I’ve known Amy Tan since the late nineties, but until recently I had never read her books. They’re all about Chinese Americans searching for their roots. I was born in China; I lived through the Cultural Revolution. This is a past I do not always want to remember. And so when Amy, executive producer Sarina Tang, and composer Stewart Wallace asked me to design the costumes for their staging of her novel The Bonesetter’s Daughter at the San Francisco Opera, I tried everything I could to get out of it.
Eventually the director, Chen Shi-zheng, showed up at my Shanghai apartment and said, “I know this story is about a painful past, but Stewart’s music is about today. And your costumes will go from the past to the future.” I was sold. But I still had to read the book, about a San Francisco woman who finds the diaries of her Chinese mother. I bought it on audiotape and listened to it on my flights between Shanghai and New York. I had never wanted to touch that part of my heart, but listening to The Bonesetter’s Daughter became my lullaby.
I wrote and sketched and called my mother with questions. The costumes draw on my memories: When someone dies in China, survivors make paper clothes, food, and flowers for the burial. So I decorated the ghost characters’ silk dresses with large papier-mâché flowers and it looks like I gave one paper wings. In a wedding scene the children are in dramatically bright gowns. When the characters gather at a restaurant in San Francisco, I painted the Chinese symbol hula on their suits. It means good life, good fortune.
Tickets to The Bonesetter’s Daughter, which premières at the San Francisco Opera on September 13, are $15 to $290 (301 Van Ness Ave.; 415-864-3300; sfopera.com).