The Dream Pursuer

Introduction

Living in this world, every day we have to work hard in order to survive. Many people, in the midst of personal life, family, friends, and work, have dreams in their hearts. Some remain dreamers throughout their life, while some are dream pursuers.

Mr. Fu-yen Chen, former president of the Kunqu Society, was an active dream pursuer who also led a group of friends to pursue a dream.

The dream Fu-yen and his friends pursued was to transplant the elegant and classical kunqu theatre to the soil of the U.S., letting this orchid continue to emit its fragrance among the numerous flowers in the garden of American arts. The founding of the Kunqu Society was the realization of this dream.

Fu-yen was president of the Kunqu Society from 1988 to 1996. He passed away due to illness on August 12, 2012, at the age of 71.

A short bio of Fu-yen

Fu-yen was a native of Hsin-chu in Taiwan. Born into a financially underprivileged family, Fu-yen was the third child among his six siblings and excelled in school. After graduating from middle school, he chose to enter teachers’ college so that he would receive a fellowship and reduce his family’s financial burden. After he graduated from college he became a music teacher at an elementary school where he met future wife, Theresa Teng. A few years later, Fu-yen and Theresa passed the entrance examination and were admitted to the Department of Music, National Taiwan Normal University, with Fu-yen majoring in music theory, Theresa in voice. After graduation they came to the U.S. to pursue advanced degrees and became husband and wife. With a scholarship offered by Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Fu-yen studied ethnomusicology, while Theresa was admitted into Manhattan School of Music to continue her training in voice. In 1970 Theresa earned her master’s degree, and Fu-yen his doctorate..

During those years of study, their son Morgan and daughter Lynn were born. Fu-yen and Theresa therefore had to juggle living, studying, and raising children; life was not easy.

In 1978, with her beautiful mezzo-soprano voice, Theresa became a member of the choir of the Metropolitan Opera where she worked until she retired in 2009. Fu-yen, after graduating with his doctorate and unable to find a suitable position in music, changed his career to information technology. Through devotion and hard work, he was promoted to manager. Years later he talked about the decision to change his career path: “It was impossible for both of us to have a music career. It was really fortunate for Theresa to continue to advance in the arts, and so I decided to change mine.”

Fu-yen first encountered kunqu while he was studying for his doctorate. Through a friend’s introduction, Fu-yen learned the performing skills of kunqu from Ms. Yuan-ho Chang and Ms. Chung-ho Chung, two renowned kunqu practitioners. He also learned flute playing from Ms. Chung-ho Chang. He performed “An Interrupted Dream” with Ms. Yuan-ho Chang and played the flute to accompany the performances of Ms. Chung-ho Chang.

In 1988, Mr. Shiyu Wang, a distinguished kunqu master, was invited by University of California, Berkeley, to visit the U.S. and give lectures and performances. Ms. Yuan-ho Chang, Ms. Ying Xu, and others in California wrote to kunqu lovers on the east coast and suggested that some public events be arranged for Wang’s visit. Through the efforts of Fu-yen, Anna Chen Wu, both students of Ms. Yuan-ho Chang and Ms. Chung-ho Chang; Ms. Grace Wang and Mr. Hsi-i Wang, both students of Mr. Yan-chi Hsu and Ms. Shan-hsiang Chang; Ms. Lindi Li Mark, daughter of Ms. Ying Xu and Mr. Fang-gui Li; Ms. Ning-na Chien; Mr. John Hwang; and others, three lecture-demonstrations were held respectively at Columbia University, Queens Library in Auburndale, and Dr. Sun Yat-sen Middle School. The events featured kunqu master Wang and Ms. Meirong Huang, a kunqu performer residing in California who introduced and performed sections from kunqu classics: “An Interrupted Dream,” “The Zither,” and “Longing for the Mundane World.” These events marked the first kunqu performances by professional kunqu performers in New York and won enthusiastic responses and applause from amateur kunqu practitioners and the general public, as well as Professor C.T. Hsia, a famed professor of Chinese literature at Columbia.

On December 18, 1988, a farewell banquet for kunqu master Wang was held at Fu-yen’s residence. Inspired by the success of the events, those who were present decided to found the Kunqu Society to introduce and promote the kunqu art. Fu-yen was elected as the president, Anna the vice president, John the treasurer, and Mr. Wang and Ms. Huang the artistic advisors.

Members of the Society include kunqu researchers, professional kunqu performers and amateur kunqu enthusiasts. The mission of the Society is to study, preserve, and promote the classical kunqu art.

In 1989, Fu-yen and John drafted the by-laws of the Society and formally registered with the New York state; the Kunqu Society thus became the first legally recognized non-profit kunqu organization in the U.S. Afterward the Society obtained tax-exempt status from the federal government and began to receive funding support from the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1990, Ms. Jiehua Shi and Mr. Qinglin Cai of the Shanghai Kunqu Troupe, Mr. Fulin Wen of the Zhejiang Kunqu Troupe, and Ms. Jifang Yin of the Suzhou Sukun Troupe joined the Society. In 1991, the Kunqu Workshop was established.

From 1992 to 1995, Mr. Taiqi Wang, Mr. Dezhang Wu, Mr. Xiaoming Shen, Ms. Wanfang Tu, Mr. Jie Liu, Mr. Yusheng Wang, Ms. Haiyi Yin, Mr. Yi Guo, and Mr. Wenqiang Shou of the Shanghai Kunqu Troupe; Mr. Hongming Qian, Mr. Zhensheng Wang, Mr. Zhiliang Ji, Ms. Dongxia Qian of the Jiangsu Kunqu Troupe; and Mr. Licai Zhang and Ms. Huanru Wang of the Nanjing Youth Jingju Troupe joined the Society and became its resident artists.

