Seducing American Eyes: Artist Yun Gee and the Federal Theater Project by Seunghei Hong • Puppetry International – Spring 2001

One of the most prolific moments in American puppet theater was in the 1930s, in the midst of the Depression. The federal government’s Works Project Administration (WPA) created the Federal Theater Project, one of whose important elements was a nationwide network of marionette units. The marionette units utilized the talents of many great American puppeteers, but it is not widely known that they also saw the introduction of classic Chinese literature to American audiences, probably for the first time in American history. This important moment in American culture came about because of the inspired efforts of a Chinese-American artist, Yun Gee, and the willingness of the New York marionette unit’s director, Remo Bufano, to support Gee’s inspiration. In the following article Seunghei Hong recounts the story of Kuang Kung’s Generosity, the landmark work Yun Gee created for the American puppet stage.

It was with the radically innovative marionette unit, and under the patronage of the Federal Theater Project, that a traditional Chinese puppet performance could be staged in the thirties; it marked an invaluable chapter in the history of American theater. The Federal Theater Project’s marionette unit was by far its most popular division; in its first year it gave over one thousand performances to more than 182,000 people in New York City alone, a success owed in great measure to its Director and Managing Producer, Remo Bufano. With a bent for innovation and novelty, and a belief in moving forward and moving fast, Bufano experimented with groundbreaking aesthetic principles and ventured into new themes and manipulation techniques.

It was under the experimental spirit of Bufano, from 1935 to 1937, that the marionette unit staged its most successful and significant performances, including not only such familiar tales as Oliver Twist, Alice in Wonderland, and Treasure Island, but also, for the first time in the American theater, Kuang Kung’s Generosity, a puppet play based on a classic Chinese epic. Kuang Kung’s Generosity did not follow the typical forms of American puppet theater. Instead, it was a wholly different puppet performance with new themes, characters, backdrops, and music.

The history of the American response to Chinese immigration and Chinese culture best explains why Kuan Kung’s Generosity seemed such a daring and revolutionary production. In the late nineteenth century the concept of an ameliorative multiculturalism did not exist. Racist sentiments abounded, and the lynching of Blacks and Asians was met with complacency and without remorse all over the country. During the 1870s, Chinese immigrants were routinely assaulted, usually by Irish and Italian immigrant workers who feared losing jobs to them. In 1882, as a wave of anti-Chinese attacks spread through American cities, the United States government, egged on by the popular press, prohibited Chinese immigration with the Chinese Exclusion Act, even though Chinese constituted only .002 percent of the entire U.S. population.

Under the Exclusion Act only a handful of Chinese were legally allowed into the United States, but many entered illegally. In part through solidarity, but also out of necessity, Chinese immigrants began to create their own enclaves in American cities. Even after Chinese immigration resumed in the twentieth century, most Chinese continued to be isolated in urban “Chinatowns.” Within these enclosed communities, theater was extremely popular. Performed in its native language, traditional Chinese theater helped people hold onto their heritage while they accommodated themselves to the changing conditions in their new homeland. From drama to opera to puppetry, a variety of traditional Chinese performances were staged by professional troupes.

Although immensely successful within Chinese communities, Chinese theater remained invisible to the general American public. What Americans did encounter on the popular stage of the time were caricatures of the Chinese: sometimes farcical, sometimes villainous, but always degrading, and always played by white actors made up to represent the racial type. African-American actors on the minstrel circuit occasionally portrayed Chinese as well, resulting in a double parody of identity: a black actor, working within the self-denigrating codes of minstrelsy, invited laughter through the demeaning representation of a Chinese character. It was in the midst of this complex and difficult legacy that Yun Gee, a talented Chinese-American modernist painter, proposed to Bufano’s marionette unit that it produce an original puppet performance that could both enlighten and inform the American public about Asian traditions. Bufano agreed, and with the marionette unit Gee created Kuan Kung’s Generosity. A 1935 Federal Theater Project newsletter gives an intriguing description of the show:

Puppeteers who are out touring know very little about what is happening inside the marionette workshop. There is Yun Gee’s Chinese marionette show, with its authentic Chinese heads, costumes, and scenery, which can be seen in rehearsal at the Leroy Street Library. The Chinese marionette show will be played by the Treasure Island Unit, which will alternate performances of both plays during the summer.


