Ching Chong Chinaman
nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
August 19, 2007
I don't want to claim that being an Asian American myself makes me any expert on the subject of "Asian-American-ness"; no more than, say, being a woman helps me know more about "woman-ness" than any man does. We all have blind spots, especially when it comes to seeing ourselves. But Ching Chong Chinaman by Lauren Yee truly surprised me, in a highly entertaining and informative way.
The Wongs are your notoriously typical middle-class suburban American family, set in their blissfully content and carefree ways. They are seventh and eighth generation Chinese Americans: Upton, the son, living in the world of Warcraft; Desdemona, the daughter, trying her darnedest to get into Princeton; Grace, the clueless Mom; and Ed, the work-and-golf Dad.
Their insulated life gets a jolt when Upton brings home Ching Chong, and explains that the man is one of the "Indentured servants—workers from Third World countries whose time is worth far less than my own." He bought Ching Chong a one-way plane ticket to America and forged a student visa. In return Ching Chong will complete his homework, chores, and familial obligations. "Cheaper than minimum wage labor, indentured servants present a solution that is amenable to both sides."
The Wongs are so culturally removed from their heritage that, when first spotting Ching Chong with Upton, Desdemona asks, "Who's that Asian guy?" Replies Grace before seeing the man, "Don't talk about your brother like that!" But before long Grace falls for Ching Chong, and Desdemona, feeling the need to get closer to her roots, sets out to be, well, more "Chinese." The play is boldly satirical and mocks all the major stereotypes—not only about Asians but also Americans. It pushes the envelope with mirth and produces big laughs. It is also an equal-opportunity offender, and there lies a problem: the characters get jeered at so much that they become thoroughly ridiculous, and that makes it hard for us to care about them. Ching Chong is not developed enough, either, to serve as a mirror or an inspiration.
Although the plot is less than satisfying, the dialogue and critiquing is marvelously sharp-witted and penetrating. It turns clichés on their heads. My favorite part is about Desdemona sponsoring a Korean girl and trying to use that fact to pump up her college application. There is also a golf speech that is destined to be a classic.
The cast is superb, with Jamie Yuen-Shore as Desdemona and Cirocco Dunlap in multiple roles being standouts. Director Anne Marie Bookwalter makes the scene changes as fun as the play itself, and keeps the pace snappy and tight. The stage is smartly arranged and utilized.
Overall, regardless of whatever faults Ching Chong Chinaman may have, this play is too smart and funny to miss. It makes me wonder at a few things I do as Asian and American, respectively and together. And they are funny.