The Art of Blending Best of Both Worlds : Chinese Professor Celebrates Life in Words, Pictures

Bright rainbow banners hang from the pine tree in front of Catherine Yi-Yu Cho Woo's home. A row of crystals in the window wink their greeting as wind chimes with red ribbons move gracefully and fill the entryway like laughter.

Walking into Woo's house is like walking into a celebration--of life, of family, of beauty. Her paintings, semi-abstract watercolors on silk and rice paper, fill the walls with their vibrancy; family mementos sit on shelves, next to Chinese artifacts. A piano sits in one corner, and a gentle collie sleeps by the patio door not far from an octagonal window that lets in light as it frames one pine bough and the fluted top of one of the chimes.

Red is everywhere. Not just the ribbons, but in the various mobiles and paintings. Even the couch is rose, and the carpet a deep wine red.

"Red is the color of happiness in China," Woo says.

She is a happy woman, a fulfilled woman.

"I'm first a daughter (because this is the Chinese custom), then a wife, a mother (of two), now a grandmother--and on the outside, a teacher, painter, writer, poet."

Woo is a professor at San Diego State University, where she teaches in the Department of Classical and Oriental Languages and Literature, and in the Art Department; she teaches a course at San Francisco State University; she has had numerous shows of her paintings in both China and the United States; she is the author of four books; she is a lyricist, and she even finds time to visit high schools to lecture or give poetry readings.

How does she handle it all?

"I go from one activity to the other very easily," she said. "I think we're all playing many parts and doing quite well. Few of us play only one part in life.

"Whatever I'm doing, then that is the most important pursuit, for that time. At school, I'm thinking of the students. And in the art class, of course, I'm also an artist. And my artistic background always influences me. If I'm explaining a poem, for example, I'll use the artist-poet's point of view to explain."

As far as finding time, Woo said she has a gift: She doesn't need a lot of sleep. "After so many years of waiting until my children were asleep to do my work, I find I'm a night owl," she said. "I do most of my writing and painting after 11 p.m., until 3 or 4 in the morning. Last night, I was up until 2 a.m. writing an article. Then I have quiet--long blocks of time and no phone calls. And I forget about time when I'm writing and painting."

Woo seems to have balanced, and continues to balance, her busy and full life as easily as she balances the blending of Western and Eastern cultures.

Lived in Palace

Shew was born in 1934 in Beijing, where her father was a well-known scholar and professor, as was her grandfather. Her grandfather provided a strong role model for her. He was a professor, a banker, a government official and a famous calligrapher. A piece of his calligraphy was chosen in 1956 to represent China in a creation by Steuben glass.

Woo spent her early years in a 100-room palace that belonged to a princess and her husband. Her great-grandfather was a high public official, so he and his extended family lived there along with 100 servants.

During World War II, her family lived in various parts of China. As a result, "I speak six dialects," she said.

The family fled from China to Hong Kong in 1949 just before the Communist revolution. At age 17, she came to America, to the University of Illinois, where she studied architecture. There she met and married architect Peter Woo. The couple moved to San Diego before she graduated, and soon they raised a family.

Woo's older brother had left Hong Kong before she did, and after her arrival in America, her two younger brothers and her parents also immigrated (one younger brother, Alfred Cho, is a scientist and has been featured on the cover of U.S. News and World Report).

Ten years after moving to San Diego--when her second child, Cindy, was in kindergarten--Woo decided to continue her education.

"I used to drop Cindy off at kindergarten, then drive to San Diego State University, park way down in the deep pit (lower parking lot), run to class, then back to my car and pick up Cindy. Kindergarten was only 2 1/2 hours, so I had to hurry." Woo finished with a degree in interior design at SDSU, then completed a master's degree in art history as her children got older.

She began work at UCLA in 1974 on her dissertation in Chinese language and literature, and by this time was teaching at SDSU.

"I'd teach Monday through Thursday," she said. "Then on Friday, I'd ride the library bus at 7 a.m. from UCSD to UCLA--along with the books. If I drove myself, I'd be too tired to study. I went to two seminars. Afterward, I'd ride with the books back to San Diego. Then, I'd go home and cook dinner. I did this for two years."

Several years later, with a federal fellowship, she was able to take time away from her teaching at SDSU and go to the University of San Francisco to teach and work on her dissertation. By then, she said, "My kids were in college and it was easier, and my husband was very supportive."

Today, Woo has a doctorate in bilingual, multicultural education, and for five years she has been a professor at SDSU. In addition, three times a semester she flies to San Francisco State University to teach her popular 45-hour course, "The Magic of the Brush," which is similar to her SDSU painting class.

"In San Francisco there are 90 students," she said. "It grew so that we now have the class in the band room. It is a class for the soul, a relaxed discipline--relaxed from history, dates, bills, computers, cars."

Shows and Books

Shows of her paintings have been at such places as the governor's office in Sacramento, during Edmund G. Brown Jr.'s tenure in office; Stanford University; the American Cultural Center in Taipei, Taiwan; Secretary of State March Fong Eu's office in Sacramento; Lincoln Center, New York; ART Beasley Gallery in San Diego, and Amherst College in Massachusetts. A show opened at UC Santa Barbara in January.

