Fighting Oppression One Smile At A Time

by    /  September 22, 2010  / No comments

In November 2004, a friend asked Pittsburgh dentist Owen Cantor, “Do you want to see a poet read a house?” He had no idea it would change his life.

“There on the north side, a Chinese poet had painted his poetry on the outside of a house,” said Cantor. “He was reading it so dramatically, it was operatic. I don’t understand Chinese, but I comprehended every word.”

The event was sponsored by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh (COA/P), a non-profit organization that provides refuge for writers who are being persecuted abroad. The poet was Huang Xiang, then 62, who had spent more than a decade in prison for painting his political poetry on a wall in Beijing. Often compared to Walt Whitman, Huang became a resident of COA/P in 2004, where he received free housing, a two-year stipend and plenty of freedom to be himself.

At the performance, Huang’s wife, writer Zhang Ling, helped interpret as Huang read the white calligraphy he’d painted against the dark clapboards of the urban row house. Huang often shouted and gesticulated grandly, his long hair flying, as onlookers huddled in the chilly alley of Sampsonia Way.


Afterwards, COA/P director Henry Reese asked for volunteers who could provide free health care for the Huang and his wife. Cantor immediately stepped forward.

“There wasn’t any question,” said Cantor, who had been a Pittsburgh dentist for more than 30 years. “I wanted to be a part it. I want City of Asylum to thrive.”


The writing on the wall

Soon after the reading, Reese asked if Cantor would treat Huang for his severe dental problems.

“In fact, as soon as he got off the plane in the United States, Huang had said, ‘I need a dentist,’” said Reese.

At first, Cantor assumed that he would be doing routine check-ups and cleaning. But one appointment with Huang and he knew that he was being asked for much more. During his years of imprisonment, Huang’s torturers had knocked out his teeth with a rifle butt.

“He later told me that his interrogators were very crafty,” said Cantor. “By knocking his teeth out, he would be reminded of what they did to him every time he looked in the mirror.”


The dentist threw himself into the difficult treatment, consulting with his staff and other area dentists, including Rebecca Pounds and Peter Masterson. It would eventually cost him tens of thousands of dollars.

“The only thing that made me think twice about doing the work was the technical difficulty of the job,” said Cantor. “It wasn’t a natural mutilation that comes from drinking too much Mountain Dew or not flossing. It was like building the
Golden Gate Bridge in someone’s jaw. I had to invent a new template.” More than that, he wanted the poet to be able to effectively perform his work. “He’s an oral poet,” said Cantor, thinking of the moment he first saw Huang perform the reading of his house. “I wanted him to be able to speak clearly again.”


Cantor appreciates the power of art. A classical musician, Cantor played the French horn through dental school and still teaches adult education music classes at Carnegie Mellon. In 1981, he founded a classical music Summerfest that he produced and presented for 14 years. He continues to be a generous supporter of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

It’s an artist’s sensibility that Cantor brings to dentistry, taking pride in seeing his dental work in the smiles of his clients. It was all the more special as he realized how much trust that Huang had put into a complete stranger.

“I had to remember that Huang was not used to the most routine dental care,” said Cantor. “Even the most minor, non-threatening pieces of equipment seemed like instruments of torture to him. He was still in post-traumatic shock.”

The language of peace

Unable to communicate with his patient, Cantor relied on the very thing that had brought them together in the first place—their common humanity.

“He had touched me deeply when I heard him perform, despite the fact that I didn’t know what he was saying,” said Cantor. “I decided that he would do the same with me. He’d understand my good intentions from the way I used my body language and emotions.”

As Cantor began treating his patient, Huang was recording his experience in his diary. He wrote on December 8, 2004, as first published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

To see a dentist is far from easy. After checking my mouth, Dr. Owen asked his assistant to take pictures. I couldn’t recognize the tools he was using, but I was told to stick my head in a piece of special equipment, with something moving around my mouth taking photographs.

For me, it was like acting, as if my head were part of the metal instrument. The round thing moved through an entire circle in my mouth, making me worry that it might take off my head!

Fortunately, it stopped when it reached almost to my ears. Without clicking a button or making a flash, a picture was taken of half of my head. I was astonished when Dr. Owen showed me the negative. A skeleton! The human head is as ugly as that? Disgusting!

Until Huang’s journal entries were published, Cantor had no idea how difficult it had been for the Chinese dissident to trust his American benefactor.

Huang wrote:

I was thinking, what is the relationship between Dr. Owen and me? Why did he do so much for me? I benefited from the check-up; he did not. He had to spend time and energy and even lost money to do it. It is hard for a Chinese to understand this, let alone do it. We often want everybody to know that we did something for others…it is anything but pure kindness that drives us to do something for others.

One dentist takes on a repressive regime

Why did Cantor devote himself to the reconstruction of Huang’s jaw and mouth?

“On a soul level, we are brothers,” said Cantor, who still stays in touch with Huang even after the poet moved to New York City.
But the explanation runs deeper.

“With Huang, I saw the sense of cynical impunity that torturers have,” said Cantor, who also has been treating subsequent City of Asylum writers from El Salvador and Burma. “Torturers may not kill the person, but they kill parts of the person forever. I was able to reverse the effects of torture,” said Cantor, who smiles when he remembers how Huang jumped with joy as he beheld his restored smile in the mirror. “I’m some guy in Pittsburgh who was able to chip away at the Communist regime.”


Not only did Cantor feel that he had done his part to fight oppression, he had also helped liberate an important, global, literary voice.

“I respect Huang as a writer,” Cantor said. “I would have paid them for the chance to do this work. It’s an honor to get a human being like that up and running again.”

Read Desiree’s bio.

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