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Trapped Man Tries Not to Go Crazy

Adam L. Brinklow | April 4, 2013 | Story Galleries and Performance

Stuck Elevator, based on the true story of a deliveryman lost for more than three days in the claustrophobic bowels of a New York high-rise, has its world premiere at the American Conservatory Theater this month.

Part hallucinogenic nightmare, part operatic hip-hop extravaganza, the tri-lingual piece is a tragicomic reflection on the immigrant experience in 21st-century America. “If my grandparents hadn’t left China in the ’30s,” says composer Byron Au Yong, “I could have been this guy.”

The Real Life Tale of the Stuck Elevator Guy:

The man: Ming Kuang Chen, 35, an immigrant from Fujian province who owed $60,000 to human traffickers.

The job: Takeout delivery for the Happy Dragon restaurant in the Bronx—12 hours a day, 6 days a week, $15,600 a year.

The building: A 38-story apartment complex where Chen often made deliveries. “The tips [there] are all bad,” he told the New York Times.

The elevator: An express lift that stalled between the third and fourth floors one night in April 2005. Chen, who had just dropped off a $15 order, had nothing to eat or drink for 81 hours.

The security system: The elevator’s camera and intercom were working, but Chen couldn’t make the guards on duty understand him. The dilemma: By calling for help, Chen also risked calling attention to himself—and to his illegal status.

The dragnet: Police, fearing that Chen had been killed (like other immigrant deliverymen) for money or food, searched the area with cadaver-detecting dogs and even scuba divers, but missed him right under their noses.

The rescue: After two days, building staff realized that the elevator was broken. But it took another day before they noticed Chen’s screams.

Stuck Elevator plays April 4–28 at the American Conservatory Theater. Check for tickets and showtimes.

This story originally appeared in the April issue of San Francisco.

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