It’s hard for me not to say “Ching Chong Chinaman” without laughing. I find it hilarious. There is a surge of glee whenever someone asks me what I did last weekend, because I get to hear that beat of silence when their thoughts pause, and they replay what I had said. It probably comes from the same place as that time in fifth grade, when I thought about punching my friend in the face as she tried to imitate my language by saying “Ching Chong.” All the other kids, of course, had laughed.
People speak of reclamation, of repossessing slurs and firing back, and Lauren Yee weaponizes discomfort in her play, Ching Chong Chinaman. Humorous and in-your-face, it takes all the slurs, racist stereotypes, and offhanded politically incorrect remarks that you have ever heard about those of Asian descent and forces you to bathe in it.
The typical corporate father, stay-at-home mother, overachieving daughter, and “good-for-nothing” son combines to create a dysfunctional family straight out of one of those good ol’ family-value sitcoms. Even the set was a retro kitchen, with checkerboard floors, mint green walls, and a set of red vinyl v-back diner chairs around a shiny dinette table. Outwardly Asian, these characters are completely out of touch with their background and heritage. Change their last names from “Wong” to “Smith” and recast the actors, and you’ve got yourself any other play taking place in suburbia, aside from the mostly mute Chinese stranger in the room. Who is he? Why is he here? What do we do with this guy? From this starting point, Ching Chong Chinaman begins to explore questions of racism, identity, and heritage.
(Here’s a clip from their read through)
Last weekend was the end of A-Squared Theater Workshop’s run at the Raven, with director Giau Minh Truong, but they will be back in May 2015 at The Den Theatre! For more information on Lauren Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman, please visit her website. And if you would like to know more about the history of “Ching Chong,” please check out this NPR piece.
Personally, I admired the play and enjoyed watching it, though I did not love it. The racist semi-jokes that popped up in every other line felt very heavy-handed, though this lends the play power. There are also many angles of the identity to cover, and many angles that Yee brings up, but doesn’t continue exploring, which made it feel a bit messy to me. But I loved the moments of deft storytelling when Yee employs stage-magic and blurs the lines of reality, I loved the actors and the set design, and the play did make me think harder about my own relationship with the Asian American identity.
Have you watched Lauren Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman? What were your thoughts?