Clara Hsu, Executive Director of Clarion Performing Arts Center
Clara Hsu, owner and executive director of the Clarion Performing Arts Center in Chinatown, wears many hats. She runs a theater program for children. She is a writer whose work includes poetry and plays. It organizes open-mic events, reading conferences, concerts and film screenings. Hsu is also a member of the Grant Avenue Follies, a Chinatown cabaret troupe made up of 11 energetic Asian grandmothers. Last year, the soft-spoken senior added another hat to her collection – the rap star. And on October 8, she will help organize a fundraiser for the arts center that will double as a fashion show for local designers.
Hsu, who was born in Hong Kong, launched the Clarion with her father, James Ma, a piano maker, in 1982. At the time, it was a company that sold instruments and offered music lessons. Hsu sold the center to a few longtime employees in 2005. When they wanted out in 2016, she bought it back from them. She decided to turn the Clarion into a non-profit organization to empower Asian Americans and other marginalized groups through the performing arts.
Hsu is especially passionate about her children’s theater program. Originally, it was only offered in the summer. Today, it is a year-round program for young Chinese-American children from low-income families. Most of them live in Chinatown. Hsu focuses on teaching his students skits that incorporate Cantonese poetry, songs, and dances. They also learn Shakespeare and short poems by English poets.
“I write most of the sketches and compose songs with Cantonese lyrics,” she told Hoodline. “It is important for me to teach Cantonese to children because schools are abandoning it for Mandarin. But I think it can survive in the arts, especially theater.
In addition to the theater program, the Clarion offers a weekly concert on Saturdays and a series of films. Canadian pianists Duo Fortin-Poirier (Piano four hands) will perform this Saturday, followed by a screening of Jack has a plan, a humorous — yes, humorous — documentary about assisted suicide. Filmmaker Jeff Giordano curates the films shown at the Clarion, which range from documentaries on various subjects to romantic comedies and action films.
“Jeff brings some really amazing movies here that people wouldn’t know or otherwise see,” says Hsu.
The Clarion is also home to the Showgirl Magic Museum. The brainchild of Follies founder Cynthia Yee, the tiny museum is a treasure trove of costumes, photos and memorabilia from Chinatown’s bustling nightclub scene of the 50s and 60s.
Hsu stresses that Clarion events are open to everyone, even those who can’t afford the small fee she charges for some of them. “If people can pay, that’s great. If they can’t, that’s okay. It is a charitable organization and the programs are intended for the public.
Although she prides herself on the quality of the events she organizes, she admits that sometimes it is difficult to bring enough people to the Clarion to see them. The same goes for securing funds to keep the Clarion afloat. The non-profit organization relies on grants and donations to cover its operating costs. On Saturday, October 8, the Clarion will hold its main fundraiser of the year, a luncheon at the Far East Café. Tickets start at $125 and include a fashion show featuring the creations of four Asian American designers.
The fundraiser is a collaboration with the Grant Avenue Follies. Aged 67 to 87, the Follies perform at special events and senior facilities throughout the Bay Area.
Last year, in response to the alarming spike in hate crimes targeting Asian seniors, the Follies stepped up to create their Gai Mou Sou Rap. Hsu wrote the cheeky but powerful lyrics for the rap. His inspiration? The traditional Chinese chicken duster (gai mou sou) that she and other members of the Follies grew up with. Disrespecting your elders could get you a slap on the thin wooden handle of a feather duster. Brandishing their gay slack under, the Follies performed the rap during anti-Asian hate protests in the Bay Area. Many local and national media have published articles about them. And the official video for their rap has gone viral on YouTube – it has received over 87,000 views so far – and won several awards.
The Grant Avenue Follies, aka the Gai Mou Sou Rappers, strike a pose in Chinatown. | Photo credit: Dorothy O’Donnell
After the success of their first rap, the Follies begged Hsu to write them another. She was happy to oblige. His latest creation—Glamorous envelope— pays tribute to the special friendship she shares with these women.
The members of the Grant Avenue Follies take a break while filming their new Glammas Wrap music video. | Photo credit: Clara Hsu
“It’s one thing to have a group of friends, but those friends are different,” she explains. “They are adventurous and always ready to try new things. They are glamorous. They love to go out. And they like people.
The Follies will launch their Glamorous envelope video during the October 8 fundraiser. (The “wrap” in the title refers to the wrap dresses the women wear in the video. Couturier Colleen Quen, one of the designers participating in the fashion show, created the dresses.)
To help defray the production costs of the new video, the Follies have set up a Gofundme. The Clarion Performing Arts Center is located at 2 Waverly Place. Learn more about upcoming events here.