HCSSA Bridges Cultural Barriers

Saturday marked the third annual Ivy League Chinese Spring Festival Gala, hosted by the Harvard Chinese Students and Scholars Association to commemorate the traditional Chinese New Year. The event, however, was anything but traditional. Featuring acts ranging from a hip-hop interpretive dance to Chinese folk music to a Hungarian singer’s take of “Toreador Song” from the opera “Carmen,” the Gala didn’t focus, as might be expected, on the Year of the Snake. Instead, says HCSSA President Xu Zhang, a research assistant in SEAS, the Gala was meant as a celebration for a diverse group of students and attendees, many of whom are living far from home. “The main idea is to make [the student performers and spectators] feel at home while studying overseas, to gather together and celebrate with family and friends,” Zhang says.

As audience members poured into Sanders Theatre, the excitement in the air was palpable, as the Gala itself marked the beginning of the holiday festivities. “I think Chinese New Year is like the U.S. Christmas,” says Wen Xie, a student in the School of Public Health and choreographer and dancer for the Student Dance Club at HSPH. “People get together and watch a really huge gala that happens in Beijing every Chinese New Year Eve. I think it’s very hard to recreate this scene in the U.S., since we don’t have any relatives around us, so friends are the ones we want to go to this festival,” Xie said.

The Student Dance Club performed an original dance, “Love in the Source of the Yangtze River.” As the choreographer, Xie’s hope was to convey a universal feeling, love, through a distinctly Chinese narrative. “I’m going to tell a story about a Tibetan lover who falls in love with a boy at the end of the Yangtze River. [They’re] over a thousand miles apart, but it’s the same river they’re looking at every day,” she said. Her dance featured costumes of  her own design, and the twirls of the dancers mimicked both the running river and a Buddhist tower.

Xie, who began dancing at the age of five, says she is eager to share her passion for choreographing and dancing, but the HSPH Dance Club is not limited to experienced dancers or even Chinese students. According to Xie, many of the dancers were first-time performers, and two members of the group are American students. For her, the experience is more about making friends and giving back to the community. “Everybody actually gets a lot of [joy] from the experience during our group dance, and we feel like after the Spring Festival Gala our group is more unified,” she says.

The Gala also reaches beyond the Harvard student body. To create a greater sense of cultural unity among Chinese students studying in the United States, the HCSSA has reached out to its sister organizations at other Ivy League schools. “Harvard hosts the event each year, but the other organizations recommend different programs,” Zhang says. “Everyone is sacrificing time for study to do this entirely for the community,” she adds. “We feel like we have a responsibility to plan to gather together.”

Even for the students who prepared solo performances, the theme of unity and celebrating with family is paramount. “Usually people get together to celebrate this festival, but now I am away from my family, so the Gala is kind of a gathering together of all Chinese students,” says GSAS student Jingyi Yu. Yu presented an original magic show, “A Musical Dream,” featuring a series of CDs that she made disappear to the beat of popular American songs. “This performance doesn’t include much about Chinese culture, but I prepared it specifically for Chinese New Year,” she says.  “Chinese New Year is the most important and most traditional day in my culture, so that’s why I spent a long time preparing this performance.”

The emcees, bedecked in dazzling formal dresses and dapper tuxedos, performed most of their introductions in Chinese. Many of the acts celebrated overcoming the language barrier through an international dedication to the arts. Violinist Julia L. Glenn ’11-’12 showed her knowledge of Chinese as she introduced her violin act. Later, Hungarian opera singer Attila Dobak wowed with his skill in singing French opera, but was met by applause when he sang a humorous Chinese duet concerning traditional wedding vows. Hui Weng needed no language at all to reach the audience with the haunting melodies of her instrument, a stringed zither used in traditional Chinese music.

“I feel it is very important to glorify our Chinese culture in some way, especially in the Chinese community,” says Xie. The Gala not only drew attendees from the Chinese community, but also attracted a diverse audience in an international celebration. Whether understood in Chinese or in English, and whether viewed with friends or with family, the Ivy League Spring Festival Gala marked the beginning of the new year and the strengthening of new bonds.

—Staff writer Devony B. Schmidt can be reached at devonyschmidt@college.harvard.edu.

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