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Artist In Residence - AIR

The Artist In Residence (AIR) program provides an opportunity for artists to develop and realize projects that align with the history and science mission of Tonic Theater Company. Artists and projects selected demonstrate the potential to increase knowledge and understanding of an aspect of history or science, or a combination of both, that may be largely unknown or is generally misunderstood.  

Edwina Chen - The Door Poem Project

Artist In Residence Edwina Chen is preparing a film project to document her search to reunite the diaspora of her family with their Chinese history and culture in order to preserve it for future generations. 


Using the latest technology coupled with good old fashioned research, Chen will locate and bring together the diaspora of her family with their relatives in China, descendants from the original 13 villages, to write a new poem for the first time in 400 years. Every person in China has a generational name set down in a door poem, although this knowledge has been lost to most modern-day Chinese, including the Chen family. In 700 AD China, the family had been thriving on the same lands and naming descendants for 16 generations. With the fall of the old empire and the rise of the Tang Dynasty, the new Emperor, fearing rebellion, disbanded the family. Their rice pot, which had cooked 3000 bowls of rice for each meal, was too large for any one household to transport. The family shattered it into 297 shards, giving one to each household to carry as they dispersed across the empire, beginning the journey that leads us to the Door Poem Project. It is a story that is at once personal yet universal, connecting generations around the globe and across time. Like all immigrants, members of the Chinese diaspora settled in new lands in search of a better future for their children. They sent money back to family in China using paper checks called Qiaopi. These include the name of the recipient in China, the sender, and the country of origin, and serve as a sort of reverse Ellis Island. 


Together with the existing poem, this paper trail will allow Chen to follow the flow of remittances to find her family in the diaspora. Traveling to China to access these documents is vital to track her relatives. Chen is an independent filmmaker with 15 years of experience in architecture and project management. Her project is envisioned in two parts: a 2-hour documentary film and a 10-hour episodic documentary series. The film, “Door Poem”, sets the context and explains the significance of the door poem to Chinese culture and history as Chen visits newly found relatives in Jamaica. The episodic portion covers the filmmaker’s journey to reunite members of her family’s diaspora from around the world. The series will culminate in a conclave that will reunite members of the diaspora with the 13 Chinese villages for the first time in 400 years to write the poem to name the next 16 generations. The finished product is intended for accession into the Library of Congress or National Archives and the Chinese National Archives, where it would be available for future scholars and researchers. 


By closely documenting the work, Chen also seeks to create a template for others to follow as they search for their own roots. The Door Poem Project is a universal immigrant story told through a Chinese lens with global reach. It highlights the rich contributions of immigrants and preserves cultural heritage for future generations. It would be difficult to find a story more epic in scale, yet so human and timely for our world today.

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