Charles Foster (right) with actor Kyle MacLachlan, who portrayed him in the film Mao’s Last Dancer. Photo by Dave Rossman
Chinese ballet star Li Cunxin made international headlines in 1981 when he was forcibly detained inside the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas, USA, after informing officials there of his intent to remain in the United States.
Li had first come to Houston as a member of the Beijing Academy of Dance for a three-month cultural exchange with the Houston Ballet Academy. His skill earned him an extended stay, and Li passionately desired to continue in his art with the Houston Ballet.
Li’s attorney, Charles Foster, refused to abandon his client to the custody of consular officials, concerned that they would force the artist to leave the country against his will. During 21 hours of tense negotiations that followed, Foster obtained a federal court order restraining Chinese officials from taking further action. He also phoned senior U.S. government authorities, alerting them to the legal consequences of forcibly repatriating Li to China.
In the end, Foster’s persistence prevailed and Li was allowed to stay in the United States. He went on to become a principal dancer and star of the Houston Ballet.
The standoff at the consulate is a key scene in the movie Mao’s Last Dancer, released by Samuel Goldwyn Films and ATO Pictures in August. Directed by Bruce Beresford and based on Li’s autobiography, the film stars Chi Cao as Li and Kyle MacLachlan as Foster.
“If it wasn’t for Charles’s knowledge of the applicable law, his quick thinking, and his dedication to me as his client, I am not sure how it might have turned out,” says Li, who now lives with his family in Australia.
“Li is a remarkably talented and courageous person who deserves all the recognition and accolades his book and the film are receiving,” says Foster, a member of the Rotary Club of Houston and a former Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholar.
The case helped spark a tradition at FosterQuan LLP of providing pro bono immigration legal work for the Houston Ballet and other local arts organizations. Foster is a founding partner of the law firm.
“What most audiences don’t think about is that major performing arts organizations, such as the Houston Ballet, have an ongoing need to navigate complex immigration laws in order to legally bring the best talent from around the world to perform here,” he says. “The process is time consuming and involves multiple federal agencies, so it requires experienced legal counsel.”
A recognized expert on U.S. immigration law, Foster also served as a senior policy adviser to both George W. Bush and Barack Obama during their presidential campaigns.
Foster studied law as a 1964-65 Rotary Scholar at Universidad de Concepción, Chile, sponsored by the Rotary Club of Corpus Christi, Texas.
“The Rotary scholarship experience was a huge influence on me,” he says. “I was [later] hired as an international lawyer, because I was deemed to be sufficiently bilingual to do international legal work in both English and Spanish.”
In addition, Foster says he “spoke to just about every Rotary club in Chile” and large numbers of clubs in Texas. After starting his own law firm, he became a Rotarian.
“It was a very natural thing to do, having been so involved with Rotary,” he says.
Written for Reconnections