Kuang Kung’s Generosity was indeed performed that summer, to full houses not only in New York but in other FTP districts as well. Gee was a second-generation Chinese-American, literally by accident. His father had entered the United States illegally and worked menial jobs while in hiding. In 1906, after San Francisco experienced one of its worst earthquakes, the elder Gee walked into the Naturalization Department and demanded his citizenship, claiming he was a United States citizen whose records had been lost in the earthquake, in 1921, his son was shipped over from China at the age of fifteen as a legal Chinese-American. Yun Gee’s American passport allowed him to be visible; to step freely out of the enclaves of Chinatown; it would also become his ticket to join the marionette unit.

A passionate aficionado of art, Gee studied painting at the California Institute of Fine Arts. A modernist painter with very personal views on painting, he believed art depended upon an understanding of, and reaction to one’s society. Gee drew upon this notion in his paintings: his colors, lines, subject matter and technique were a reaction to the dominant style of American art in the twenties – social realism. In San Francisco’s Chinatown Gee formed the Chinese Revolutionary Artist Club with some friends. The club members started to exhibit their work at a co-op gallery in 1925, and the following year presented a solo exhibit of Gee’s paintings. As a result Gee became acquainted with several aristocratic Parisians who, captivated by his markedly modernist style, invited Gee to travel to Paris and work with other artists at the center of the modernist art world.

From 1926 to 1931 Gee worked in Paris, and its modernist atmosphere inspired some of his finest landscape paintings. In spite of success and recognition in Paris, however, Gee continued to struggle financially. Finally, after four happy but poor years, Gee left Paris and came to New York with hopes of finding a job and earning a living. Upon arriving in New York, Gee was immediately welcomed by and established within New York art circles.

His paintings were displayed at the Museum of Modern Art, and in various reputable art galleries. However, this reputation still did not provide him with the financial support he needed and he looked for other means of income.

With the onset of the Depression in the 1930s, Gee became an artist on relief. His fame as a modernist painter had provided Gee with some prominent connections, and so with a letter of recommendation from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in one hand, and his American citizenship card in the other, Gee joined the Works Progress Administration in 1935. He worked first with the Federal Theater Project’s marionette unit, and then, in 1936, with the Easel Project, a program specifically devoted to the visual arts. Gee left behind an interesting legacy with the Easel Project, but it was his work with the Federal Theater Project that broke new ground in the history of the American arts, and specifically in puppet theater. Unlike most second-generation immigrants, who, in trying to assimilate into American traditions, eagerly renounced their own heritage, Gee constantly strove to display Chinese traditions and philosophies in all he did. For Gee, paintings, writings, and even dinner parties were not complete unless they contained a certain Chinese element. He took great pride in his Chinese origins, and throughout his life he would refer to his elementary education in China as his most edifying experience. It was in fact during these elementary years that Gee had become familiar with The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. As a young boy, he was captivated by its plethora of never-ending battles and cunning intrigues, which painted a fantastical world in his creative mind. As Gee grew older, his understanding of Confucianism and Taoism helped him realize the full significance of the epic.

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms was written in the fourteenth century by the scholar Luo Guanzhong. Based closely on historical events (seven parts fact and three parts fiction), it is a mainstream historical work detailing the rise and fall of the Han Dynasty from 189 to 265 A.D. While the dates seem questionable, the people and events are factual. A national epic, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms renders a rolling panorama of passions and ambitions that brings readers to all realms of human experience. It is said that in Asia children read the book for its fairy-tale qualities; rulers embrace it for strategies; scholars, wisdom; parents, guidelines; and laypeople, entertainment. Its precepts of morality, honor, loyalty, virtue, and duty to country and friend probe into Confucian philosophical questions, while its elaborate and descriptive renditions of court conflict, corruption, banditry, rebellion, intrigue, battles, and ambitious warlords draw the reader into its fantastic world.

In the eyes of Remo Bufano, the director and managing producer of the marionette unit, all these traits gave The Romance of the Three Kingdoms the potential for a highly successful puppet performance. In a Little Review article of 1926, Bufano had written that “wherever the supernatural or the elaborate or symbolical is aimed at, the marionette has no rival,” and Gee’s adaptation of a part of Luo Guanzhon’s epic, which he titled Kuan Kung’s Generosity, played upon the just the elaborate and symbolic elements Bufano prized.

