For these children from Chinatown, drama celebrates an ancient heritage

At Public School No. 1 on this second day of the Chinese Year of the Ox, the color red has double meaning. According to Chinese tradition, red signifies good fortune and happiness. It is also, of course, one of three national colors of the United States. Red flourishes across a stageful of children this morning -- red neckties on the boys, red corsages, skirts, and hair ornaments on the girls. The color adorns in celebration of the Chinese New Year, but along with white and blue in recognition of another milestone as well.

Less than a year ago, these 10-, 11-, and 12-year-olds and their families arrived in the US from Hong Kong. They spoke and wrote no English. Today, after months of what their principal, Jacob Wong, calls ``intensive'' training, they introduce an otherwise Chinese program with ``The Star-Spangled Banner,'' and they close with ``America the Beautiful.'' Their enunciation is exact. At the back of the auditorium, parents and grandparents watch with intent, dignified approval.

Three-quarters of this elementary school's 600 pupils are Chinese. The New Year's program -- not usually featuring new arrivals -- is an annual ritual here. Outdoors, a sunny morning is syncopated with explosions that are almost delicate, and curb puddles are scarlet with the fireworks' confetti-like remains. Aromas of holiday cooking drift even into classrooms, where later in the day, children will be given coveted rice and nut treats.

A century ago, Englishman Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson honored Chinese poetry, saying it ``simply clears away the obstruction which habit has built between us and the beauty of things.'' And clear, simple beauty fills the dances, poems, and dramatizations presented on stage by the various grades. Winsome kindergarteners with red paper flowers and yellow sashes sing ``Purple Bamboo Flute.'' First graders recite the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac.

Donna Yung, a P. S. 1 graduate and current student-teacher from Brooklyn College, performs a solo dance, ``Silver Platter,'' that calls for a constant balance of two plates amid acrobatic movement.

The program's centerpiece, ``Beyond the Milky Way,'' is a classical Chinese theater piece acted by fourth and fifth graders. This production took several months of preparation, and it is done in cooperation with ARTS, Inc. -- Arts, Resources, Teachers, and Students -- a Chinatown consulting organization with a staff predominantly of former teachers who have often scaled down their fees to work with P. S. 1.

The play's near-professional costumes were designed and made, for the most part, by parents in millinery jobs during off-work hours. Principal Wong explains that, while families here earn low wages at nearby factories and restaurants, the school's parent group is cohesive. Their current project is to build a scholarship fund for college-bound students.

Mr. Wong cites the high degree of pride in the Chinatown community. Two area schools including his own, he says, no longer receive the federal meal subsidies they qualify for because parents have been unwilling to submit the required income statement, preferring to take care of their own.

``Beyond the Milky Way'' opens with a farm boy from China whose lone friend is his cow. Meanwhile up in heaven, there is a maid who spins the clouds and yearns to go to earth. ``But her mother, the Queen of Heaven, says no. The queen says, `A boy will come from earth to visit you.' '' The boy, following the sage advice of his cow, lets a bird with silken aqua wings lead him to heaven, where he meets and marries the Spinning Maid.

When the boy gets homesick, he and the Spinning Maid decide to run away. But the queen's ``honey guards'' send the boy home, never to see the maid again. But the queen, relenting slightly to the begging fairies, allows the boy to cross a bridge of aqua-winged birds to the sky once a year, so once a year at least, the lovers live happily ever after.

C. D. Moy, a fifth-and-sixth-grade teacher here who adapted ``Beyond the Milky Way'' from an ancient legend, says the tale has been part of Chinese lore ``since time immemorial.''

Mei Fun, a seven-year-old who was in this morning's audience, applauds when asked how she liked the play. ``The dresses were so beautiful,'' she says in a near whisper. ``And it made me want to dance.''

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