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High Life / A WEEKLY FORUM FOR HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS : Playwright's American Tale : Careers: David Henry Hwang shares stories of his risky choice--and the support of his immigrant parents--with students at a Chinese school.

February 20, 1992|CLAUDINE KO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

IRVINE — When David Henry Hwang was growing up in America, his parents, who had immigrated to the United States from the Far East in the late '40s, "were interested in assimilating into society," according to the award-winning playwright.

It wasn't important to speak Chinese in the Hwang household, because his parents, Henry and Dorothy, thought their three children's English would be hampered by learning two languages.

Being Chinese was a "minor detail . . . like having red hair," said Hwang, who was born in 1957 in Los Angeles and attended Chinese school for a short time.

As a 12-year-old, Hwang wrote a 100-page novel based on his grandmother's stories about the last three generations of his family. However, it wasn't until college that he discovered his passion for "creating a world on paper (and) seeing that world come alive."

While studying at Stanford, he began writing "F.O.B.," a play relating the differences between American-born Chinese and recent immigrants--those "fresh off the boat." When he invited his parents to see the debut of his first play, performed by students in his dormitory, his father didn't know what to expect.

Like most fathers, Henry Hwang wanted his son to pursue a stable career--such as accounting or law--not a risky career in the arts. But he decided that if the play was good, he would encourage his son's writing; if it were bad, he would tell him to stop.

However, Henry Hwang was so astonished by the power of his son's play that he was moved to tears. From that moment, Henry Hwang has supported his son's desire to write.

It was a good thing, too, because David Henry went on to win the 1988 Tony Award for best play with "M. Butterfly," which opened on Broadway that same year at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre.

On Feb. 9, David Henry returned to Chinese school. This time, he didn't come to learn, but to teach his values and share his experiences with the students at the Irvine Chinese School's annual Speaker of the Year presentation. Henry Hwang, founder and chairman of Southern California's Far East National Bank, accompanied his son and spoke too.

The Irvine Chinese School holds classes every Sunday morning at University High School, where volunteers teach more than 700 students how to read, speak and write Chinese, and about Chinese culture.

"Asian parents always want their kids to be doctors, engineers, or lawyers--something that makes a lot of money," said Philana Chen, a junior at Dana Hills High School. "David Henry Hwang breaks down the norm. He's an example of an Asian who's successful in something that not many Asians are successful in--that's encouraging."

The mother of University High senior Jake Wang, Inga Wang, who is half Chinese and half German, prides herself on encouraging her children to do what they want to do.

"I think all parents care that their kids will have a decent living; therefore, you need a traditional way of thinking," Wang said. "Kids will most likely succeed if they go into the science and engineering fields. Parents do it with love in mind; we want our kids to be happy later in life."

When "M. Butterfly" premiered to mixed reviews, Hwang never lost faith in his work.

"Who knew ('M. Butterfly') was going to be a hit?" he said. "I write what I believe in. There's an even chance of having success . . . you might as well do something you like."

Added Henry Hwang: "If you truly believe this is what you want to do, don't let anyone stop you . . . you will prevail."

Gene Chung, a senior at University, hopes the relationship between the Hwangs will serve as an example of parents who let their children search for their own direction in life.

"It shouldn't matter if they agree with our views," Chung said. "They should support us no matter what our opinions are or what we believe in. Our parents have to understand that we want them to be proud of us, but if we don't believe in what we're doing, how can we expect them to be proud of us?"

Added Bertina Hou, a senior at Irvine High School: "He (Hwang) is definitely inspiring for minorities that aren't science-oriented, (for) those who, in their hearts, know they don't want to go into a stable, yuppie career.

"At the same time, it's discouraging, especially for minorities who want to go into the fine arts, because you need to possess an extraordinary amount of talent to even be noticed," she said. "But he shouldn't be considered as a role model just for minorities, he should be a role model for everyone who dreams of success in the world of theater and literature."

Agreeing with the theme of "M. Butterfly," University student Jake Wang says the stereotypes and misconceptions of Asians--as well as all races--should be left behind.

"I think we, as teen-agers, in such a diverse society have learned to accept other races at face value, instead of classifying each other by the color of our skin," he said.

Said Hwang: "As an American, I should be able to write any topic I want; I shouldn't be restricted by my race. We are working to a point where we can say this is an American writer," as opposed to an Asian-American writer.

Claudine Ko is a senior at University High School, where she is editor in chief of Sword & Shield, the student newspaper, and president of the student council at Irvine Chinese School, where she has attended for 13 years.

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