SYNOPSIS & DEMOS
It is mid-autumn 1866 in a worksite on a hillside in the Sierra Nevada. JIANG lowers his sledgehammer and sings. He is the Chinaman foreman of a team of Chinese laborers working on the Central Pacific Railroad. They are building the western half of the first transcontinental railroad in the US. It is hot, dusty and the worksite is nothing but rocks and dirt, stripped of all vegetation.
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Scene One -
The Irish American foreman brings two newcomers to the worksite, a young man, LIT NING, and his father. They are greeted formally by their fellow countrymen and WONG, the resident cynic, warns them about life on the mountain - "There Are Many Ways to Die". Wong is interrupted by Jiang and CHU, the facilitator and scholar of the camp, who have plans for Lit.
Having completed his first successful fuse run to congratulations from the other men, Lit is sent off to rest his legs until he is needed again. As the other men head back to work, removing debris and continuing construction, Lit's father, who Lit addresses as "BA", stops his son for a private moment.
Scene Two -
Lit heads over the hill from the worksite to rest and finds himself on a green bluff, pristine and untouched -
in stark contrast to the other side.
Scene Three -
Two weeks later, Lit continues to survive as the fuse runner. The Irish American foreman comes for a visit, accompanied by a woman from the local brothel, wearing a sun bonnet that obscures her face. Catcalling, whistles and much excitement spread through the site, but when the foreman pulls the sun bonnet back from her face, the woman is revealed to be Chinese. The men are immediately silenced, stunned by her appearance as women and children from China were not allowed into the US at the time, the exception being women who were owned as property. Lit stares, and Ba, noticing, sends him over to the green bluff to rest. As the woman and the foreman leave, shock turns into shame, anger, and a longing for home.
Scene Four -
Another week has gone by. Lit has just finished another fuse run and is crossing over the hill into the green bluff. He encounters two men from the work camp practicing Chinese opera moves - LOONG, a theatrical practitioner of his art and LO, an enthusiastic but graceless protege. Lit formally introduces himself to the older Loong, who immediately chastises Lit for littering in their artistic space, and the two men head back to the worksite, leaving Lit to his rest, stretching, and calisthenics until the next fuse run. During a particularly vigorous bout of exercise, Lit hears stifled laughter coming from behind a boulder and uncovers the woman from the brothel, YOOK MEI, who had been hiding, watching the opera men practice. To her surprise, Lit does not shun or shame her, but politely introduces himself. They begin to converse, but the when Lit brags about his dangerous job, Mei grows angry, pointing out his recklessness in endangering himself.
Scene Five -
Fourth week. Lit sits and watches Loong and Lo finishing up a practice session on the green bluff, while he eats his lunch. When the opera men return to work, Mei reveals herself. Lit offers her an apple and tells her how glad he is that she returned after their last encounter. A friendship begins and feelings deepen as they converse. Mei tells Lit that she's been thinking about his fuse running and is worried that as the tunnel gets deeper, he won't be able to get clear to safety in time. They are interrupted by a whistle from the other side of the hill, a signal for Lit to return to the work site for a fuse run. After Lit leaves, Mei decides to follow him over the hill and hides behind some brush, looking down on the worksite to watch. Tension builds. Lit enters the tunnel. There is an explosion from within and a mining cart shoots out of the tunnel, falls over onto the tracks, and reveals Lit safely ensconced inside, protected from the blast. The men immediately break into cheers, praising him for his cleverness and celebrating his continued survival.
Scene Six -
Another day, much later. We find Lit on the green bluff, daydreaming, humming to himself and in a very good mood. Mei enters feeling self-conscious; she is not dressed in her customary western brothel attire, but in simple Chinese villager clothes, a top and pants. Her hair is down in two plaits and her face unpainted. It is simple, authentic beauty, and Lit is, for once, quieted. She explains that her other clothes have been packed away, that they are closing up for the upcoming winter and leaving for Sacramento the next day. Lit shares that he and the other laborers are going continue working in the mountains for the winter and living in the tunnels for protection from the extreme weather. Mei is horrified, but he tells her that they have no choice in the matter. Lit tries to cheer her up with some dark humor and then teasing. He jokes that her eyes are going to change color and shape because of her proximity to the "demonesses" she works with, resulting in a moment where they find themselves face to face.
