When we first meet Afong Moy, it is 1834 and she’s 14 years old. Reported as the first female Chinese immigrant to arrive in the United States, she’s brought to New York as an attraction. The Chinese Lady, presented here by Studio 180 Theatre and fu-GEN in association with Crow’s Theatre, is a lyrical portrait of her experience.
With haunting whimsy, Lloyd Suh’s play explores the idea of this historical figure through speculative invention and embellishment. Her story is examined with a contemporary context and self-aware theatrical framing. What if Afong Moy were able to speak directly to us through almost 200 years of fraught history?
The artifice of presentation and routine are established and deconstructed immediately. Up front, Moy (Rosie Simon) tells us the words are not her own. In reality, she explains, her English is limited, so when she articulately pulls us into her confidence, we are aware of it as creative interpretation.
The same is true for the environment she inhabits. Echo Zhou 周芷會’s set is a raised platform representing a traditional Chinese room as a museum fixture. At the sound of a gong, Moy goes through a series of contrived motions meant to convey aspects of Chinese life to the Westerners of the 19th century. She shuffles about on bound feet, eats with chopsticks and drinks her tea—all while explaining to us the historical significance of these rituals.
We, the audience, are acknowledged here as both the curious spectators of the 1800s and the oh-so-sophisticated and—ahem—culturally sensitive modern audience we are. This discomfiting duality is one of the play’s most crucial devices. Bumping up against out-dated social mores, we are forced to reconcile conflicted feelings. We are amused and charmed by Moy’s naive belief that she’s fostering mutual understanding and bridging cultural divides—yet we are simultaneously horrified by the exploitative fetishization of the spectacle she’s providing.
Marjorie Chan 陳以珏’s production plays with this duality, encourages us to wrestle with our investment in Moy and the contrivances she is forced to embody and endure. Simon is fully compelling in the role—with subtle, telling shifts in demeanour as Moy’s purpose and identity are slowly eroded by years of strategic objectification.
Though he and Moy both consistently refer to him as “irrelevant,” her interpreter—an older Chinese man named Atung (John Ng 伍健琪)—is a vital presence. He is a dutiful props master for her living display, a conflicted translator and, eventually, a tormented confidant. Ng is equally funny and heartbreaking, his strained body language allowing us devastating glimpses into a man whose stunted identity echoes Moy’s.
In a pivotal scene depicting a meeting between Moy and president Andrew Jackson, we see the clever and deceptive over-simplifications he is forced to concoct in order to maintain a comfortable, banal interaction. He tries to shield Moy from Jackson’s leering exoticization while also diluting her intelligence, allowing Jackson to imagine himself as her intellectual superior. And Ng beautifully conveys the emotional cost of this charade.
This particular scene is also harrowing in the way it conveys Moy’s sense of violation when Jackson insists that he touch her bound feet. Earlier in the play, the ancient process for feet binding is planted in our minds with very poetic gestures; these movements conjure the pain of the procedure yet also her affection for this aspect of her body she has helped to create. When Jackson’s grotesque blend of fascination and revulsion is indulged, these gestures and her face tell us more than words ever could.
As the years go by, key moments in colonial American history—manifest destiny, the transatlantic slave trade, the violent appropriation of Indigenous land, the building of the railroad—are seen through the lens of her displacement and alienation. American mythology and its iconography are dismantled. We are shown that famous crack in the Liberty Bell and invited to examine its significance.
Gloria Mok莫嘉詠’s soundscape features sinister, eerie renditions of familiar Americana like Camptown Races and Yankee Doodle. Though she puts on a brave, enthusiastic face through so much of her pantomime of Chinese culture, Moy’s inner anxieties are fully expressed in this macabre, funhouse reflection of the America she’s trapped in.
In the play’s final moments, props and costume elements are displayed as revered objets d’art; now artifacts, they have a sad dignity. Can their preservation and exhibition keep her memory alive? Can reflecting on our past entitlement and arrogance help us to heal in our present? With intelligence and empathy, The Chinese Lady encourages us to examine our place in a shameful continuum.