A Remembrance for Dr. Po-Hsien Chu (1986-2022)
By Jyana S. Browne and Caitlin Marshall
Dr. Po-Hsien Chu was a brilliant scholar of Sinophone theater and performance, a nurturer of the field of Sinophone Studies, a generous and witty collaborator, a punctilious teacher, and above all, a cherished colleague who made scholarly fellowship into an art. Like the many colleagues who have spoken about Po-Hsien in the past several weeks, we looked “forward to years of collaboration and comradeship” (Yizhou Huang) with Po-Hsien, and struggle to grasp that those years of fellowship are in the past. Dr. Po-Hsien Chu passed away unexpectedly on February 8, 2022. He was 35 years old.
How do we build a monument to one who had just, as it were, officially “arrived” to the academic party? One whose lack of pretentions would cause him to shoo away with a flourish of the wrist, a sideways glance, and an urbane smile any too-exuberant hailing of welcome or extolled announcement of his presence? We build by acknowledging and holding with dignity all that Po-Hsien gathered to him in his time, and we reflect that labor of love by sharing here a congregation of voices that loved him in return.
Born and raised in Taiwan, Po-Hsien graduated from the National University of Kaohsiung in 2008 with a B.A. in Western Languages and Literatures. In college, Dr. Yi-hsiu Lai remembers Po-Hsien as “intelligent, hard-working, dedicated and cooperative” with a “strong passion for learning and practicing English, especially in the fields of literature and drama.” His college friends shared that he was “the most caring person who always generously gave his love to his friends” (Ching-Yu Kao, Eva Chuang, Hsuan Chen, Huang Hsiang Wen, Peggy Cheng, Sophie Shih). In 2011, he received an M.A. in English and American Literature from the English Department at National Kaohsiung Normal University, Taiwan. Under the direction of Dr. Jade Lee, Po-Hsien wrote a thesis on the representation of immigrants as “strangers” in contemporary London. Dr. Lee lovingly remembers his “beautiful writings and devoted passion for social justice.” His fellow student Terry Qiu wrote to us that Po-Hsien’s “warmth and kindness will always stay in my heart.” In 2015, he earned a second M.A. in Theatre Practice and Dramatic Criticism from the University of Illinois. Po-Hsien then began his doctoral work at the University of Maryland. He successfully defended his dissertation The Experimental Aesthetics of Global Sinophone Theatre: The Present, the Absent, and the Avant-Garde and was awarded his Ph.D. in July 2021. At the time of his death, Po-Hsien was a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre Arts at the University of Pittsburgh.
Po-Hsien’s scholarship made a major intervention in the field of Sinophone performance studies. “I will always remember Po-Hsien as a quiet-spoken and deeply empathetic person with expansive intellectual curiosity. He thought deeply about how the word “Chinese” has circulated as an episteme to connote a range of artistic and performative experiences” (Esther Kim Lee). In his dissertation, Po-Hsien developed the theoretical lens of the “global Sinophone” to examine the embodied discourses and cross-cultural reception of three internationally influential theater artists—France-based Gao Xingjian, Taiwan-based Wu Hsing-kuo, and Hong Kong-based Edward Yik-wah Lam—by examining how they negotiated Western avant-garde aesthetics and Chinese operatic repertoires in their works. “Ultimately, Po-Hsien regarded Chinese operatic theater and Western avant-garde theater not as separate entities, but as the joint basis for a new kind of avant-garde theater. In this way, Po-Hsien took a decidedly anti-Eurocentric view that foregrounded the creativity and innovation of these artists’ works, viewing them not as belated or imperfect adopters of, but rather as original interventions into, global theatrical avant-gardes” (Emily Wilcox). In addition to revising his dissertation for publication, Po-Hsien was developing articles on digital documentation of the kinesthetic and on US-China-Taiwan relations as mediated through popular culture. “He was, in all respects, a seasoned, independent thinker, a very skilled and talented writer and an organized meticulous scholar” (James Harding).
Po-Hsien carried his commitment to rigor and accountability into the classroom, where he taught core classes and boutique seminars in Theater and Performance Studies. At UMD, he developed an undergraduate seminar on “Globalization and Theatre.” That class grew into a graduate seminar he was teaching at Pitt at the time of his passing: “Revolutionary Bodies in Twentieth-Century Asian Solidarity Movements.” His exacting expectations lent him a teaching persona students may have perceived as that of the “straight man” or “the enforcer,” but as his colleague Jonelle Walker relates, it was a thinly veiled act: “Po-Hsien was my cohort sibling and my co-teacher as we waded through being instructors of record at UMD for the first time. He was the bad cop to my good cop and we were a united front. The story that captures his wry, unmistakable sense of humor best is the one where he saved me from a spider. Right as I was explaining the difference between the protagonist and antagonist, a student screamed and pointed at a giant spider coming my way. Without missing a beat, Po-Hsien stomped on the spider and said dryly, ‘I am the antagonist.” But, he wasn’t really. He was lovely, funny, gentle, and sharp witted.”