In order to stay in the U.S. and obtain legal status, the resident artists not only participated in kunqu lecture-demonstrations, but also became instructors of the Kunqu Workshop to teacher amateur kunqu practitioners basic kunqu performing skills. Beginning in 1992, Fu-yen, John, and Anna handled the artists’ visa and residency applications.

Disputes over vision and directions for kunqu

When Fu-yen was studying for his ethnomusicology doctorate he conducted field trips, interviewed several jingju amateur clubs in the New York area, and carefully documented and researched their activities and performances.

As he remarked later on, during that time the major jingju clubs were organized by amateur practitioners who, in addition to staging performances, took charge of administrative and financial matters. At their gatherings, some would practice singing with huqin [the lead musical instrument used in jingju], while others chatted leisurely, drank tea, ate snacks, and sometimes played cards or mahjong. In performance, the main characters were amateur practitioners with the professionals in supporting or supernumerary roles.

Through his long-term interest and devotion to music, Fu-yen was very respectful of the arts and artists. Ever since the founding of the Society, Fu-yen always insisted on two principles:

First, the cast of formal performances had to be composed of professional performers so that “the best kunqu arts will be presented to the audience.” Performers, musicians, and stage crew were to be compensated for their work.

Second, the administrative work was to be handled by amateur kunqu practitioners on a voluntary basis for the sake of the budget.

The two principles were correct in reasoning, but distant from the tradition and actual practice in the theatre world.

In general amateur practitioners of jingju and kunqu enjoy performing on stage and playing the lead roles without considering their own artistic levels. For backstage work, some accept money for their efforts while others don’t, according to their own wishes, not following set rules.

The principles of the Society were predictably not accepted by some people. Two “earthquakes” occurred within the Society, with members leaving. Some thought Fu-yen was too stubborn, not flexible enough in managing the Society’s affairs.

Twelve years ago, Fu-yen had an operation for thymic carcinoma, which has continued to affect his physical wellbeing since recovery. Fu-yen practiced taichi and mediated for two hours daily, very careful about his own health. The long and cold winter in New Jersey made him felt physically unwell. After some consideration, he and Theresa decided to move to California’s warmer climate. A little over than two months ago, they found an ideal new home there. I saw pictures of their new home on Theresa’s Facebook page, thinking that they must have been busy moving. Thus it was a shock to receive an e-mail from Theresa with the line: “My beloved Fu-Yen is now in Heaven.”

After I received the terrible news of Fu-yen’s passing, for several days I sunk into sadness. Thinking of his illness led me to consider my own. As Cao Pi wrote in “A Letter for Wu Zhi”: “While aching for the deceased, I thought of my own life.” But when I thought back to those days when I worked together with Fu-yen, remembering those principles he insisted upon, I suddenly realized that Fu-yen, with his laconic personality and in a career unrelated to his love for music, was actually an active dream pursuer. It was in his pursuit of the dream that he realized his ideas about music and created for those of us who love and respect the kunqu art a small world, the Kunqu Society, to continue to pursue the dream.

Fu-yen’s persistence has led to, years later, several unexpected achievements for the Society:

First, when compared with our peer organizations, the Society maintains a certain artistic level in its formal performances;

Second, the Society maintains a stable relationship between its administrative staff and professional performers as we deal with matters in a simple, straightforward manner.

Third, with the care and teaching of the workshop instructors, students of the Kunqu Workshop have acquired firmer foundation of basic skills when compared with other amateur practitioners.

Fourth, several workshop students who have actively participated in the administrative and managerial tasks of the Society will be able to take over the workload from the older generation.

With these thoughts in mind, I feel very fortunate to have had Fu-yen as a fellow practitioner of kunqu, a fellow soldier in battle. Although we are now two worlds apart, I think we will continue to pursue the dream!

By Anna Chen Wu, August 21, 2012, in New York

Appendix

Since its founding, the Kunqu Society has organized more than two hundred lecture-demonstrations and performances. Among them Fu-yen organized the following activities:

April, 1993: Performance of “The Autumn River,” “A Stroll in the Garden,” “A Banquet for Two,” and “Entrusting the Son” at Pace University

December, 1993: Lecture-demonstration of “The Zither” and “Taken Alive” at Wesleyan University, Connecticut

October, 1995: Lecture-demonstration of “Borrow the Fan” and “Fleeing Down the Mountain” at Towson University, Maryland

November, 1996: Lecture-demonstration and performance of “The Mountain Gate” and “Fleeing Down the Mountain” at Colby College and Bates College, New York

The following performances were supported by the Council for Cultural Affairs, Taiwan, and performed at the Taipei Theater, New York:

May, 1994: The Beauty of Kunqu
October, 1994: Zhaojun Leaving Her Country
September, 1997: Spring-grass
May, 1998: The Tenth Anniversary Performance of the Kunqu Society
November, 1999, Pan Jin-lian
April, 2002: Joy of the Fisherman

In addition to the above performances, Fu-yen also co-produced “The Overseas Chinese Arts Festival: Kunqu Performance” with Ms. Grace Wang and Hsi-i Wang in June, 1993, May, 1994, and June, 1995.

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