So Gee was commissioned by the marionette unit to pursue his Chinese play. Gee wrote his original script in Chinese and translated into English with the help of some friends. In the preface to the English script Gee wrote the following:

This drama is founded upon one of the most stirring episodes in Chinese history, which occurred in the year 208 A.D. The battles depicted in the play happened right after the battle of the Red Cliff was fought in the present province of Hupeh. In this battle, Ts’ao Ts’ao, the usurper of the Empire Han, north of the Yang Tze, was defeated, and his fleet of 1000 vessels burned by Sun Chu’uan, the emperor of Wu, who together with Liu Pei, the emperor of Shu, conspired to overthrow Ts’ao Ts’ao, emperor of the Wei Empire. The standing army of Ts’ao Ts’ao numbered 830,000 men.

romance-of-the-three-kingdomsBeneath the title are two simple, but revealing subtitles: “A Chinese Drama for Stage and “Puppet Show in Four Acts by Yun Gee.” It is both significant and poignant that Gee chose to focus on this particular chapter of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. According to legend, Luo Guanzhong composed his novel of high Han nationalism while under the tyrannical Mongolian occupation of the fourteenth century, and the epic revolves around three friends and blood brothers and their struggle to restore their nation against an avaricious emperor. Ts’ao Ts’ao, a highly decorated general of the Han Empire, betrays the trust of the young Han Emperor, usurps the empire, and establishes the Wei Kingdom in the north of China. Liu Pei, using his questionable imperial blood to legitimize his claim of restoring the Han Dynasty, establishes the Shu-Han Kingdom in the west of China, and with the help of his best friends Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, wages war against Ts’ao Ts’ao. The theme of loyalty to country and restoration of a glorious dynasty must have tugged tenderly at Gee’s heartstrings. Fiercely nationalistic, his play suggests a strong protest against the racial prejudices prevalent toward the Chinese in the thirties. In a time when Chinese were depicted in demeaning and farcical stereotypes on the popular American stage, Gee managed to produce an image of the Chinese as descendants of a glorious empire with a magnificently rich history. The story is also poignant to those who know the entire Romance of the Three Kingdoms because in spite of his efforts, Liu Pei fails to restore the Han Kingdom, loses his two best friends in battle, and eventually retreats to a small village in the west. Gee’s focus on a particular battle which Li Pei wins suggests a determination to depict a romantic vision of his own situation: one nationalist individual triumphing over a tyrannical nation. Gee drew a number of elaborate watercolor sketches for each of his characters and for the set backdrops; he even created a blueprint for each marionette figure, complete with details on how the strings should be attached. From headpiece to costumes and weapons, Gee painstakingly duplicated the images he found in traditional Chinese pictures, and he made sure that every detail would be rendered clearly and correctly by the workshop. One blurry photograph of the production exists, but it is hard to decipher the figures and costumes in their colorful array of pink, green, blue, red and yellow. However, Gee’s [ex-wife], Helen Gee, is certain that her [ex-] husband, with his meticulous working methods, would have insisted upon every detail being produces as he designed. Little information remains on the actual production of Kuang Kung’s Generosity. In addition to performances in English by the FTP marionette unit in various New York boroughs, the production was also performed in Chinese for mainly Chinese audiences in Chinatown. According to Nancy Gonzalez, Gee’s biographer, a variety of Chinese newspapers from 1935 included laudatory reviews of these performances: the show as exactly what people had see in their homeland, or at least what they heard was being done in China. Garnering success from both American and Chinese audiences alike, Kuang Kung’s Generosity continued as a touring production. Americans had rarely seen such elaborate marionette shows before, had certainly never seen a Chinese marionette show, and were instantly fascinated by Kuang Kung’s Generosity. However, amazingly enough, the entire production – puppets, sets, and props – was lost in the midst of travels between cities. Gee never saw his marionettes again and Helen Gee assumes they no longer exist, since so much of what the WPA commissioned was eventually destroyed or, as she puts it, “sold at five dollars a pound to scrap-dealers.”

