It was in Moscow that Chen met Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, who was in the Soviet Union. to film “Black and White”, on race relations in the southern United States. The two began a flirtatious friendship (Hughes’ archives are filled with letters to her), although Chen only mentions this in his memoirs in passing, writing that “Langston had been a sailor and walked as such.” She also included a poem he wrote about her: “I’m so sad / More than half a kiss / This with half a pencil / I’m writing this.”
Chen later met Jay Leyda, an American film student who was studying with Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein. They fell in love and spent their honeymoon in Leningrad before moving in 1937 to New York City, where Leyda was hired as an assistant film curator at the Museum of Modern Art. Due to China’s exclusion law, Chen had to leave the United States every six months and reapply for reinstatement.
In New York, Chen joined the Socialist New Dance Theater and finalized their repertoire, which included dances celebrating the poor and working class of China (a beggar, a “coolie rickshaw”) and condemning bourgeois types (“a lady American jingo ”and“ that very “arty” type of artist, ”as she writes in her notes). She also introduced the American public to the dances of Soviet Central Asia.
During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), she toured the United States to raise funds for the China Aid Council. An article on Chen appeared in the New York Post with the headline “Chinese Girl Fighting Japanese With Propaganda Dance”.
Despite her efforts to steer conversations towards the struggles facing the poor, journalists, show promoters and their colleagues have continued to sexualize and exoticize her. A flyer for a 1938 performance organized by the American League for Peace and Democracy read, “Spend a Night in China” with Exotic Dancer Si-lan Chen. John Martin of the New York Times said of her New York debut that year, “She features an attractive appearance, with a petite trigonometric figure and a lively, lively face. Its movement is crisp, intelligent and sure, with something of the clarity and precision characteristic of its stroke.
Chen returned to now Communist-controlled China in 1959. Invigorated by what she described as a “new China, a socialist China,” she choreographed a ballet called “Hu-tung” (“Lane”), which celebrated Beijing’s street culture, with an emphasis on the games she saw children playing outside. He was accompanied by Bizet’s piano suite “Jeux d’Enfants”.
But Chinese authorities berated Chen for her choice of Western music – criticism that frustrated her because it was precisely this borrowing and combination of cultures that was central to her dance philosophy. Moreover, this is how she understood her role in the world as a Métis socialist committed to building international solidarity.