On Exhibit: Chinese emigre, American artist | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Exhibit: Chinese emigre, American artist 

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Like most young Chinese who emigrated to the West, Anchee Min has stories to tell about growing up during the Cultural Revolution. Hers contain enough ironic twists and turns to fill a novel.

Today, the 35-year-old Min lives in Bridgeport with her husband and newborn daughter. A chapter from her novel-in-progress has been accepted for publication by the prestigious literary journal Granta. A screenplay based on the same chapter was purchased by Golden Harvest, a Hong Kong-based movie studio. And lately she's unveiled yet another side of her artistic nature--that of painter and photographer.

Min has used writing as a way of recalling her topsy-turvy past and coping with the bewilderment of being an Asian American. Her novel touches on her recruitment into the Little Red Guards and her banishment to a factory and then to a farm not far from her native Shanghai. But what took place from 1973 on forms the heart of her material. That year Madame Mao initiated a campaign to find young Chinese who embodied the sturdiness and simplicity of the proletariat; her plan was to turn these model youths into stars in propagandist movies. Min was the only one of 20,000 teenagers in her area to be picked for screen tests in Shanghai. "I was thrilled. It was such a great honor," she remembers.

Two years and many tests and background checks later, Min, along with 4 other girls and 18 boys, entered the gates of Shanghai Film Studios. "We all looked alike, with strong features and dark skin--as if we had just stepped off the rice field," she says wryly. Two veteran actresses were assigned to coach her; one of them, long celebrated for her porcelain skin, was resentful of this new ideal of beauty.

Min at first enjoyed the sheltered life inside the movie factory. Among her dorm mates was child actress Joan Chen. "We slept in the same bunk, and we became very close, almost like sisters," says Min. But in 1977 the Gang of Four was toppled, and the fair-skinned actress, whose husband had been persecuted by Madame Mao, took out her resentment on Min, telling Communist Party commissars that she was lazy and had bourgeois leanings. The studio threatened to send her back to the countryside, but eventually it was decided that she could stay if she took on menial labor.

For the next four "miserable and lonely" years, Min toiled as a location scout, production assistant, and script clerk, among other sundry jobs. Chen, by now China's biggest star, remained a friend and "brought me rice cakes." And Min made use of her time in disgrace: "I taught myself how to write, and I got to see many parts of China."

In the early 80s a clandestine romance with a matinee idol--her first boyfriend--ended badly, and she realized there'd be no chance of a promotion, no future for her in China. "I was going down the toilet. I was on the edge of suicide." Then a letter came from Chen, who had moved to Los Angeles. "Have you ever thought about coming to America? I know someone who's studying at the Art Institute in Chicago. Do you want to be an artist?" she asked. With the help of Chen and relatives in Singapore, Min applied for admission to the School of the Art Institute. To her surprise, she was accepted.

In September '84 she arrived in Chicago ready for a new life, but her travails weren't over. "I was kicked out when they found out how poor my English was," she says. Depressed, she fled to LA to stay with Chen. After three months of soul-searching, she came back and enrolled in an intensive English program. The school relented several months later.

In the course of her undergraduate studies, Min discovered creative writing. She recalls that her instructor, Jim McManus, advised her to tap into the emotional highs and lows she experienced in China. "He said my stories were too raw and powerful, and I must fit them into a disciplined artistic framework." Her imprecise grammar added urgency and poignancy to her stories. Though still interested in filmmaking, Min decided to embark on a novel as her thesis project. Under the tutelage of Barbara Guenther and Judy Watson, she wrote three chapters loosely based on episodes from her past. Chen read one chapter, titled The Mosquito Net, and forwarded it to west-coast writer and Sinophile Mark Salzman. Impressed, Salzman introduced Min to agents and editors. Soon after, Granta and Golden Harvest called.

Min says she started painting in earnest when she met her painter husband--a Chinese classmate at the Art Institute--five years ago. "He got me into the trade and taught me to look at Jasper Johns, Clemente, and all these moderns who paint so differently from the Chinese styles. I became fascinated. So I quit posing for him and took up the brush." In the past couple of years, between bouts of writing, she has painted almost 40 canvases, each a burst of vibrant colors with vaguely oriental contours. Her latest series is a take on Americans' infatuation with big cars. "I find automobiles such unsettling and strange objects," she explains.

A while back her paintings caught the eye of Chinese emigre Guang-Xin Quian, a discoverer and promoter of the Zhou Brothers in the mid-80s. Quian, who owns the Signet Gallery, asked to exhibit the car series (titled "He and She")--and, as a companion show, a collection of portrait photographs Min took of Chen. The portraits, many of which were taken when Chen was shooting Twin Peaks, are reminiscent of the Hollywood studio stills of George Hurrell. To Anthony Jones, head of the School of the Art Institute, they are "probes into the soul and spirit of a friend, Western classicism balanced by oriental beauty."

Ensconced these days in her Bridgeport home, Min wants to recoup lost time and start "exploring the high-energy American culture." While glad to be freed of her past, she looks at the future with some trepidation. "For most Chinese artists here," she says, "survival is the top priority. Very few people are privileged to do art, even in a free country. As an artist, you have to think about living--you have to feel the desperation!"

Min's exhibit opens tonight, April 10, and will run for at least three weeks. Min and Chen will be on hand for the opening reception, which runs from 5 to 8 PM. Signet Gallery is located at 301 W. Superior; for more information, call 337-0040.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.

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