In addition to writing the script and designing the costumes, Gee also operated marionettes when the play was performed.  Considering the size of the cast – eight main characters and six supporting roles – it seems quite likely that Gee performed with other puppeteers.  Yet a small black-and-white photograph of Gee manipulating the strings from above the stage shows him standing alone.  Moreover, in a short home movie he made of Kuan Kung’s Generosity, he operates all the marionettes himself.  Helen Gee adds that Gee’s marionettes were very large in size – almost human-sized.  Is it possible that Bufano inspired Gee to work in this scale?

How Chinese or American were Gee’s marionettes in terms of style and technique?  Traditional Chinese marionettes are noted for the great number of strings – in some cases as many as forty – used to control them.  An average Chinese marionette stands about twenty-four inches high and is sometimes equipped with a wide range of expressive motions.  The mouth, eyes, individual fingers, even the eyebrows in some instances may be made to move.  On the other hand, American marionettes are generally simpler, and Bufano in particular felt that puppets should be kept simple.  He encouraged the least amount of strings possible to make the marionette work.  Most likely influenced by both traditions, Gee formulated a compromise.  The designs for his life-size marionette show an average of six strings: fairly simple and Bufanoesque.  Yet Gee’s costumes and ornaments reveal an elaborate intricacy typical of the Chinese theater.  In other words, Gee was able to create an original Chinese-American marionette form.

Although Gee was happy working with the Federal Theater Project, he yearned to paint again.  So when the WPA Easel Project was established in 1936, Gee left the marionette unit and went on to participate in painting commissions around New York City.  Together with Stuart Davis and Georgia O’Keeffe, Gee was voted one of the top five artists of the period by the New York Times.  He even competed with Diego Rivera for the commission to paint a mural in the lobby of the Rockefeller Center.

It was in [1935] that he met and soon married Helen Gee.  Exhibiting his work at the Museum of Modern Art, performing traditional Chinese dance and music at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, cooking Chinese meals and organizing dinner parties for friends and fellow artists, teaching art at WPA art schools, and living comfortably on the WPA’s twenty-five dollars weekly payroll, Yun and Helen Gee enjoyed what would be the happiest days of their lives.  However, towards the end of 1936, Gee began to feel that the American art world was stifling and constricting, plagued by politics and racism.  He believed he was not being given equal treatment or equal opportunities, and in [1936] he once more left for Paris.

During his three years in Paris, Gee wrote Helen Gee approximately 450 letters., and in one of them he discussed Kuan Kung’s Generosity for the last time.  In 1938 the French government had invited Gee to participate in a traveling puppet showcase.  His marionettes had earlier disappeared in the United State, but because of what Helen Gee terms “his exceptional organizational skills,” Gee still had his marionette sketches wit him, neatly arranged in leather-bound books he had made with his wife.  So, in lieu of the actual puppets, Gee exhibited his marionette designs, and they were warmly received in Paris.

Gee returned to New York in 1939, but was no longer the multi-talented creative genius of before.  Helen Gee noticed a change in his personality, which was immediately reflected in his paintings.  His colors grew dark and his work did not match the brilliance of his earlier years.  Something had gone terribly wrong in Paris, but no one, not even Gee himself, seemed to know what it was.  Depressed and frustrated, he eventually fell under the spell of paranoia-schizophrenia.  Helen Gee remembers his tragic downfall: “He went from this handsome man with dark gleaming black hair and dressed in dark suits and bright ties to a grotesque human being.”  He degenerated slowly until his death in 1963. [Yun Gee returned to New York in 1939 and had a series of successful exhibitions throughout the 1940s.  He met Helen in 1935, they were not married until 1942, three full years after his return from Paris. Yun Gee kept painting and inventing all the way into the late 1950s. NY ARCHIVES]

It must have been exhausting to be Yun Gee, and it almost seems as if his genius consumed him.  He was a musician who played six different instruments; a friend who organized ten-course Chinese dinner parties; a husband who, his wife said, taught her “the meaning of life”; a patriot who predicted China would be one of the three world powers by the end of the century; and an intellectual who studied Taoism and read Freud and the French Symbolist poets.  Most importantly, Yun Gee was an artist.  As an artist, he was filled with an irrational pain and sense of failure, and this, combined with his portentously strong love and compassion for life, produced a tragic mélange of fates.  As tragic as his life may seem, however, it should not be considered a tragedy.  A passionate man with strong views, he left a lasting legacy in the world of art and the world of puppet theater.