Lauren Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman is one of the livelier American plays to make it north of the border of late. A cheeky look at race in the United States, this wild and whirling satire is easily as funny and provocative as Bruce Norris’s over-hyped Tony winner Clybourne Park – and certainly much more theatrical.
The Wongs are an all-American family of the nuclear, sitcom variety. Ed (John Ng) is an old-fashioned breadwinner who likes to play golf, while his wife Grace (Brenda Kamino) is a dotty housewife who desperately wants another baby. Daughter Desdemona (Zoé Doyle) is equally desperate to get into Princeton University, while son Upton (Oliver Koomsatira) spends his days and nights and everything in between playing online games.
As you may have guessed from the fact that they named their daughter after the white woman murdered in Othello, the Wongs don’t put a lot of emphasis on their Chinese heritage.
But that unexamined part of the picture-perfect family – Yee’s play begins, perhaps heavy-handedly, with a Christmas portrait being taken – comes into focus when a Chinese exchange student named Jinqiang (Richard Lee) mysteriously appears in their house.
Ed addresses him as “Ching Chong,” much to Desdemona’s embarrassment – a source of some of the funniest exchanges in the play. “If you don’t speak his language, don’t talk to him – it’s insulting,” Desdemona admonishes her father.
“What do you want me to do then,” Ed asks.
“Just sit there. Don’t look at him, don’t acknowledge him!”
That Yee has taken us through the looking glass becomes clear when we discover how Jinqiang arrived at the Wongs: He is the secret indentured servant of Upton, brought to America to do his homework and chores while he pursues a World of Warcraft championship. Upton sees no reason why 19th-century railway barons should have benefited from cheap Asian labourers, but not their Asian-American descendants.
Yee cleverly takes on North American ethnic-identity confusion from all angles, finding much to mock in assimilationist Ed, as well as in Desdemona’s attempts to get into Princeton by playing the race card.
Ching Chong Chinaman is written in a style that draws on television tropes, a fact director Nina Lee Aquino initially emphasizes. (One scene even ends with the slap-bass line from Seinfeld.) But the characters – weird and oblivious – and the production develop and deepen. In particular, Grace’s voyage of self-discovery with the help of Jinqiang and an American reality-TV dance show becomes unexpectedly moving.
Camellia Koo’s design for the Wongs’ house, meanwhile, is downright brilliant – it looks like a tea house stuck into a giant shipping container. Every prop and set piece remains in its wrapping material, as if it has been shipped from overseas.
While the directing and design is top-notch, the acting can be a little uneven – the ironic style difficult to nail all of the time. Richard Lee gives a performance that stands outs for its subtlety as the silent Jinqiang, while Jane Luk is reliably funny as a series of characters who pop out of unexpected locations – from Jinqiang’s mother who works in an Intel call centre to Desdemona’s Korean sponsored child to Upton’s online girlfriend.
Fu-GEN Theatre Company is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year – and Ching Chong Chinaman is the first programming choice of its new artistic director, the playwright and actor David Yee. It’s an exciting start.