Chinese Refugees Turn Waiting Into an Art Form

When the Golden Venture freighter ran aground, its illegal immigrants were jailed and set in political limbo

From behind thick prison walls in this blue-collar Pennsylvania town, a group of illegal aliens have turned their isolation into an artistic outlet to unveil dreams of freedom and fears of persecution.

Cut off from the American land they had risked their lives to find, 90 Chinese men have fashioned sculptures of painstakingly folded paper and intricate designs. Their materials include toilet paper, shredded towels, and plastic spoons for tools.

For three years, while volunteer lawyers worked for their political asylum, the men spent idle hours cutting paper into tiny squares, soaking it, breaking it down into pulp. As they folded the paper, they created a new form of art that is now being exhibited from New York City to Santa Fe and Philadelphia, weaving a little humanity into the fierce immigration debate.

Immigration limbo

They've been stranded in jail - and in immigration limbo - since June 6, 1993, when their boat, the Golden Venture, ran aground a few tantalizing miles from the New York City shore. On the eve of their fourth year in captivity, the Chinese men's spirits have sunk low, as have their hopes of staving off deportation. They've stopped making paper sculptures. And they are trickling back to China, facing an uncertain future.

"When you lock these people up, they turn to this enormously creative, expressive part of themselves," says Adrienne Cooper, a co-curator of "Fly to Freedom: the Art of the Golden Venture Refugees." "They're no longer a faceless, undifferentiated group of illegal immigrants. You see what their hands are capable of, you confront what's inside these souls: Their desire to fly to freedom."

The refugees' journey began in late 1992 in the Chinese province of Fujian. According to their supporters, some of the people were fleeing economic hardship; others wanted to avoid forced sterilizations; many were harassed because of their associations with the Christian church or pro-democracy groups.

Desperate to leave China, they had appealed to smugglers known as "snakeheads" - members of the Chinese mob - to transport them to America. They had promised to work off their $30,000 debts once in America, in Chinese restaurants and sweatshops.

The Golden Venture had set sail in Thailand packed with 300 young men and women. But after circling the globe for six months and nearly capsizing, the rusting 150-foot vessel ran aground. Ten people drowned in the desperate swim ashore; a handful escaped; the others, bewildered by the glare of television cameras, were taken to immigration prisons around the country. Thirty have since won asylum. Others have agreed to be deported. Many of the women were sent to Latin America, but a small number remain in prison in Bakersfield, Calif.

The majority of the men are still incarcerated at the York County Jail. As volunteer lawyers, after losing court appeals, are taking their petitions to federal court, the Golden Venture detainees have become highly visible test cases in the US government's crackdown on alien smuggling in a country that has grown wary of immigrants.

US government sends a message

There was a time when undocumented immigrants seeking political asylum in the US were routinely released pending the outcome of their petitions. There was not enough money and space to jail them all.

There still isn't enough money. But by jailing all 280 Golden Venture passengers, the government sought to send a message to discourage alien smuggling, experts familiar with the case agree. The 1996 federal budget calls for an additional $42 million to fund 418 new workers that will staff 2,800 prison cells for illegal immigrants.

Says Russ Bergeron, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS): "Are we trying to send a message of deterrence? The answer is, absolutely."

"Detention space is scarce, and you try to use it in the most effective way," says Grover Joseph Rees, INS's top lawyer when the Golden Venture ran aground. He says the Clinton administration made an "extraordinary decision" to instruct INS to "go ahead with 100 percent detention."

"The only crime these people are accused of," Mr. Rees says, "is escaping from one of the most dangerous countries in the world."

But INS officials say their goal is also to curb the intrusion of Asian-based organized crime groups like the Chinese snakeheads into America. These groups are dangerous and hard to find because they prey on their fellow citizens, rendering them slaves. The immigrants must honor debts. For many, that means working in sweatshops and going into prostitution. Snakeheads will pursue them, or their family and friends, to collect.

"Let's hope that these people in China will think twice before they pay so much money to become slaves," says Northwestern University Professor Li Cheng Gu, who specializes in issues of Chinese immigration.

Outlet for artistic energy

First, the paper sculptures resembled figures the men had seen in China, like pineapples made of paper money for good luck, folk toys, and clay sculptures.

