English. The chairperson, Martha Hill, greeted me warmly and when we shook hands before parting, there were two subway tokens in the palm of her hand. I was able to attend Juilliard as a scholarship student and afterwards attended New York University where I received a masters degree in dance education.
When I began making dances my choreography was inspired by Chinese legends and history. With increased national touring, I uncovered and researched the historic experiences, tragic and inspirational, of Asians in America. Being a choreographer means more to me than just making dances. I feel that as an artist it is important to create works that are culturally significant and have positive social impact, especially now as minority and immigrant populations grow and racial tensions increase. More specifically, as an artist of Chinese ancestry, I feel strongly that I need to be a voice for the Asian-American community in general, and the Chinese-American community in particular, speaking honestly of our heritage.
Over the years I have created repertory for H.T. Chen & Dancers’ national touring and local home-based programming–giving poetic voice to the journeys of Asians becoming American. It is my interest to develop work that explores questions of identity and belonging that ripple through ethnic communities across America.
In Lower Manhattan my wife and I established Chen Dance Center’s School and Theater; providing opportunities for the community to participate in the arts through classes and performances. I feel fortunate to have been able to have a life in the arts and to make an impact on the community.
(Hsueh-Tung)H.T. Chen was born in Shanghai, China and raised in Taiwan. He is the Founder/Director of H.T. Chen & Dancers, and the Chen Dance Center – School and Theater in NYC. H.T. Chen is a graduate of the University of Chinese Culture, The Juilliard School and has a MA in dance Education from NYU. He is the recipient of the 2002 NYS Governor’s Arts Award, 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Org. of Chinese Americans, a 2004 Community Recognition from the CUNY Alumni Association, a 2005 Bessies Award, 2009 NYC Mayor’s Arts Award, and a 2012 Mid-Career Award from the Martha Hill Dance Fund.