This story was originally published by ArtsATL.
Kerry Lee, co-artistic director of Atlanta Chinese Dance Company, remembers hearing about the Atlanta spa shootings. On March 16, 2021, a gunman went on a shooting spree in Acworth and Atlanta that left eight people dead, six of whom were women of Asian descent.
Within 24 hours, Lee’s phone “started blowing up,” she said, with voicemails and text messages from concerned friends. Lee saw pictures of the victims’ faces and read their stories.
“That could have been our dancers,” Lee thought at the time.
The tragedy was one of the driving forces behind Lee’s new work, “We Belong Here: Rising Against Asian Hate,” which will debut as the title piece in Atlanta Chinese Dance Company’s production April 15 and 16 at the Gas South Theater in Duluth.
Featuring a guest performance by the Atlanta multicultural chorus Trey Clegg Singers, and artwork by Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, Lee’s work celebrates the humanity of the Chinese community and amplifies the solidarity of past and present Asian American civil rights movements.
The program also features 15 pieces from folk and classical Chinese dance repertory and a company premiere of “Raindrops,” a signature work by the late choreographer Nai-Ni Chen.
“We Belong Here” is the third work in a series Lee started in 2019, when she began adapting Chinese dance into a form of activism that tells stories about Chinese Americans and speaks to their social justice issues.
The series’ works have confronted a form of “internalized racism” Lee experienced as an Asian American growing up in the South. A white friend in grade school once referred to herself as a “real American,” implying that non-whites were somehow less American, Lee said.
It didn’t strike Lee as unusual or untrue. Her school principal and other leaders in her community were white. Mass media was dominated by images of white people and some African Americans, but few who looked like Lee.
Lee saw parallels in the dance community. Her mother, Hwee-Eng Y. Lee founded Atlanta Chinese Dance Company in 1991, and the younger Lee studied Chinese dance there while completing Atlanta Ballet’s pre-professional training program. Lee saw that Chinese dance was marginalized compared to the high social status ballet enjoyed.
Lee didn’t see herself as a professional ballet dancer, but she saw space for an Asian dancer like herself when Dance Magazine featured photos of Asian dancers in a profile of H.T. Chen & Dancers. Lee later saw Nai-Ni Chen’s company perform a blend of Chinese and contemporary dance while on tour in Atlanta. “As an American-born Chinese,” said Lee, “it really resonated with me.”
Lee went on to dance with both companies, but not until after she had earned an engineering degree from Stanford University and spent a year working with an economic consulting firm in New York. She then worked with Lauri Stallings’ group glo in Atlanta before joining her mother as co-artistic director of Atlanta Chinese Dance Company.
The 2021 Atlanta spa shootings hit home in a way that nothing else had. Lee wanted to create a work that responded not only to the tragic incident, but also to the intensified hate aimed at Asians during the pandemic.
Initially, Lee wanted to debunk the “model minority myth,” and other labels that dehumanize Asians, by spotlighting notable Asian Americans. But she reconsidered. “We don’t need to do something extraordinary — like inventing Zoom — to belong in this country,” said Lee.
The name Vincent Chin came to mind.
In 1982, Chin was a draftsman living in Detroit. The American auto industry was in decline, and anti-Japanese sentiment was on the rise due to increased competition from Japanese auto imports. Chin was celebrating his upcoming wedding at a club when two white auto workers, one recently laid off, confronted Chin and bludgeoned him to death.
The judge sentenced the men who killed Chin to a lenient $3000 fine, court costs and probation, with no jail time. This spurred national protests and the first federal civil rights trial for an Asian American. “Eventually they won the case, but then lost it on appeal,” said Lee. “He never got justice.”
“We Belong Here” references Chin’s story within a context that draws out the strength and beauty of Asian culture as part of the American social fabric.
Artwork by Phingbodhipakkiya, a multidisciplinary artist, will be projected onto a screen. Phingbodhipakkiya’s bold and colorful images of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have appeared in public spaces such as New York City’s Lincoln Center and Times Square. Her portrait of an Asian woman, “With Softness and Power,” appeared on the cover of Time magazine two weeks after the Atlanta spa shootings. Often containing messages and slogans, these portraits have since become the face of the Stop Asian Hate movement.
Born to Thai and Indonesian immigrants, Phingbodhipakkiya is an Atlanta native and former Atlanta Chinese Dance Company dancer. Lee said the collaboration was “a very natural choice because her artwork really speaks to the moment.”
The Vincent Chin movement received support from other groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), churches, synagogues and members of Latin and Arab American communities, said Lee. To amplify this solidarity, the Trey Clegg Singers will sing “You Do Not Walk Alone” live during this weekend’s performances. Based on a traditional Irish blessing, it’s a profound message of hope.
“We shouldn’t just speak up when our own community is suffering,” said Lee. “We have to stand up for each other. Injustice against anyone is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Lee hopes “We Belong Here” will help raise awareness that discrimination against the Asian community has been ongoing in the United States for more than a century. “We still need to take action collectively as a society to prevent things like this from happening again.”
“We Belong Here: Rising Against Asian Hate,”
7:30 p.m. April 15; 2 p.m. April 16. $20-$25. Gas South Theater, 6400 Sugarloaf Parkway, Duluth. 770-626-2464, gassouthdistrict.com.
Cynthia Bond Perry has covered dance for ArtsATL since the website was founded in 2009. One of the most respected dance writers in the Southeast, she also contributes to Dance Magazine, Dance International and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She has an M.F.A. in narrative media writing from the University of Georgia.
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