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I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year and a half listening to history podcasts, consistently amazed by how much of our country’s past is omitted from—or at least sanitized in—the classroom. There are a lot of reasons things get left out of history curricula but more and more I think the biggest reason is that those stories don’t reflect well on us.
So while I am constantly amazed by these stories, I’m rarely surprised I hadn’t heard them before. And that includes the story at the heart of InterAct Theatre Company’s current production The Chinese Lady, written by Lloyd Suh and directed by Justin Jain.
Echoes of the past
The Chinese lady in question is Afong Moy (Bi Jean Ngo), who is believed to be the first Chinese woman to arrive in the US. Hired (kinda) by the owners of an import-export business, Moy was brought to New York (and then taken around the country) in the first half of the 19th century as part of a living tableau, answering questions about her life in China while also helping to sell a selection of imported Chinese goods.
The fetishization of Asian culture, the romanticization of Asian art, the appropriation of Asian fashion and design, and the denigration of Asians’ humanity were hardly new by the time Moy landed in America, though few Americans had ever met a woman of Asian descent before. Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” had been published nearly 20 years before Moy arrived in America, and Chinoiserie décor, art, and fashion had been popular for the better part of a century. So it only made sense that importing real-live Asian people and putting them on display for gawking Westerners would follow.
Moy was 14 years old when her family agreed to the deal, with the assumption that she would return to China in a year or two. She wound up staying for decades until she quite literally disappeared from the historic record.
Postmodernism, but make it historic
This story would be a compelling one if told in a straightforward way—Nancy E. Davis’s book, The Chinese Lady, proves this—but Suh’s play puts a postmodern spin on it. There are two characters, Moy and her translator, Atung (Dan Kim), through whom we learn about Moy's life in America. There is very little dialogue between them; instead, most of the narrative is delivered in fourth-wall-breaking monologues so it feels as though you are more than just a witness to it. You are complicit. Jain’s vision and direction add additional nuance to this set-up because the first time we see Ngo on stage, she is not dressed as Moy but as herself, preparing to assume the role.
After the news cycle of the last two years, which included Asians and Asian Americans being targeted and blamed for the coronavirus pandemic as well as the Atlanta spa shootings that targeted Asian-owned and operated massage parlors, to pretend that there is not a tie between the way Westerners viewed Asians in Moy's time and today would be disingenuous, and therefore watching a 21st-century Asian American actor become a 19th-century Asian woman who was treated as an oddity is powerfully resonant.
Ngo and her acting counterpart Kim put in beautiful, nuanced performances and complement each other well on stage, especially in a scene where the audience sees how much is lost in translation when you’re only able to interact with the world through an interpreter. I could have watched these two on stage well beyond the show’s 90-minute runtime.
There is a third person on stage, too. Multi-instrumentalist, sound designer, and composer Mel Hsu, who plays both Eastern and Western instruments, executes haunting vocal loops and interacts in-scene with Ngo and Kim. The insertion of live, original music was Jain’s idea. It was not called for in the script, but it underscores the notion that Moy's story is a modern one as much as it’s one from two centuries ago.
With Chris Haig on sets, Ariel Liudi Wang on costumes, Maria Shaplin on lights, and Jo Vito Ramírez on props, The Chinese Lady is a production that I wish didn’t feel quite so relevant today, but I’m glad I now know the story of Afong Moy, her translator Atung, and how the first Chinese woman in the US was treated when she arrived.
What, When, Where
The Chinese Lady. By Lloyd Suh; directed by Justin Jain. General admission: $35; students and industry: $15. Through November 21, 2021, at the Proscenium at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia. (215) 568-8079 or interacttheatre.org.
Audiences are required to show proof of Covid-19 vaccination, and face masks are required regardless of vaccination status.
The Proscenium at the Drake is a fully accessible, wheelchair-friendly space. Special tickets may be purchased for no extra cost for those who require accessible seating once inside.
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