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THE CHINESE EXPERIENCE IS ILLUMINATED ON KCET

The China Syndrome. . . .

Sino-American relations continue thawing. So everyone who isn’t visiting Ethiopia is visiting China.

The turbulence and fanaticism of the ‘60s and ‘70s seem ages removed from the picture we get of today’s People’s Republic of China. American tourists and academics are visiting China and returning with encouraging reports. And Western TV crews are surveying China from the Great Hall to the Great Wall. In fact, there are times this week when KCET Channel 28 is transformed into Chinatube.

On Tuesday night alone, KCET is offering three China programs: “Eyes Over China” at 8 is about the arrival of American surgical equipment on the mainland. “Adam Smith’s Money World in China” at 9 views Chinese as free enterprisers at heart. And editor/adventurer Malcolm Forbes is shown ballooning over the People’s Republic in “The Yin and the Yankee” at 10.

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The real soaring occurs tonight, however.

At 8 comes another installment of the BBC’s remarkable “Heart of the Dragon” documentary series that views the oldest continuous civilization in light of its past, taking Western viewers into seldom-exposed areas of Chinese culture.

Then at 9 comes “The American Playhouse” production of “Paper Angels,” produced by KCET.

This is by far the most deeply affecting of all these programs and the only one about Chinese outside China, an hour drama that powerfully re-creates the racism and bureaucratic frustrations encountered by Chinese immigrants seeking to escape the poverty of their homeland and enter the United States in 1915.

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Genny Lim’s play chronicles her own ancestors’ plight on Angel Island near San Francisco, the Ellis Island of the West and point of entry for thousands of Chinese between 1910 and 1940. Many were deported, unable to pass tests for admission that often were made more difficult than those for Europeans.

Now a state park, Angel Island has been called an island of tears, and “Paper Angels” is a play of tears.

Director John Lone (who also directed the 1983 theatrical version) shapes Lim’s simple staged play into visual poetry. It focuses on seven characters who endure dehumanizing detention in Angel Island barracks that segregated the sexes, thereby splitting families and increasing the immigrants’ feelings of loneliness and isolation.

There is a spiritual link between “Paper Angels” and the recent “El Norte,” a compelling, heartaching fictional depiction of undocumented workers from Guatemala. Both offer a rare minority’s eye-view of America. Both also note Anglo insensitivity and ignorance in frequently viewing non-white immigrants as faceless, brainless stereotypes.

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Varied fates await Genny Lim’s characters. One of them bursts from detention like a suddenly sprung prisoner, the bars of sunlight illuminating his face like rays of life. There is a birth in the female barracks, a death among the males. And disappointment. “I came on a ship full of dreams,” laments an old Chinese, “and landed in a cage full of lies.”

The cast--Rosalind Chao, Joan Chen, James Hong, David Huang, Beulah Quo, Victor Wong and Ping Wu--is excellent. Not that their excellence necessarily will advance their careers on TV. It is not only rare for Asians to perform in works by Asians, it’s rare for Asians to have substantial TV roles of any kind.

Rosalind Chao (Ku Ling) has had recurring roles in “AfterMASH” and “Diff’rent Strokes,” and Beulah Quo (brilliant here as Chin Moo, whose husband deserted her for 40 years) has had some significant roles, though few to match her talents.

The career of James Hong (who plays Fong), a solid actor whose face is familiar to TV audiences, is a better metaphor for Asian character players who regularly work. He has more than 200 TV roles to his credit--many of them as a gardener.

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Angel Island, 1985.

The convict on the screen is shouting. “I was gonna hurt her! Because I felt hurt all my . . . life! And I wanted to take it out on someone else!”

That’s an excerpt from “RAPE!,” a devastating KCOP special at 8 p.m. Tuesday (Channel 13). Following the example of a PBS program that aired several years ago, KCOP sent a crew to Oregon State Hospital in Salem to tape portions of a pioneering therapy program in which convicted rapists are confronted by victims of other rapists in the presence of therapists.

The results are simply electrifying. But be warned that there is intense emotion and coarse language.

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“RAPE!” is evidence anew that truth is more powerful than fiction. No one could write scenes or characters like these. The angry clashes on the screen--the women shout at the men--and the hatred expressed by the convicts should convince doubters that rape is an act of anger, not sex.

One man stalked female swing-shift workers emerging from factories. Another murdered his mother for resisting his advances. Another screams, then sobs, then pounds his head as if exorcising demons.

“I . . . hated women! I’m scared of women! I am scared totally of women! I have a hard time talking to women!” So he raped women.

The hospital portion is followed by a studio talking-heads session hosted by Donna Mills, which includes two of the women who participated in the program, which was produced by Gary Davis. We don’t know from watching the hour how successful this therapy is in turning around rapists or easing the pain of the women.

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For once, though, the victims intimidate the intimidators.


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