Currently running at The Public Theater in a production directed by Ralph B. Peña, The Chinese Lady gives voice to the true story of Afong Moy (Shannon Tyo, alt. Cindy Im), purported to be the first Chinese woman to set foot in North America, and her translator Atung (Daniel K. Isaac, alt. Jon Norman Schneider).
Moy was brought to New York City in 1834, sold by her father to a pair of American merchants on a two-year contract to serve as an exhibition of Chinese culture to curious Americans. A bubbly 14-year-old eager to explore the world, the young Moy was set up in a small display room to perform such “exotic” activities as walking, talking, and eating for audiences willing to pay 25 cents (10 cents for children). Atung, who is not nearly as “irrelevant” as Moy insists, translates Moy’s Cantonese to English.
Moy’s daily life is commodified, performed, and sold for an audience. Every part of The Chinese Lady, both the production itself and the history that inspired it, is designed to conscientiously communicate a particular perspective on Chinese culture. Moy’s clothing, designed by Linda Cho, becomes more elaborate in each progressing scene. Her bound feet are an object of great fascination to her audiences, including a particularly lecherous Andrew Jackson embodied by Atung. She eats for her audience mukbang-style, evoking a genre of popular videos originating in East Asia in which creators eat for an audience; it would appear that appropriation of such voyeuristic entertainment has been in vogue since before the Internet was a vague concept. During the interstitial moments between scenes, Atung advertises the price of various “authentic” Chinese artifacts to the audience—a figurine of a horse or the Buddha, yours for the low price of 70 cents.
The push and pull of power between Atung and Moy is a drama unto itself. Atung is her bridge between worlds and our bridge between scenes, at once orchestrating Moy’s performance with the chime of his hand symbols and running transitions across the (literally) framed stage. At times, Atung appears to resent Moy, who he ostensibly serves, but at others expresses a desire to protect her from “the gaze” upon which both of their livelihoods depend. He is fully in control of Moy’s understanding of her English-speaking world, and yet he speaks of “an appetite for what I cannot have” in his dreams of possessing white women, white men, and even Moy herself.
I was struck in that moment by Atung’s raw desire, both the sheer intensity of it and the overtones of violence in his hunger to subvert the gaze from which he had been withheld. I thought for a moment of a game I used to play with an ex-boyfriend of Chinese descent, pointing out the rare “clone couples” also composed of white women and Asian men (as opposed to the much more common combination of white men and Asian women). I briefly pictured Atung as a “clone couple” some 150 years before us and wondered what might have happened to him had he happened to solicit one of those white women who he so dreamed of possessing.
Questions of possession and ownership thread their way throughout The Chinese Lady. Indeed, Moy’s initial foray into the United States is as an ownable object, sold first by her father and then sold again as a full exhibition (along with her room, a curated selection of goods from China, and Atung) to famed entertainer and circus-owner P. T. Barnum. The transatlantic slave trade is mentioned by name as an American tradition “entrenched, despite some controversy,” like foot binding in China, and the commodification of Black Americans receives another nod in this production’s conclusion as Atung, ostensibly still in the employ of P. T. Barnum after Moy is replaced with a younger performer, parades across the stage with a sandwich board advertising a minstrel show.
In the final scene, the actor playing Moy removes her costume and acknowledges the artifice of performance, saying:
“This is not my voice, for it was never recorded.
These are not my clothes, for they were not kept.
This is not my body, for it no longer exists.”
This moment is an effective acknowledgment of historical erasure, and perhaps also a nod to the long-standing American cultural perception of Asians as foreign despite their historical precedent in the nation, particularly in stark contrast to the perception of white bodies as “native” despite no indigenous history on the continent. It also led me to ask myself larger, meta-theatrical questions about the actor’s ownership of her own body in a profession where the body is the medium for sale.
It is unclear to me whether the didactic overtone of the production is intentional or the effect of fear and reticence to take a bolder claim. The script itself is clearly carefully constructed, tiny syntactic changes sprinkled from scene to scene to demonstrate the passage of time and the dwindling of Moy’s childhood earnestness to the lapping waters of cynicism. And while the final projected images of contemporary protests against Asian and Asian American hate are powerful (a fine capstone to Shawn Duan’s beautiful projection design), the final questions—“I’m looking at you. Are you looking at me? Can you see me?”—left me wondering whether seeing is enough.
Learn more about contemporary efforts surrounding Chinese American activism and protection against exploitation and racist violence in NYC here.
Photos by Joan Marcus