Photograph by Emily J. Davis
At 65, James Chiao retired from his successful mannequin-making company and enrolled in the MFA program in music at California Institute of the Arts, where he began composing a musical, “Mannequin Man by Day, Tenor by Night.”
GETTING STARTED AS AN ENTREPRENEUR
When I emigrated (from China), I studied at Cal State Long Beach and graduated with a business major. I worked in downtown Los Angeles, and when I drove through the garment district, I would see all these mannequins. I thought, “OK, this is a viable new venture.” We became one of the top three companies, servicing Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, J.C. Penney, and Kohl’s.
APPLYING TO CALARTS AS A SENIOR CITIZEN
The director of the voice department (said that) when they interviewed me, they doubted whether I could be creative. But after I sang two songs—one Chinese and one Italian aria—they asked me, “Do you want to show us something else?” I sang another Italian aria, but I used tai chi movements, and they thought, “Let’s give him a chance.”
LEARNING PERSISTENCE DURING THE CULTURAL REVOLUTION
I was sent to an island to fish and farm during the Cultural Revolution (at age 18). One time, I was visiting my then-girlfriend on another island, and I forgot to tie up my boat. When I returned, it was gone. It was totally dark. So I borrowed another boat, put my flashlight in my mouth, and rowed out to try to find it. Should I turn left or right? I didn’t know. Finally, I found the boat on a third island. Since then, I just think positively and never give up.
THE ORIGIN OF HIS NICKNAME
I was traveling with my family in Yosemite, and I was standing on a high rock singing “O Sole Mio.” I felt so good. Then suddenly I heard someone yelling. I was expecting a compliment, and I thought, “What did he say? Something good about my singing?” No. It was “Keep your day job.” So I gave myself the nickname Tenor by Night.
REAL LIFE BEHIND THE MUSICAL
Sometimes my wife was annoyed by my singing, so I played that up (for the musical) and made it like she kicked me out of the house and I moved to the mannequin warehouse. And sometimes at night, I see the mannequins around me, and it seems very surreal, very creepy. What if they got woken up? That’s the story.
We’re planning to go to Broadway. This is the first major American musical that is written and composed by a Chinese immigrant. And a lot of immigrants, they put their hopes on the second generation. But I cannot wait. I always give myself a deadline. With the musical, I wanted to have it done before I turned 70, and I did. Now I’m thinking about getting it to Broadway by the time I’m 75. I’m hoping to be ahead of schedule.