Art or politics?
Promotional fliers for NTDTV’s Chinese New Year Spectacular -- a lavish multimillion-dollar production opening Jan. 18 at the Nokia Theatre -- describe the show as a celebration of “The Renaissance of Divine Chinese Arts.” Featured on the colorful handout are dancers in traditional costumes, whirling ribbons and review quotes that deem the show “fabulous,” “beautiful” and “astonishing.”
What the fliers don’t say is that NTDTV -- New Tang Dynasty Television -- is a New York City-based, nonprofit satellite broadcaster operated by a staff that includes members of a relatively new spiritual sect called Falun Gong. The production has met with controversy at virtually every stop of its tour because of the perceived connection between the Chinese New Year Spectacular and the religious group.
Falun Gong or Falun Dafa -- system of mind and body cultivation that was introduced to the public in China in 1992 -- has been banned by China’s communist government. The Chinese government has denounced the international touring production of the Chinese New Year Spectacular -- now in its fifth year and visiting Los Angeles for the third time -- and has pressured companies to cancel their support.
Pressure from the Chinese government has reared its head in Southern California: In a Dec. 17 letter, China’s consulate general asked Orange County not to recognize the Chinese New Year Spectacular performances in Los Angeles and others scheduled for mid-January at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido. Earlier this year, a letter urging a boycott of a New York show arrived at the office of a state assemblyman there.
Representatives for the Chinese New Year Spectacular would not reveal the cost of the show, which contains computerized visual elements and live fireworks, except to say it is in the multimillions. “Everything is very elaborately prepared,” says spokesman James White. “It is a state-of-the-art show.”
At the core of the spectacle, according to Simone Gao, one of the show’s producers, are large-scale classical Chinese dances with as many as 60 dancers backed by a live orchestra. The production features instrumental performances, including a soloist playing the erhu, a stringed Chinese instrument.
The show also includes “mini-dance-dramas,” with narratives about Chinese legends or historical characters and events. Some of these dramas depict the persecution of Falun Gong members in China. In one piece, Gao says, “Policemen come in and drag the practitioners off and beat them, including little girls, which is very true -- many similar stories are happening in China right now. Later on, the people in the park start to stand up and block the police, and eventually the police retreat.”
Gao adds, however, that she does not see the content as out of place in a show about Chinese history and culture. “It is not something that the producers squeeze in to get you to convert to Falun Gong; it’s not like that at all,” she says. “The Falun Gong content is very well in line with the traditional Chinese culture; it is part of Chinese values and traditions.”
Falun Gong members have raised hackles in the mainstream Chinese-American community -- in part because some consider Falun Gong a fringe group or cult religion and in part because of the group’s in-your-face approach to spreading its message.
Those who practice Falun Gong frequently congregate in public places, display banners or take to the streets to distribute printed materials that detail ways in which Falun Gong practitioners say they have been persecuted or subjected to human rights violations in China, sometimes including graphic images of physical abuse.
“I think some of the tactics used by the Falun Gong are not very welcome,” says Peter Kwong, a sociology professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center and professor of Asian American Studies at Hunter College. “They are very aggressively pushing their agenda to the extent that some people think it is giving China -- and the Chinese in general -- a bad name.”
The Falun Gong, Kwong adds, has a reputation for being less than open about its connection to events or institutions. “They have their free newspapers on the street corners, in every language possible; at the same time, they are trying to get themselves involved in issues that project them as part of the mainstream,” he says. “This show is one of those moves they have taken.”
Others say that though Falun Gong practitioners call themselves a religious group, their main message has been political -- and some believe that politics, not culture, dominates in the Chinese New Year Spectacular.
“Most of the Chinese community think it’s linked too much with political events,” says Michael Cheung, president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Assn., based in downtown Los Angeles. “I saw the show last year at the Kodak Theatre. Some of the content reflects politics and human rights; it is not exactly art.”
Press material sent to The Times about the Chinese New Year Spectacular makes clear its connection to New Tang Dynasty Television -- although no specific mention is made of the broadcaster’s relationship to the Falun Gong.
But one letter from a press representative offers as an interview subject the show’s emcee, 29-year-old Israeli-born Leeshai Lemish, detailing the story of how Lemish was “beaten in detention and deported” for joining 35 other people from 12 countries in 2001 in “the first international protest” of the abuse and mistreatment of Falun Gong practitioners.
As to why the Falun Gong is not mentioned in fliers being circulated to the public, representatives for the Chinese New Year Spectacular say that such mention is not necessary. Although some involved in the show practice Falun Gong, they say, the religious group is not a fi- nancial backer of the show, which is funded by New Tang Dynasty Television and private investors.
“Falun Gong is a social practice, it doesn’t own any corporations or organizations,” Gao says. The perceived connection, she says, is because “NTDTV is known for reporting true stories of persecution in China, of political corruption, and reports heavily on human rights abuses, including the persecution of Falun Gong.”
Cheung of the Chinese Benevolent Assn. says that while he does not believe the show’s producers actively seek converts to Falun Gong, “they try to send a message.” He adds, however, that the Chinese American community is aware of New Tang Dynasty Television’s ties to Falun Gong so it knows what to expect.
“We are not surprised, when we see this show, that they are trying to send a message,” Cheung says. “We understand because we know who they are, and most people are not surprised by what they see.”