Chinese inmates craft symbols of hope and dream of asylum Artistic Freedom

July 18, 1994|By Howard Henry Chen | Howard Henry Chen,Sun Staff Writer

York, Pa. -- Throughout history, political protest, sustained tyranny and incarceration have sparked some of the most moving, most telling episodes of the human condition.

Anne Frank kept a diary while hiding from Nazis. Africans laid the musical groundwork for gospel and jazz while enslaved. Martin Luther King Jr. penned "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" while imprisoned, and Gerry Conlon started "Proved Innocent" in an English gaol.

Now add to that list a lesser-known testament to the legacy of art borne of oppression: eagles, made from crude materials, crafted by men here who believe the bird symbolizes this country's full and everlasting promise of freedom. But these eagles sit in cages.

Thousands of these and other such sculptures are crafted by the Chinese nationals of the Golden Venture, the ship that ran

aground in New York harbor in June 1993. Fleeing the oppression that led to 1989's Tiananmen Square uprising, the Golden Venture's passengers escaped the mainland, only to be imprisoned here for illegal immigration. Since last year, about half of those aboard the ship have been detained in south central Pennsylvania, biding time until their asylum hearings, which could be months -- even years -- away. Of the 144 men held at York County Prison, only five so far have been granted asylum.

Partly to relieve depression and partly to make a statement, some have started cutting magazine pages and folding them into intricate interlocking triangles. Add imagination, some glue, a heavy dose of political indignation and frustration, and like magic, the detainees transform the triangles into colorful dragons, gazebos, pagodas, animal sculptures, replicas of the Golden Venture, eagles.

The sale of these sculptures has generated about $12,000 for the men, money they can send to their families in China or use to purchase items in the prison canteen.

But to many of them, the money means nothing. The art symbolizes something larger, something much more important than being able to buy premium cigarettes in the canteen. As important to them as Martin Luther King Jr.'s letter, or Anne Frank's diary.

They don't have real papier mache, so they mix toilet paper with glue. They can't always get scissors, so they use thin pieces cardboard as cutting blades. They use feathers from their pillows to create plumes on their animals, and table tennis balls form the roofs of their pagodas.

"We can now show the art, and people say, 'It's incredible,' or 'It's beautiful,' " says Cindy Lobach, who along with her husband, Jeff, has spearheaded a local grass-roots support group to trumpet for the release of the Chinese. "The art gives us an opportunity to tell their story."

'Faceless' no longer

Mrs. Lobach and her husband, a local attorney who provides free legal assistance to the detainees, collect the artwork and take it home to a de facto gallery, their dining room and loft. Mrs. Lobach catalogs each piece -- she's up to 1,360 -- and as she sells it, she credits the amount to the artist's account.

While most pieces cost $20 to $30, with some topping $100, certain items have been earmarked to make museum tours through Philadelphia, New York and New Mexico.

"When you have a refugee population, whether documented or not, and when they're seen as human beings and not faceless people, people tend to be more sympathetic," says Bill Westerman, director of the Philadelphia Folklore Project, a group that works with traditional and ethnic artists. The project has introduced the Chinese detainees' artwork to dealers and museums in the Philadelphia area.

"Once you see the pieces, you also get interested in the people who made them," says Mr. Westerman, who heard about the artwork through local media.

The Lobachs also organize benefit auctions to increase awareness, with the third such auction scheduled for later this summer.

"Some of the cages have written right on them either 'Let me free' or 'I want free,' and I want to send them to President Clinton," Mrs. Lobach says.

Some might call the artwork, in any other circumstance, kitsch. But it's different here. It is made by men whose families have promised all they own to send them here, by men drawn to the United States by the promise of liberty and steeled by the legacy of the Tiananmen Square protests in China. Many say their government has harassed them, sterilized them, tortured them. And when they finally hit these shores, they landed in prison, where they subsist on hope and spend their time -- lots of it -- creating art.

According to some of the detainees, the greatest need now is forwhite Elmer's glue -- the kind children use in elementary school -- of which they use more than seven gallons a week. The support group and the prison take donations.

"You can give the glue to 'Mr. Bob,' " says Ching Chung Sing, an 18-year-old detainee who says he participated in Beijing's Tiananmen Square conflict.

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