Who would have thought that dragons made of scraps of toilet paper could open the door to freedom in this country?
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."
"What this really shows is that, when you look at immigrants as human beings, rather than faceless stereotypes," Mr. Westerman adds, "you have to recognize the humanity they have, and then it becomes harder to throw them in jail and forget about them."
Wu's new status enables him to file for permanent residence. Assuming he got the coveted green card, he could work here - and bring along the wife and 11-year-old son he has not seen for four years.
Mr. Assadi, one of Wu's pro-bono lawyers, says he hopes the legal victory will pave the way for the remaining 46 Chinese aliens still incarcerated in York to be released based on their artistic ability too.
"Congress passed the special law for artists of extraordinary ability like Mr. Wu so that they could produce their art in freedom, not in an immigration jail," he says.
But Wu's ambitions weren't so lofty three years ago when he started tearing out tiny pieces of paper and folding them into tiny squares at the York prison, which INS pays $45 a day to house and feed men and women like Wu.
He just wanted to kill time. He needed an outlet to soothe the pain caused by his separation from his wife and son. Both are now living with relatives in China's Fujian province.
Using whatever he could find in jail - from toilet paper to containers of noodle soups, Wu started to craft Chinese figures in the century-old tradition of paper folding. The art was remarkable not only for its intricacy but also for the conditions under which it was made, observers say.
There were teapots made of carefully rolled pieces of legal paper. Toilet tissue dyed with tea and colored with magic markers produced breathtaking dragons, owls, and pagodas.
In all, Wu and his fellow Chinese illegal aliens crafted more than 10,000 sculptures - each composed of pieces of magazine paper torn out by hand, folded into little triangles, and fitted into place on a body of papier-mch toilet tissue.
As time went by, Wu experimented, adding to Chinese symbols layers of the America he saw or imagined from prison. He crafted eagles that supporters called "freedom birds" to express his thwarted hopes. And a Statue of Liberty in toilet paper.
"The thought that it was done in prison, using the pages of glossy American magazines, makes it even more powerful," says Robert Orsi, a professor of religion at Indiana University in Bloomington. Mr. Orsi, who specializes in immigrant art, joined other scholars and curators in writing in support of Wu's petition for the artist visa.
While Wu sat in jail, his art gained national and international attention, thanks in part to a group of local sympathizers who gave the men tools and moral support.
The art was sold to pay for the lawyers' out-of-pocket expenses. It's produced $125,000 so far, according to Jeff Lobach, the York lawyer who started the pro-bono effort to free the Chinese men.
The Golden Venture art also drew the attention of curators around the country. The National Endowment for the Arts partially funded a video on the illegal aliens' story that was part of the exhibit.
Like the art typically done by immigrants, Wu's incorporates the ways of the Old and the New worlds to fashion something fresh and that is Wu's - and immigration's - real contribution to America.
He's an artist who has "interpreted the inner meaning of migration for American citizens," Orsi says, adding: "They were detained, but the fact that they created this exquisite, transcendent art transforms them from victims to speakers of their own experiences."
As to whether his view of America has changed after almost four years of imprisonment in an American immigration jail, Wu says he's not bitter. "I realize and understand that I came here illegally."