Late one evening recently, I drove to a shopping center in San Jose’s West Valley district to scout a story for KQED’s multimedia arts series Culture Creates Community. I was there to meet Ann Woo, the executive director of Chinese Performing Arts of America.
It was 7:30 on a Sunday night. So when I opened the door to an innocuous strip-mall building, the jangle of activity that greeted me was quite a surprise.
Just inside the door to the left, a group of women in a small studio were stretching at a ballet barre. Straight ahead was a stage where a wild-eyed magician with a handlebar mustache practiced his act with two assistants. On the main floor a small group of Chinese women danced in a circle, some of them doing tricks with large silk fans. Through an upstairs studio window I noticed a group of young women dancing to Indian music. A few children ran by. And somewhere off in the distance, I could hear what sounded a lot like the Phantom of the Opera.
It seemed that every corner of this 14,000 square-foot studio was bursting with the sights and sounds of a different culture and art form. As I would soon learn, this suburban multicultural maelstrom is the creation of one passionate woman.
Originally from China, Ann Woo immigrated to San Francisco with her family when she was 14. It was only after she arrived here that she and a group of friends began learning traditional Chinese folk and classical dances. “At that time, there were no professional teachers,” she remembers. “We learned from books. The dances we learned were from so-called Red China.” Despite a brief run-in with the FBI, which deemed the dances too “pro-Chinese,” she continued to perform.
Through her dancing, Ann found a connection both to her homeland and to other Chinese immigrants. But life here wasn’t easy. “When we went to school,” Woo remembers, “we couldn’t read any books. The only book I could read is math. So I fell in love with math.”
With her aptitude for numbers, Woo went on to major in electronic engineering at UC Berkeley, where she was the only woman in her class of 120 students. At the time it was extremely rare for a woman to be in that field at all; there wasn’t even a women’s restroom in the engineering building.
After graduating and landing a job in her field, Woo continued to dance. “I have never stopped,” she says. “Even when I went to college, when I got married, when I was doing the electronic engineering, I never stop. When I got a job in Silicon Valley, before every weekend, I went back to San Francisco to dance.”
By 1991, Woo had been working for nearly 30 years as an electronic design engineer. She’d earned nine patents and had more than $2 million dollars in the bank. But something was missing.
She asked herself, “If I die now, who’s going to use my $2 million? I don’t want anybody else to use my $2 million. I want to use my money!” Woo wanted to try something new — and to work with younger generations. “The only thing else I know is Chinese dance. So that’s how I start Chinese Performing Arts of America.”
Today, 23 years later, Chinese Performing Arts of America is a professional Chinese dance company, an art education center with four youth programs — dance, orchestra, choir and a Chinese after school program — and a thriving multicultural arts incubator (the International Performing Arts Center) that provides a platform for traditional and contemporary performing artists to create and perform new works every year.
And after investing much of her fortune into CPAA, these days Woo is doing whatever she can to make it profitable and to provide income opportunities for the professional dancers in her company. To do this, she draws on both her experience as a dancer as well as her years in the high-tech industry. “I learned so much from the Silicon Valley,” she remembers. “Teamwork, imagination, creativity, and how to service my customer. I learned that the way to compete with others is that you have not just to serve what the customer wants; you have to serve beyond their expectation.”
Ann Woo is a tireless and fervent champion of the arts and she’s on a mission to convince Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that even the wealthiest communities are underprivileged if they don’t also develop and support their artists.
“I think technology in Silicon Valley is the hardware — I mean in their terms,” she philosophizes. “And art is the software. Hardware without software is dumb. If you don’t have culture and art, then you are just like any other animal.”
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and
Flora Hewlett Foundation. Support is also provided by the members of KQED.