Lit proposes to Mei. He tells her of his plan to earn enough money to buy her from her owners and take her back home to China, where they can start a life together. She accepts his proposal and regains her hope for a future. They are interrupted by a whistle from the other side of the hill, the signal for Lit to return to the worksite for a fuse run. Just as before, Mei follows him and hides herself to watch. Underscoring creates tension, and Lit enters the tunnel. After a long moment, an explosion from within and the mining cart shoots out of the entrance, hits a barricade and falls over... empty. A shock-filled moment of silence is broken by a cry of alarm and fear from Mei, who comes out of hiding, and the men spring into action. Lit is carried out of the tunnel, bloodied, his legs unmoving. He calls for Mei as the men carry him back to their work camp. Mei is left alone, unable to move, and eventually collapses in grief. Ba returns from the camp to deliver a message to Mei from his son, that he will see her in the spring. With no other choice, but to return to the brothel and then winter in Sacramento, Mei wishes Ba well and takes her leave. He is alone and the burden of what has happened overwhelms him. (End of Act One.)
Scene One -
Snow and freezing cold in the Sierra Nevada. During the course of "Endless Winter" we see the various ways the men cope with the misery of life in the tunnels, as well as a series of imagined letters and conversations between Lit and Mei, he from a nook in a cavern and she from her bedroom in Sacramento. The song ends with the men emerging from the tunnels in the spring and honoring the dead as bodies are carried out..
Scene Two -
Jiang gathers the men for a meeting at the worksite. They discuss the long hours, harsh conditions and low pay for the work they're doing and decide to send Jiang and Chu as emissaries to ask the railroad bosses for
a raise in pay. The men go back to work, Jiang and Chu exit, and Mei enters the worksite and finds Ba. After she pays her respects, she asks after Lit. Ba tells her that his son has not recovered and is unable to work, and because Lit cannot work, he contractually forfeits both his pay and his passage back to China - "Get Him Home". Ba, Lit and their family back home are in peril, and Mei is devastated. Ba takes his leave to go back to work and Mei heads over the hill to find Lit.
Mei finds Lit sitting on the green bluff with crutches at his side. As soon as he sees her, he struggles to his feet. They reunite, embrace and kiss. After they sit, Lit tells Mei that he's going to recover. She tells him that they have to be practical and the priority is to get him home where he can be cared for by his family.
Mei gently returns his crutches, and he leaves.
Scene Three -
Lit enters the worksite, crosses halfway down the hill and sits at a high vantage point, his crutches by his side. Jiang and Chu return with bad news from their meeting. The railroad bosses have refused the laborers' request for a raise. As the gloomy men return to their tasks, Lit begins to laugh and mocks them, claiming that they are as impotent and crippled as he is. This angers and inspires Jiang who rallies the rest of the men to stop working and strike.
Scene Four -
Mei, alone on the green bluff.
Scene Five -
Loong and Lo are preparing. Loong sits, applying make up, while Lo practices steps, circling endlessly. Meanwhile, Mei is in her bedroom also preparing for her own performance.
Scene Six -
The worksite on an unseasonably cold night. The men are celebrating the end of the strike. Jiang proposes a toast and then introduces Loong and Lo, who have created a special performance piece for the occasion. They enact their own version of "The Weaver Maid and the Oxkeeper," a constellation creation myth about two separated lovers among the demigods. As the story progresses, Lit's thoughts turn to Mei.
The performance ends with a rumble of thunder and the men begin to head back to the work camp to avoid the impending weather. Ba finds Lit and unburdens his heart, blaming himself for their dire circumstance and for not protecting his son from danger.
Lit tells Ba to go on ahead, that he'll be along soon but wants a little time alone to think. As soon as Ba leaves for the camp, Lit heads purposefully over the hill to the green bluff.
Scene Seven -
Mei arrives at the green bluff, just as Lit comes over the hill. She is disheveled, bruised and her dress is torn.
Lit vows to kill whoever assaulted her, but Mei cuts him off with a plea for no vengeance. Her attempt to seduce her client into buying her was rebuffed and when he tried to bed her, she refused. She tells Lit that she sold herself willingly to save her family and that she had no right to refuse this man. Lit comforts her and they huddle together against the cold, dreaming of their wedding that might have been - "Your Eyes"(wedding reprise) Lit tells Mei goodbye. He is going to the "Gold Mountain" and points upward. Mei realizes that his plan is to continue upward into the freezing cold night, a sacrifice to ensure that his father and family will survive. Mei wants to go with him as his wife. Lit refuses at first, but relents when she describes the life of degradation and loneliness that awaits her without him. Prayers for forgiveness are made and they start up the mountain together. The hills around them begin to glow with a golden light as they continue their journey upward. Lights change and we see the men of the camp in the midst of a funeral, Ba in the procession as the honored head mourner. Lit, unseen, moves to Ba, and spends a moment with his father. Something shifts, as Ba draws strength, courage and hope from his son's spirit, his face setting itself in determination. The lovers then continue on their way home.