Professor Caitlin Marshall notes: “Po-Hsien and I shared a special connection at the helm of our department’s large, introductory, general education lecture. Together, we spent the 2019 (and better part of the 2020) year as a fellowship team at the campus teaching center redesigning the course with care, commitment, and attention to best practices. Sometimes ‘best practices’ meant a two-hour training on classroom clicker technology. I’ll never forget how Po-Hsien sliced through that deadliness with raised eyebrows and a subtle smirk passed from my left over a seminar table. His satire was a gift that wrapped pointed critique in profound connection: an acknowledgement that the alchemy of radical teaching includes transformative joy and that sometimes, despite our shared cynicism over bureaucratized learning benchmarks, the pathway to the classroom “utopian performative” is paved by clicker tutorials. I’ll always be grateful to Po-Hsien for those moments of learning together, and to clickers for giving me those golden moments with a dear friend.”
Po-Hsien built and nurtured many communities including his graduate cohorts at UIUC and UMD and the Global Asias working session at the American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR), which he co-convened from 2019-2021. He was also an active member of the Association for Asian Performance (AAP), a focus group within the Association of Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE). His friends from UIUC remember him as “the hardest working person” (Yu-Yun Hsieh) with a ”wonderful smile smiling from appreciation, gratitude, and humility” (Paul Y. Kim). His fellow students in the UMD Ph.D. program appreciated his “cordial colleagueship” (Khalid Y. Long) and valued him as a “loving and generous colleague” (Zahria Moore). He knew how to inject humor into a situation. “Talking to Po-Hsien felt to me like being let in on a friendly conspiracy to have a better time than was strictly warranted” (Patrick Young). “One of my fondest memories of him is his laugh -- the way he would just throw his head back and let out this full-bellied laugh. It was infectious.” (Allison Hedges). Jenna Gerdsen shared: “He was a confidante and a model for what I could accomplish within and beyond the program. Po-Hsien's wit, precision, and quiet and steady determination always inspired me.” Many spoke of his caring. “When he saw you struggling in silence, he would show up with a boba tea and a warm touch on the shoulder” (Brittany Proudfoot Ginder). Others testified that “Po-Hsien always had my back” (Kioumars Haeri) as he worked to support junior students through the PhD process. “Po loved baking really big, tall, multilayered and colorful cakes. For Po these cakes were acts of love and so much more. They established concrete protective boundaries like shields surrounding the ones he baked them for” (Christina Banalopoulou).
In his work within the fields of Theatre and Performance Studies and Sinophone Studies, his collaborators appreciated his “work ethic, his generosity in collaboration, and his joyful smile that couldn't help but put you in a better mood when you saw it” (Amanda Culp). Even as he was stepping into the field himself, he created openings for others. “He was one of the conveners who opened the door for me to share my scholarship at ASTR. It would have been the beginning of a career-long collaboration and even a life-long friendship. I will always remember him as an unbelievably knowledgeable and diligent colleague, but more importantly, a friend who was incredibly warm and generous to people even if he only met them briefly” (Ruijiao Dong). He drew people into his orbit and knew how to cultivate strong connections almost instantaneously. Joda Tsung-Hsin Lee wrote: “Po-Hsien, you and I met only once in person, and we worked as a team like old friends.” We feel his loss as a lively participant in scholarly debate and as a nurturer of fellowship and community.
We must also acknowledge the sacrifices and hardships Po-Hsien faced as he gathered to him the friends, colleagues, and communities reflected here. During his time in the states, Po-Hsien was first an international student and then an international faculty member. He lived with the chronic stress of visa temporality: would he get this fellowship? That position? Would his visa be extended; would it expire? These negotiations were lonely and disquieting as it was very important to Po-Hsien to remain in the United States and continue his career. He talked openly to friends about these challenges, and built fellowship and community by discussing the academy’s structural inequalities: visas, graduate student exploitation, and contingent labor. His colleague Kioumars Haeri remembers: “He was the only international student in his year and we had a lot to talk about. We talked about our cultural similarities and differences, and things that we didn't understand…in Maryland. I always enjoyed talking to him and in all the conversations I had with him, he was frank and very funny. Yet as an international student, he had it a lot harder than me, because he not only had to navigate the culture and language, but he also had to deal with his immigration status. Dealing with such a thing was hard in the first place, but it became harder during the Trump years, and it really never got better. It gets harder when you are not white, it gets harder when you are from specific parts of the world, and it gets harder when you are not STEM–apparently they become more scared of your merits. I’m not sure how much people understood what he was going through…” Christina Banalopoulou, herself once an international student, remembers that in a final facetime conversation with Po-Hsien shortly before his passing he closed their chat commenting, “we are survivors.”
1986, the year of Po-Hsien’s birth, was the year of the Tiger. Days before his death, Po-Hsien celebrated the lunar new year and again welcomed the Tiger full circle. His friend Paul Y. Kim commented, “[Po-Hsien] was born in the Year of the Tiger and his astrological sign was Leo. I remember him telling me that because he is two carnivores that's why he loves meat so much.” Paul’s comment captures Po-Hsien’s signature comedy–linguistic, situational, self-referential–and also a desire that animated him: the desire to partake in and share abundance–of food, of generosity, of laughter, of ideas, of care. In remembrance, we close with the words of a blessing he once gave the son of a friend, Regine Ma: “[I]n the future, the accumulation of wisdom and experiences will lead you to get through all challenges in your life. May you grow up peacefully and healthily, and one day you will meet your own angels. Just let them help you to walk on the path you desire.”
We welcome you to join us in remembering Po-Hsien on Zoom on March 18th at 8am Eastern (register here) or in person on April 2nd at 10am at the University of Maryland Memorial Chapel.