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Interview: Author of Stanford's 'Pawn' the Musical and her Mother Win Crowds for Christ Through Arts

Sep 19, 2012 06:33 AM EDT

The musical "Pawn", written by a 4th-year Chinese student at Stanford University and performed by Stanford University students, has received numerous accolades. They have also performed this musical on many stages in the world. Some are moved by the dedication and sincerity of the performers, while others are touched by the plot and twists of the story, and still others awe at the creative talent of Karmia Chan Cao.

Karmia Chan Cao's family immigrated to Vancouver in 1997, and relocated back to Beijing due to her father's job. Karmia was accepted by Stanford University in 2008, and graduated this year. During Karmia and her mother's (Wang Wen Qin's) visit to Canada, the Gospel Herald was fortunate to interview this talented and spiritual pair, and to learn how they glorify God through their creative works.

R: Reporter

C: Karmia Chan Cao

W: Wang Wen Qin

R: Karmia, your first college-based musical "Pawn" has received very positive reactions and compliments. Can you tell us what your original aim was when you wrote this musical? Where did the inspiration to write come from?


C: This has to do with my experience in the church. In the beginning, I learnt music in the church for the purpose of praising God, and thus writing hymns and songs is my way of knowing God and communicating with God. This musical has gone through several rounds of editing, and each round has something to do with my spiritual experience.

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My religious life has been treacherous, and there was a long period of time when my spirit was rebellious, and yearned for exploration into the spirit and the world. God communicated with me first through arts, or, in other words, I knew God better through arts. The music in "Pawn" seems like it is written by me, but it is really written through the Holy Spirit. I have received the benefits through the Holy Spirit, and the rest is just downloading.

Through this, I also learnt that as a Christian writer and artist, it is not us doing something for God. We are God's creations in the beginning, and God has written our lives' scripts wholeheartedly, or turned us into a beautiful canvas or a brilliant song.

As an extension of the intention to praise God, I developed my musical creation. Drama is a carrying tool and a way for exploration, that can bring one to an unreachable state.

Besides, I ponder widely in societal, historical, and military matters. As a Christian, I will not reject touching on these matters, since God is everywhere. "Pawn" used Racial discrimination and warfare as lead-ins, towards the theme of salvation. "Pawn" is a place to reclaim what has been lost, and symbolizes real hope. Thus I wish the Holy Spirit will work in the midst of the theater, so that the audience may see the happening of the salvation through the musical.


Pawn is a folk-rock musical written, produced, and performed entirely by Stanford students. It tells the gripping story of Abraham Niu, a young Chinese Canadian soldier stationed in Afghanistan.

R: I have heard that you two are preparing for a second musical "Tshangs dbyangs Rgya mtsho". Can you talk about some of the sparks ignited through the process?

C: Mother is a very talented writer, and writing with her is an enjoyment for me. We share tremendous understanding both in words and in emotions. I can usually translate the hymns that my mother wrote smoothly to English.

In "Tshangs dbyangs Rgya mtsho", mother is the chief author, where she is responsible for the script and the lyrics, and I am responsible for the music and direction.

R: Through "Tshangs dbyangs Rgya mtsho", what is the most important message you wish to convey to the audience?

W: The creation of "Tshangs dbyangs Rgya mtsho" came from when I was touched by God's spirit a long time ago. I was born in Shinjang, where there are still Christians in the present day, but the overall environment is Islamic. Besides, Tibet focuses on its traditional Buddhism beliefs. Just seeing that God has gained recognition by many loyal servants in these plains, and that the Gospel gets to spread out, I feel the responsibility for the Shinjang and Tibet population, wishing that God will clear a path for me and provide me with the wisdom to get in touch with these people.

I always think that when we, as overseas brothers and sisters, face the people of Shinjang, Tibet, and Falun Gong, we become like judges, and become very self-righteous. But is our love for them vast enough to pull them into our embraces? Do we feel responsible for them, and do we have blurred views of acceptance?

Besides, because I have written hymns before, I have a certain level of understanding for the hymns of Tshangs dbyangs Rgya mtsho. In Tibet, Tibetans will sing the hymns of Tshangs dbyangs Rgya mtsho, which have only recently been known in other places. However, Tshangs dbyangs Rgya mtsho has been misunderstood by many people in many ways, for instance, he has been viewed as a rebel in religion, or an idle lover. Life should be free-spirited, just as in the plains where there are no barriers. Tshangs dbyangs Rgya mtsho, being the chosen re-incarnated prodigy child of the Dalai Lama in the 5th generation, he is destined to be a living Buddha and not a man, and thus he tried to escape from the darkness of oppression. To him, in times of significant political and religion oppression, relying on feelings was a true break through.

