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Debbie Chinn has had a remarkable career in the lively arts, but her family’s history as immigrants from China is just as remarkable. Debbie is the executive director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, a former managing Director of California Shakespeare Theatre in Orinda, along with many other significant posts in a long career in arts administration.
About a decade ago she started piecing together stories and memorabilia about her extended family, from their roots in China to their several paths of immigration to America. She was doing this primarily to preserve the information for the family’s generations to come. Then, with the election of 2016 and the subsequent rise of anti-Asian hatred in the U.S. she decided to publish the family story to highlight Chinese Americans’ contributions to American society, economic success, and culture.The result is her memoir Dancing in Their Light, A Daughter’s Unfinished Memoir, published in 2022.
Debbie was born and raised on Long Island, New York. While other children participated in sleep-overs, summer camps, and sports activities, Debbie’s childhood was spent at The House of Mah Jong, her family’s Chinese restaurant where she entered the workforce at the age of three, selling cigarettes. By six, her responsibilities expanded to inserting umbrellas into cherries and pineapple slices for an assortment of exotic drinks while sitting on a bar stool.As the family business grew in popularity and fame, she was thrust into the land of the South Seas where The House of Mah Jong evolved into a Polynesian nightclub; ubiquitous of dining experiences in the 1960’s and 1970’s. She became an exotic hula and sword dancer performing weekly at nights after a full day at middle school and then high school. In their quest to assimilate in the United States, her parents abided by strong work ethics, fanatical hospitality, relationship-building, supporting organizations in the community, and always taking care of others.