Woo's books include "The Many Moods of Catherine Yi-Yu Cho Woo" (reproductions of her paintings); "The Magic of the Brush" (an introduction to Chinese brush painting), written with Kai-Yu Hsu; "Thousand Year Pine" (a collection of her poetry), and the newly published "Chinese Aesthetics and Chi Pai-Shih." According to James Cahill, professor of art history at UC Berkeley, the new book is the fullest study available in English of this most popular of 20th-Century Chinese artists. Another book is in its final stages, "Luster of Jade," on Chinese culture as seen through poetry and painting.

As if that isn't enough, Woo wrote the lyrics to the No. 1 popular song in Taiwan in 1982, "Every Day the Sky a Blue Sapphire" ("Because in San Diego the sky is always a beautiful blue," she said). In 1986, she wrote the music to a popular song recorded in China, "Missing You." And she has two more songs coming out.

On a personal level, she is now the grandmother of Peter Woo, the baby of her son Paul, and his wife, Mary. Her daughter Cindy is now at the University of Irvine working on her doctorate, and Paul manages the computer section at the SDSU campus bookstore.

"I am very fortunate," she said. "I'm happy at home and at work. I feel very grateful." Professor E.N. (Nick) Genovese, chairman of Woo's department at SDSU, said he has known her for 17 years.

"Cathy Woo is an extraordinary person--constantly artistically alive," Genovese said. "I'm always amazed. Each time I turn around, she's opening a show, or publishing a book, or involved in a creative endeavor. And as if that isn't enough, the incredible beauty of her work is astounding. There is an aura about her that is unmistakable."

Yet, the peaceful quality of her poetry and painting combined with her active pace forms a paradox, he said. "Her activity is boggling. She's always on trips. I'd be exhausted," he said. "And she is assertive, though you don't expect her to be. It might catch some people off guard. She fought her way up through the ranks in the '70s, at a time when most women were not assertive.

"Her students are devoted to her and fascinated by her. Her reputation is as a superb, patient and knowledgeable teacher of language."

A Bridge

Woo sees herself as a bridge between her American students and the Chinese culture and language. "They learn to read the characters, to write and speak," she said. "As the world shrinks, everyone will have an opportunity to go to China in their lifetime. China has opened up--and it is a big gold mine. There are so many ways in which we are different, and so many ways in which we are alike.

"Of course, life is different in a Communist country. Those who live in China can't just go from one city to another without permission. And the standard of living is not like it is here. There are not always convenient bathrooms, heat and running water.

"In China, the philosophy of the role of the teacher is different from the American idea and has to do with the relationship between the teacher and the student. The student is considered the younger brother or son of the teacher, and this is how the teacher should treat the student. And the student forever treats the teacher with reverence, respect and love--and calls the teacher, teacher-father. (It used to be, she hastened to add, that all teachers and students were men.) The relationship is deep and life-long.

"I love my students. I try to be the teacher I wish my children had had. San Diego State University is a large university, but I try to treat them as individuals. Chinese is not an easy language, so I try to make them comfortable. It may not be as easy as learning a language in high school, but it is like opening a new window and having a completely different view."

A few of her students, she said, want to be diplomats; others have gone on to work in or visit China. She has had biology majors, art history majors and business majors in her classes. One student is now in the CIA. And, she said, "I have second-generation Chinese also. . . It makes my heart warm to see that."

Woo is a bridge in other ways--for example, translating communications to prepare for the visit of the golden monkeys to the San Diego Zoo from China--and recently she translated for the Institute of the Americas at UC San Diego when it had a group of Chinese visitors.

In her teaching, as in her paintings, the Chinese Taoist philosophy comes through. Perhaps in her painting this expression is most obvious.

"When we paint bamboo, it is not only a beautiful plant, but something deeper," she said. "Plum, pine and bamboo are all three friends of winter, and they stand for courage.

"Here in San Diego it is nice and warm. We don't see how bleak winter is--but when everything else is withered, plum and bamboo are still there. And young bamboo is flexible. According to the Taoist philosophy, to be strong is to be able to bend--not break. And the bamboo is hollow in the center. This hollowness, or this void, can stand for room in the heart for other people.

"I tell my students that, no matter how smart they are, to leave some room in their hearts for others."

Her paintings and poetry both are attempts to capture something beautiful, she said--"to externalize, share, preserve one brief moment of beauty. After skiing, for example, I saw a beautiful sunset driving home. So I tried to capture it in a painting. It might remind you of a beautiful sunset you yourself had seen. You can put part of yourself in it."

Her paintings are a blend of East and West--of the discipline, careful brush strokes and energy of the East taught to her by her grandfather and her culture--and her courses in architecture, her work with charcoal, sketching and her admiration for Georgia O'Keeffe and Mark Rothko.

"Both my poetry and paintings carry my heritage and culture--and also the Western influence of color and design," she said.

"The connection between poetry and painting is often seen in the Chinese culture. A scholar once said of Wang Wei (a Chinese poet and painter), 'In his poetry there is painting, and in his painting is poetry.' If I'm camping and it's not convenient to paint, I write. It's something I want to say--with words or brush. In China the same brush is used for painting and writing."

Her studio is in many ways a microcosm of her life--colorful and full of light. Chinese mobiles with red streamers move delicately, paintings are stacked against walls, others on wooden scrolls are rolled neatly on a countertop. And there are brushes, brushes, brushes--some as large as horses' tails, some delicate as feathers, some with ornate handles, some of straight bamboo, some in natural tones, and others stained by dyes.

"This room," she said, "used to be where the swing set, climbing bars and pool were when our children were young. Now I sit in here and write and paint. It is a celebration room."

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