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My Turn

by Dmae Lo Roberts


Samson Syharath (top) and Maddie Tran (bottom) will perform in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon beginning April 30. (Photo/Briana Cerezo Photography, courtesy of Oregon Childrenís Theatre)

From The Asian Reporter, V33, #3 (March 6 2023), pages 6 & 7.

Inspiration from Lan Su

I recently visited Lan Su Garden for a photo shoot to promote Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, a play adapted from a book by author Grace Lin. The show, presented by Oregon Childrenís Theatre, will open April 30 and runs through May 28 at the Newmark Theatre in downtown Portland. As a director, Iím excited to be working on the production because itís a Chinese folktale musical with an all Asian-American cast set in China. It will also be the first musical in Portland featuring an all Asian-American local cast (at least since 1989, when I moved to Portland).

Inspired by a garden in Suzhou, Lan Su was an ideal location to photograph the actors featured in the upcoming show. And really, itís just a beautiful, peaceful place to spend some time. I hadnít been to the garden since before the pandemic began in 2020 and it was a treat to have the place to ourselves. One of the things weíre doing with the stage play is to partner with organizations such as Lan Su, as well as the Northwest China Council and the Portland Chinatown Museum. Itís notable that they are among the few remnants of Portland Chinatownís culture and history. Itís hard to believe 22 years have passed since Lan Su opened as the Portland Classical Chinese Garden. I remember producing an NPR feature story about it being built.

While at Lan Su, I spoke with Venus Sun, the gardenís senior director of Culture & Community Engagement and asked how the garden fared during the COVID-19 pandemic. She said they have always relied on tourism for about 70 percent of their admissions revenue. Unfortunately, that percentage dropped dramatically in 2020 due to the global health emergency, so the organization has been rethinking and re-strategizing the role it plays in the Old Town/Chinatown neighborhood. She explained that one thing theyíve done is to create cultural and festival experiences for visitors that showcase the talents of local AANHPI (Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander) creators and artists.

Because Lan Su is mostly outdoors, the garden was able to operate some smaller events after the original pandemic rules were loosened, and it has been able to add more options during the past two years. While May will feature many small events in celebration of AANHPI Heritage Month, Sun shared some of the offerings that will be highlighted this spring, including the return of "This is She" ó a series of talks held during Womenís History Month in March featuring inspiring BIPOC female leaders from the local community.

Min Xiao-Fen, a renowned pipa soloist, kicked off "This is She" over the weekend. Remaining presenters include Holly Ong (March 11), co-founder of Sibeiho; Joyce Chung (March 18), founder of Goodies Snack Shop; and Vanessa Gomez (March 26), founder of Flow in the City, a new yoga studio. Sun said the speakers will share at the weekend events how theyíve navigated their lives, careers, and relationships as women of color.

In April, the garden is partnering with local Asian-American poetry slam champion Alex Dang for a series of poetry workshops. On April 17 at 4:00pm, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon choreographer Minh Tran, visual artist Willow Zheng, and I are holding a talk focusing on the play. The event is for members of Lan Su and also those who want to become a member.

Lan Su has a long history of partnering with AANHPI groups in Portland. Sun spoke with pride about how the garden works with more than "200 organizations, program partners, and volunteers" to produce 500+ cultural programs each year. She said they strengthen the connection to communities and groups while also attracting and engaging visitors.

I asked what lies ahead for the garden. Sun pondered the question, mentioned that itís actually something theyíve been asking themselves, and said, "If the beauty of our garden does not have to be defined by its four walls, why should the future of Lan Su? A focus for us now and in the future is to have Lan Su be more than a garden. While our authentic Chinese garden will always be the foundation of our identity, we also want to be a destination for the celebration of all cultures so that our community members have a deeper, more immersive world view."

Many of the visual images designed for the Where the Mountain Meets the Moon set and background are inspired by Lan Su. Iím looking forward to beginning rehearsals in mid-March and continuing to draw inspiration from the garden. I hope youíll tell family and friends about Lan Su. And please also bring them to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon in May.

To learn more about happenings at Lan Su, or to purchase tickets, visit <www.lansugarden.org>.

For information about Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, visit <www.octc.org>.

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Opinions expressed in this newspaper are those of the
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