The Chinese Lady by Lloyd Suh and directed by Marjorie Chan opened at Crow’s Theatre on Friday. It’s a presentation of Studio 180 Theatre and features Rosie Simon and John Ng. It’s playing in the very intimate Studio Theatre at Crow’s.
On the surface it’s the story of Afong Moy who, at the the age of 14 became the first Chinese woman to be seen in the United States. It’s the 1830s and Afong Moy is “exhibited” in a sort of cod Chinese room where she does suitably exotic things while her male servant/interpreter Atung explains to the paying crowd what’s going on. At first it’s quite light in tone and really very funny although it has deliberately cringe worthy moments. But as it goes on it gets darker.
Afong Moy has a really creepy interview with “emperor” Andrew Jackson. She tries very hard to initiate a rather intellectual discussion about cultural understanding between American and Chinese and the role she might play in that process. We begin to understand that Atung’s English isn’t good enough to convey her thoughts properly and he’s equally incapable of finding words for Jackson’s sexual interest in Afong Moy or his deeply racist view of US/China relations. Afong Moy is beginning to see that there are aspects of the US that have so far passed her by.
Eventually, after touring the US, Afong Moy is “acquired” by PT Barnum as part of one of his exhibitions. He subsequently ditches her in favour of a younger and more exciting Chinese girl. We never really learn how Afong Moy manages to survive but she does for decades and lives to a very old age witnessing the increasing horror of life for Chinese people in 19th century America with the Exclusion Acts, massacres and lynchings.
It’s very cleverly written and draws us in, via humour, to asking ourselves what we are looking at and what our (the audience) role is in this performance and in what ways it differs (or doesn’t) from the role played by those Americans in the 1830s paying 50c to see a Chinese girl eat with chopsticks. It also, subtly, raises the question of how Euro centric cultures handle race and immigration. From a Canadian perspective the Chinese were OK as long as they stuck to building railroads, Ukrainians were welcome (except for the Jewish ones) and so on. And so to Afong Moy’s final question “How would 223 year old Afong Moy be seen in Canada or the US today?
Both Simon and Ng are really good. There’s a subtle development in their characters as they age and change role. Simon is wonderfully charming as a young girl but becomes more aware, and more self aware, as she gains more experience. After leaving the Barnum entourage she gets much tougher and quite challenging as she becomes, as it were, the spokesperson for all her people. Ng manages to draw us into believing what Afong Moy believes about Atung; that he’s competent as an interpreter until he shows us he’s not. It’s really a tour de force by both actors.
The Chinese Lady plays in the Studio Theatre at Crow’s Theatre until May 21st and is a great way to spend 90 minutes!
Photo credits: Dahlia Katz