Sylvia Si-Lan Chen Leyda (1905–96): A Sino-African Dancer's Global Citizenship in War and Revolution

Friday, January 3, 2020: 1:50 PM
New York Ballroom West (Sheraton New York)
Yunxiang Gao, Ryerson University
Proposal of “Sylvia Si-Lan Chen Leyda (1905-1996):
A Sino-African Dancer’s Global Citizenship in War and Revolution”

Yunxiang Gao, Department of History, Ryerson University

My paper unpacks the politicized citizenship of Sylvia Si-Lan Chen, the first “modern Chinese/Soviet dancer.” Chen’s journeys through the Caribbean, Europe, China, Soviet Union, and the United States demonstrate ambiguities of citizenship, race, gender, and ideology. Chen was born in the British Trinidad to Eugene Chen, the leftist first foreign minister of Republican China and his French Creole wife. Langston Hughes, who was romantically involved with Chen during his journey to Moscow in 1932, and Paul Robeson believed that Chen personified the “perfect” union of blacks and Chinese. While prestige transformed Chen into a global-trotting world citizen, her mixed background subjected her to complex racial and political hurdles.
Anxious that his family’s racial background might tarnish his political career, Eugene Chen sent for his children only after his wife’s death. The family fled to Moscow after regime change in China in 1927. Eugene instructed Sylvia to switch British and Chinese passports. Later, Chen and her husband, Jay Leyda, the American film historian, escaped the Soviet domestic purge and tried to settle in America. Interpreting the China Exclusion Act to encompass her leftist ideology, the American immigration service treated Chen as a “visitor,” requiring her to leave every half year to reapply for entry. This process lasted from 1937 to 1979. The FBI and Chinese authorities closely supervised the Chen family. Threat of her deportation forced Leyda to leave his professorship at New York University to teach at York University in Toronto. Chen’s saga indicates the complexities of the Sino-African diaspora.