BY Harley Wong in Opinion | 06 APR 22

Lloyd Suh’s ‘The Chinese Lady’ Favours Shallow Prompts over Concrete Action

A new production, playing at New York’s Public Theater, traces anti-Asian violence in the US but relies too heavily on anti-racist tropes

H
BY Harley Wong in Opinion | 06 APR 22

An imposing green crate with the words ‘CHINA SHIPPING’ occupies the entirety of the Public Theater’s stage in New York. When cracked open, its interior reveals the Room – an ornately decorated space with a woman seated at its centre. She turns to address the audience with a bright smile: ‘Hello. My name is Afong Moy. It is the year 1834. I am 14 years old, and newly arrived in America.’

Lloyd Suh’s The Chinese Lady (2018) follows the life of the first known Chinese woman in the US. Purchased from her family by merchants Nathaniel and Frederick Carne, who specialized in trading East Asian products, Moy is exhibited as ‘The Chinese Lady’ at Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia. At the conclusion of her performances of racial difference – gracefully walking with bound feet, daintily eating with chopsticks, ritualistically drinking tea – an assortment of Chinese wares for purchase are paraded across the stage.

chinese-lady-2022
Shannon Tyo in Ma-Yi Theater Company’s production of The Chinese Lady (2018), written by Lloyd Suh and directed by Ralph B. Peña, at The Public Theater, New York. Photo: Joan Marcus

Although she was supposed to be returned to her family in Guangzhou after two years, Moy was on display for three decades. The play encounters her at various intervals during that time as she describes the historical events of racialized violence occurring outside of the Room: the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Britain’s colonization of India, the Cherokee Trail of Tears, the Opium Wars and the building of the first transcontinental railroad. The stage, brimming with flowers during the height of Moy’s popularity, becomes increasingly bare over time. Eventually, at the age of 44, Moy is replaced by a younger Chinese girl with smaller bound feet.

In the subsequent scene, the year is 1882 and Moy, aged 62, speaks of the events that have occurred since we last saw her: the 1871 massacre in Los Angeles Chinatown, where approximately 18 Chinese men were murdered or lynched, their lifeless bodies on full display, and the 1882 passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first US law to explicitly ban immigration based on nationality.

Moy assumes responsibility for these tragedies, believing that she failed in representing Chinese people: ‘This Room was built with a hope that it might serve as a platform for understanding, for learning, for sharing […] Perhaps if I had done things differently.’ Rather than realizing her ‘platform’ was built to Other her – and those who look like her – Moy frustratingly maintains the teenage naivety she possessed at the beginning of the play, holding onto the idea that the burden of responsibility to prove our humanity rests on the disempowered.

chinese-lady-2022
Daniel K. Isaac and Shannon Tyo in Ma-Yi Theater Company’s production of The Chinese Lady (2018), written by Lloyd Suh and directed by Ralph B. Peña, at The Public Theater, New York. Photo: Joan Marcus

As Moy speaks of events closer to the present, she removes her traditional Chinese clothing to reveal skinny jeans and a loose-fitting top. She recounts, among other tragedies, the 1885 Rock Springs massacre, in which Chinese American miners were mutilated, castrated and killed by their white counterparts, and the 1887 Snake River massacre that resulted in the death and torture of Chinese American gold miners. Behind her, images of racist propaganda and historical documents attesting to racialized violence flash onscreen. Eventually, it’s 2022 and we see a photograph of an Asian American protestor holding the sign: ‘WE ARE NOT THE VIRUS.’

Under Ralph B. Peña’s directorial guidance, the Public Theater production of The Chinese Lady remains faithful to Suh’s original script while addressing the altered racial landscape following the outbreak of COVID-19, which has witnessed a surge in anti-Asian violence. (Even on the play’s opening night, an Asian American dancer from Yip’s Dragon Style Kung Fu and Lion Dance was attacked while en route to perform in celebratory festivities at the Public Theater.)

chinese-lady-2022
Shannon Tyo in Ma-Yi Theater Company’s production of The Chinese Lady (2018), written by Lloyd Suh and directed by Ralph B. Peña, at The Public Theater, New York. Photo: Joan Marcus

In drawing from the life of an overlooked figure in history, The Chinese Lady relies on heavy-handed didacticism in the hopes of changing hearts and minds, refusing to sit in the gravity of Moy’s circumstances as the subject of racial spectacle – a point of departure with an infinite number of ways to imagine her life. Like the current movement #StopAsianHate – which, while well-meaning, oversimplifies the long and gruesome history of racism that continues to affect Asian Americans and Asians in America – Suh’s call to action, though earnest, is focused on abstract and isolated introspection rather than rallies for systemic and structural change.

On 20 March, during the show’s run, more than 500 community members in nearby Chinatown protested the city’s plans to build new jails. Yet, even with the history lesson Suh offers, The Chinese Lady fails to connect to these types of concrete, substantial actions – opting instead for the shallow prompts typically found in anti-racist self-help books and exemplified by the closing line: ‘Let’s look at each other.’

Main Image: Shannon Tyo in Ma-Yi Theater Company’s production of The Chinese Lady (2018), written by Lloyd Suh and directed by Ralph B. Peña, at The Public Theater, New York. Photo: Joan Marcus

Harley Wong is an arts writer and editor based in New York. Her work has appeared in Art in America, Artforum, ARTnews, Artsy and Camera Austria, among other publications.

SHARE THIS