The art caught on. It spread through the prison like a bonfire of creativity: Ideas would bounce from one pod to the other, turning the prison into an art factory for detainees to connect with the outside world.

"Rarely have works of art so literally been symbols of human rights," says Bill Westerman, a New Jersey folklorist who helps immigrants preserve their art.

In their villages they had been carpenters and electricians, students and farmers. Incarcerated in the United States, they became artists whose work tells of their struggles, and those of millions of illegal immigrants.

"They held up pieces of paper and saw themselves as a community of creators," Mr. Westerman says.

Yellow legal paper became teapot sets. Toilet tissue dyed with tea and colored with magic markers produced breathtaking dragons. There were pagodas, owls, and vases - more than 10,000 artworks in all - each composed of thousands of tiny pieces of magazine paper torn out by hand, folded into little triangles, and fitted into place on a body made of toilet-tissue papier-mch.

Irony is often woven into the sculptures. There's a Statue of Liberty made up of toilet paper and cardboard. It stands as a memorial to the detainees' crushed hopes for a new life.

"These works contain all the hope, the industry, the creativity, the rage, the frustration under which they were made," says curator Cooper of New York's Museum of Chinese in the Americas.

Then came the eagles, or "freedom birds," as the men called them. Big and small, some three feet in height, containing almost a thousand individually folded paper triangles in the wings and tail plus a head, body, and feet made of papier-mch colored by magic marker, glazed by white glue, smoothed by a plastic spoon.

Journey of hope

"We make birds because as they sing, they can fly in the sky," says Pin Lin. "Nobody can control the bird."

"We hope we'll be free someday," he says through a telephone set affixed to the glass partition of the York prison's visiting room. "We don't want to be in prison for three years and more."

Lin, a slight man, wears the prison's blue shirt and black trousers. He smiles a false smile when asked about his journey. He is afraid to speak, he says, for fear of retribution by the Chinese government.

"We have people sent back, they paid a high price, they were beaten by police," says Lin, who also learned English and earned his high school equivalency diploma in prison. "In China, they can find people who go back, especially [those from the] Golden Venture."

Lin's lawyer Craig Trebilcock explains how Lin went into hiding after fighting with Chinese officials who had come to sterilize his wife, still bedridden after the birth of the couple's second child. How, later, government officials ransacked his house. How, for 18 months, he had scraped together $2,000 as initial payment for the smugglers while promising the rest in America. How he had hoped to bring his family along one day.

"He's been so vocal that I have no doubt that if he went back he might disappear from the face of the earth," says Mr. Trebilcock, who is coordinating the pro bono effort to free the Chinese aliens. "He is on an emotional roller coaster."

After making "freedom birds," the men began to build eagles in cages. The word "China" was sometimes hidden in the grillwork. The cages were fashioned with tightly rolled paper and meticulously engineered doors and locks.

"America is really different from what we're told," Lin says. "I feel America is as good as China."

Because the wait has become so oppressive, many have stopped folding paper - they are returning home.

"They have put every ounce of their energy, talent, and hope into their art, but how many times are you going to hit into a brick wall until you're ready to give up?" says York resident Cindy Lobach, who created a support group for the Chinese detainees called People of the Golden Vision.

From patience to despair

The Tower of Eternal Gratitude stands tall in Ms. Lobach's dining room. It was made by Li Bin Wang, a student who, in China, had been dismissed from Fuchow Teachers' College for "criminal behavior" - participating in pro-democracy rallies. He was freed in March 1994 after Jeff Lobach, Cindy's lawyer husband, appealed the US government's rejection of Mr. Wang's request for asylum.

Wang is free, but the messages filling his 4-foot tower will stay. "Many miles I traveled to dash to freedom," reads one inscription folded into the tower, which is decorated with a grand courtyard, tree leaves made of dyed shreds of prison towels, and "Made in America" stickers from Wal-Mart ads.

Like the Tower of Eternal Gratitude, the art of the Golden Venture refugees was born as a way to give thanks. It flourished with hope.

"Now we've quit, we don't have the mood to do anything," says Chin li, who is beginning his fourth year in prison. "We don't think there's hope here."

*'Art of the Golden Venture Refugees' is on view at Philadelphia's Samuel S. Fleischer Art Museum through July 26. It will be displayed at York College in York, Pa., from Oct. 6 to Nov. 10.

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