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A look back at artist/activist Kathy Chang, 20 years after her self-immolation at Penn

Before her fiery, public death, Kathy Chang tried out different accelerants on cuts of meat, wanting to see which would burn fastest and hottest.

Soomie Kim plays Kathy Change as Cassandra during a video shoot for "Chang(e)" on the campus of U Penn. (Video by Gein Wong and still photo by Kendall Whitehouse)
Soomie Kim plays Kathy Change as Cassandra during a video shoot for "Chang(e)" on the campus of U Penn. (Video by Gein Wong and still photo by Kendall Whitehouse)Read more

Before her fiery, public death, Kathy Chang tried out different accelerants on cuts of meat, wanting to see which would burn fastest and hottest.

It was a macabre experiment by a street artist and activist who joyfully preached peace and possibility. For more than a decade in the 1980s and '90s, she haunted the University of Pennsylvania campus, staging theatrical one-woman protests against U.S. aggression, corporate greed, and big government.

She dressed in striking, handmade costumes, as a butterfly or an ersatz Wonder Woman, proclaiming that glorious political change could be achieved through the Transformation Party, which she founded.

The students mostly ignored her, or mocked her as the Flag Lady because of the banners she waved. Some days, Chang danced for hours.

"She didn't have a mean bone in her body," said veteran Penn police Capt. Gerald Leddy, who regularly saw her around campus.

But by fall 1996, Chang, 46, had grown frustrated. No one was listening to her. On the overcast midmorning of Oct. 22, she strode to the peace-symbol sculpture near the Van Pelt Library, doused herself in gasoline, and exploded in flames.

The blaze was so intense that, at first, witnesses didn't realize a person was on fire.

Now, nearly 20 years later, Chang is poised to finally get the attention she so eagerly sought. She's the subject of a multimedia performance that asks provocative questions about her life and death:

Was she a disturbed, vagabond dreamer, damaged by a family association with suicide? Or was she a dignified martyr who chose self-immolation as her final, silent shout, part of a continuum from ancient Buddhist nuns to modern Arab Spring protesters?

"I think she was really overlooked and underappreciated," said New York artist Soomi Kim, who conceived the play Chang(e) in collaboration with director Suzi Takahashi and will perform it as part of the National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival here. "I saw her as this complete and dynamic and complex human being."

The stage production is a highlight of the conference and festival, in Philadelphia for first time during Oct. 8 to 12.

"Kathy was about criticizing, not just Philadelphia, but larger forces in the world," said Gayle Isa, executive director of the Asian Arts Initiative, the conference host. "Being able to see her story and hear her story adds another layer to the narrative of Philadelphia."

Touched by suicide

Kathleen Chang was born in Springfield, Ohio, on Oct. 10, 1950, the daughter of successful parents who moved to the Bronx when she was 2.

Her father, Sheldon, was an engineer and professor at the State University of New York. Her mother, Gertrude, was a writer whose work described utopian societies. They divorced when Kathy was in her early teens.

Amid contentious mother-daughter relations, Gertrude killed herself. Kathy, then 14, found the body.

Chang briefly attended Mills College in Oakland, Calif., returned east to New York University, and met and fell in love with Frank Chin, a pioneer in Asian American theater.

They wed in 1971 and moved to San Francisco, where Chang joined her husband's theater workshop. When they divorced after five years, Chang made what news reports said was her second suicide attempt.

Her creativity persisted. In 1977, she wrote and illustrated The Iron Moonhunter, a children's book about Chinese railroad workers. Today, used copies sell for more than $350.

In 1981, Chang moved to a blighted area of Powelton in West Philadelphia, where she squatted in an abandoned building and later lived with a boyfriend.

She listed an address in the 3800 block of Lancaster Avenue in Saunders Park and apparently also lived on and off with a man in an apartment in the 3300 block of Spring Garden Street.

She sympathized with MOVE, advocated for prostitutes' rights, pushed to legalize marijuana. High Times magazine named her "Freedom Fighter of the Month" in 1990.

She mailed single-spaced diatribes to The Inquirer, demanding the newspaper publish a special section of her writings. And she added an "E" to her surname, becoming Kathy Change.

She danced near Independence Hall and Logan Square, and played guitar beside the Art Museum steps. But her focus was Penn. She wanted to influence the nation's future leaders.

As a prop, she carried a large U.S. dollar sign. Or she donned wings and a bird mask. One dark costume had a ballistic missile for a phallus.

Always, she called on people to wake up, to replace a repressive U.S. government with a sharing, caring form of direct democracy. And she did it happily, believing world change was possible.

"She really felt like she was on to something," said Anita King, a close friend and occasional artistic collaborator.

Paul Root Wolpe, then a Penn bioethicist, sometimes chatted with Chang on campus. He thought her odd, but not sick.

"She was more someone who was deeply passionate and saw things a little differently," said Wolpe, now director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University in Atlanta. "She had a kind of genius. A lot of mentally ill people do. She could have been this extraordinarily creative, eccentric person who had this message, but she didn't have the tools yet. Today she might be a blogger and an Internet phenomenon."

In some ways, he and others said, Chang was ahead of her time - demanding, for instance, an end to corporate profiteering long before anyone thought of Occupy Wall Street.

The problem was no one was paying attention.

On that last day, Chang appeared at the shiny peace sculpture shortly after 11 a.m., having already left a note at her friend King's door.

"I really believe that this is tactically the best move I can make on behalf of the cause," Chang wrote.

In a letter to the Daily Pennsylvanian, she promised she would kill herself to protest the government.

"But primarily, I want to get publicity in order to draw attention to my proposal for immediate social transformation," she wrote to the student newspaper. "I want the people of this city who have been seeing me around for so long to finally hear what I've been saying."

Penn police Officer William Daily ran toward the fire - pushing Chang to the ground and throwing his jacket over her to smother the flames.

Leddy, then a lieutenant, was next to reach her. She lay horribly burned.

"She was trying to speak," Leddy said.

He couldn't make out what she was saying.

'A beautiful person'

King had heard a knock on her door that morning but didn't get out of bed to answer. Later, she found her friend's note.

Looking back, she said, it's clear Chang had been thinking about self-immolation for at least a year. Once, King noticed a leaking container of gasoline in Chang's backpack - but her friend made an excuse. And King couldn't believe Chang might actually kill herself.

Chang died before reaching the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

King wishes people better understood her friend, that they knew she was kind and caring, clever, able to talk and laugh about the events of the day like anyone else.

"She was a beautiful person," King said. "She just jumped inside you."

The performance of Chang(e) will be 8 p.m. Oct. 8 and 10, and 2 p.m. Oct. 11, at Interact Theater, 2030 Sansom St., Philadelphia. Tickets at