Dark forces exist everywhere in this unclaimed piece of land, and Tshangs dbyangs Rgya mtsho is a metaphorical role to symbolize the breaking through from the dark forces. I believe that art has no barriers, and when the music starts, the crowds will quiet and listen. If not for art, we would not be able to touch these people or topics.

R: In the whole process of creating and touring, what is the biggest obstacle that you have come across? How did you overcome it?

W: Karmia had to lead a team during the creation and performance of "Pawn", and thus needed to understand everyone's state of mind in order to ensure the cooperation and smooth performance of each and everyone in their respective roles, to create the sense of unity. Also, as the chief creator, she had to maintain a clear view of the ultimate goal, and not to be easily swayed by the applause.

"Tshangs dbyangs Rgya mtsho" had presented us with much bigger obstacles, not from the operations side (such as sets, teams, or promotions), which only required a mature team of people. What worries us the most is that once "Tshangs dbyangs Rgya mtsho" is aired, it will be misunderstood. But on the other hand, we have faith because our creation is ultimately rooted in love.

I have my struggles during the writing process as well. On the one hand, I have doubts about my writings being not spiritually adequate, unlike some of the more mature Christians' masterpieces that reflect the bittersweet essence. I realize afterwards that our targets are ultimately different, that I am writing in the face of this unclaimed piece of land. This is an "incarnated" creation.

Furthermore, how to entwine Gospel message with artistic creation, and how to infuse the Gospel deeply into the musical, are some of the tougher questions that we have to face. If there is a big stretch, it will give people the feeling of missionary work being forced onto them, or a bit like advertising.

Because we are at war, thus we need armor. The team of "Tshangs dbyangs Rgya mtsho" is pushed forward during the whole creation and touring process by prayers, so that we do not stray too far from the theme.

R: Your father is a businessman who used to be in arts, and your mother is an artist, how has this creative and cultural atmosphere affected Karmia's personality and dreams? What specific methods did you use to bring her up?

W: My relationship with Karmia is special. We are mother and daughter, sisters in Christ, and partners in creative projects, not only cooperating in the projects of creation, but also in the projects of life.

You say that our family's atmosphere has affected her, but I would rather say that she has greatly affected our family. I received God together with Karmia when she was 12 years old. Afterwards, Karmia became very devoted to religion, very searching in religion, and very prosperous, much faster than my own spiritual growth. Her knowledge in the Bible and her servitude towards the church had encouraged me spiritually. And because I must communicate and pray with her, I searched further for God.

I grew up in the plains, and am a straight-forward and warm person, opting for letting my children grow naturally, not under much discipline, and thus Karmia had a lot of freedom at home. Once I can communicate with her, I talk to her like a friend, and only so will the child develop loyalty, responsibility, and kindness as a return, and thus being very considerate towards her parents.

This type of child, once grown up, will not be self-centered, but will care about other people's needs, and kindly treat life. She has excellent people skills, wisdom, righteousness, fairness, humor, imitation skills, calmness, leadership, and earnesty.

As a whole, our family has given her influence, not preaching. We do not surround her all the time, as long as we do our own jobs well, and show the child the faces of responsibility, loyalty, and learning, the child will naturally be influenced.

R: How did you decide to follow the route of theater and film in the future? This is a very competitive field. How do you stand firm and protect your original dream and goal?

C: There is a lot of charm in theater and film. Although it looks soft, but it can pierce many barriers, right into the deepest part of the soul. By understanding the history of the church and the history of man, we will know that the resurrection of arts is through God, who led His people out of the darkness and corruption in the mid-centuries. If we want to win back the western world for Christ, we must wake them up through arts.

I hope that the organizations of art and media, which are currently full of violence and lust, can return to God, and become constructive, glorious, and positive, so that people will have a chance to meet God in the theater, and see the meaning of existence.

Dreams are given by God. To be honest, I will not bow down to the world, only to God. Even to the point where I cannot do theater and film anymore. Just because this is just a carrying body. My real goal is to experience God, and to share God with people.

I also wish that if brothers and sisters out there have thought about serving God through arts, or have been touched and grateful to God, please grab this opportunity and let us cultivate and use what God has provided for us together.

[Editor's note: Carol Lee translated the article.]


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