“Ching Chong Chinaman”: The unexpected name in Asian American identity

By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly

From left: Actors Kathy Hsieh as Grace, Stan Asis as Ed, Jose Abaoag as J, Elizabeth Daruthayan as Desdemona, and Christian T. Ver as Upton (Photos by Tiffany Ran/NWAW)

First thing I thought about before seeing “Ching Chong Chinaman” was,  ‘great, another Asian American satire,’ “Joy Luck Club” references and all. 

I was actually joking about the “Joy Luck Club” reference, but it was there. It didn’t stop there.

“Ching Chong Chinaman” pulled out every stereotype in the book, from the model minority to fortune cookies and rice cookers. But hey, what can you expect from a play called, “Ching Chong Chinaman”?

The play is about the Wong family, an Americanized Chinese family living in Palo Alto, Calif., and their Chinese indentured servant, J (called J because they never figure out how to pronounce his real name, Ching Chong). The father, Ed, loves to play golf and tries, rather unsuccessfully, to bring his family together.

Grace, the mother, is a lost soul looking for purpose and a hobby.

Desdemona, the daughter, is the model minority looking to get accepted to Princeton. Upton, the son, is an avid World of Warcraft player, who hopes to be admitted to the ultimate World of Warcraft tournament in Seoul. J, the Chinese indentured servant, speaks only Chinese and is unable to communicate with the Wong family.

Despite having very few lines, Jose Abaoag (who plays J), ga­ve a stunning performance, providing comic relief through his facial expressions alone.

Other small but notable characters are played by Kay Nahm. Nahm’s numerous roles within the play include the ubiquitous Chinese woman in Desdemona’s conscience, an orphan, J’s mother, a doctor, a Korean schoolgirl, and a Princeton alumnus. I was tempted to dismiss this play as yet another run-of-the-mill satire with bland Asian stereotypes, but Nahm’s precise comic delivery with her characters kept me laughing and anticipating.

Half-way through the play, things began to turn, and I found myself embracing the ludicrousness of it all: kitchen tap dancing, quincinẽras, and yaks! More importantly, the characters develop into relatable and multifaceted figures as they come closer to achieving their respective goals. The characters soon find that there was much more to their desires than their material goals.

The play departs from mere stereotypes to provide insight on the profound role our ethnicity has in shaping our identity. In the process of pursuing their own respective goals, the Wong family’s ties begin to unravel.

Elizabeth Daruthayan (left), and Kay Nahm as the Chinese Woman

Playwright Lauren Yee was very adamant about keeping the controversial name, “Ching Chong Chinaman,” when concerns were raised by SIS Productions on whether the name would fare well in a politically correct city like Seattle. Yee’s intention was to have a play that brought common stereotypes of both whites and Asians to the forefront and present Asian American issues in a new, twisted way. A production of the play is also currently running in New York’s West End Theatre.

This play surprised me in the way it weaves insight with absurdity. When I caught myself chuckling during a sad moment in the play, I thought about the way Asian plays have departed from a once solemn reflection of our identity. This play reveals a humorous acknowledgment of all its contradictions. This seemingly derogatory title transforms it into a humorous exploration of Asian American identity. “Ching Chong Chinaman” is reflective of this new genre, and it is catching on with Asian Americans across the nation. ♦

“Ching Chong Chinaman,” a play by SIS Productions, runs March 26 to April 24 at the Richard Hugo House at 1634 11th Ave., Seattle. Tickets range from $10 to $15.

For more information, visit www.sis-productions.org.

Tiffany Ran can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

3 Responses to ““Ching Chong Chinaman”: The unexpected name in Asian American identity”

  1. Dave says:

    It’s a wonder that this particular production didn’t bludgeon viewers over the head with what it means in being an Asian American. Though the idea and conflict of identity does arise via Desdemona’s character, as you said, the ludicrousness of it all seemed to dissipate the much discussed and run-down topic of the Asian American identity crisis, leaving the characters to speak out for themselves. I’m glad to have caught the play! Thanks!

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