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For One Refugee, Sculpture Paves the Way to Freedom

While detained in prison, Lu Zhong Wu found an artistic outlet

By Isabelle de PommereauSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 21, 1996


Who would have thought that dragons made of scraps of toilet paper could open the door to freedom in this country?

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That's precisely what happened to Lu Zhong Wu, an illegal Chinese alien stranded in jail for three years after an ill-fated journey aboard the smuggling boat Golden Venture.

Mr. Wu was no artist in China, but he became one at the York County Jail in Pennsylvania, fighting to be recognized as a political refugee. Facing rejection after rejection, he turned his thwarted dreams into creativity, sculpting figures of folded paper and intricate designs so remarkable they've been exhibited across America. (See Monitor article "Chinese Refugees Turn Waiting Into an Art Form," May 30, Page 10.)

On Oct. 9, Wu passed the grade. He walked out of jail, a free man - not because the federal government heard his plea for asylum after all. Rather, they said that the art created in prison could enrich American cultural life.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service's (INS) decision to reclassify Wu as an "alien of extraordinary ability in the arts" makes him eligible for permanent residence here along with the roughly 5,000 artists, researchers, and athletes from around the world who each year have risen to the "top of their fields" at home and demonstrated their unique contribution to America.

The difference is that Wu is the first illegal alien ever whose talent was spawned by jail life and recognized there. "It's difficult enough to be in jail, but to be creative and be recognized for it by the people who are making you prisoner is extraordinary," says John Assadi, one of the pro-bono lawyers who coordinated Wu's petition for the artist visa.

The irony of it all seems not to daunt Wu as he savored his second day of freedom since June 1993. Looking slightly bewildered, he's sitting in his lawyer's office in Manhattan on Oct. 10, his fingers mechanically folding pieces of white legal paper into tiny triangles.

"Of course I have faith in America, now that I'm out," says Wu with a faint smile while Jun Wang, another pro-bono lawyer for Wu along with Helen Morris in Washington, translates for him.

But could it always have been the case?

The road to freedom for him started in 1991 when Chai-Ern Huang, Wu's wife of seven years then, learned she was pregnant with a second child. Frightened because they violated China's one-child-per-couple policy, Wu quit his job - designing sets and lighting for the Fujian Operatic Company - and went into hiding.

But China's "birth-control authorities" caught up with the couple. Chai-Ern Huang was forced to have her abortion at seven months and was sterilized against her will.

Fearful of persecutions because he had criticized the Chinese government, Wu scraped together an initial down payment of $3,000 to be smuggled to America. Later, he paid another $8,000 and owes more still. He boarded the decrepit vessel Golden Venture that was packed with 300 Chinese citizens seeking refuge in America. But after a six-month voyage, the boat ran aground near Rockaway Shores, N.Y. Several men died in the swim ashore; others fled.

Wu couldn't swim. He was rounded up by INS and sent to the York County Jail along with 154 other men.

For the next 3-1/2 years, Wu's lawyers pleaded the US government to allow him to live here as a political refugee. Their petitions were rejected twice and an appeal of these denials is now pending in federal court. But it took only five days for INS to grant Wu the rare visa as an exceptionally talented artist, a visa that opened the door for his freedom.

This twist adds another layer of irony to the Golden Venture saga, advocates for the Golden Venture refugees say.

"Here we have a government that says, 'We can't afford what illegal immigrants are doing to this country,' but it is paying room and board for three years instead of making them pay taxes," says Bill Westerman, a New Jersey folklorist who co-curated exhibits of Wu's art in New York and Philadelphia. "So they went to jail and made this art, and their protest art is what set them free."