Stage Door Review 2023

The Chinese Lady

Tuesday, May 9, 2023


by Lloyd Suh, directed by Marjorie Chan

Studio 180 Theatre & fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company with Crow’s Theatre, Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 CarlawAvenue, Toronto

May 5-21, 2023

Afong Moy: “What do they see when they see me?”

In his 2018 play The Chinese Lady, American playwright Lloyd Suh has found a subject in which a large number of current topics intersect including the clash of East and West, the White gaze, exoticism and the male objectification of women. Suh has expanded on these topics to pose questions about life as performance and powers that prevent positive change in history. This is all quite amazing considering that his play is based on the life of an historical Chinese woman, Afong Moy, who literally did nothing but sit, walk, eat and drink before a paying public. But it is Suh’s genius to seek how this one woman’s life embodies so many causes for debate. The impeccable performances of Rosie Simon and John Ng 伍健琪 in the two main roles and the insightful direction of Majorie Chan 陳以珏 make this an entertaining and thought-provoking work everyone should see.

Afong Moy was the first Chinese woman known to have seen the United States. In 1834, Moy was sold by her family to brothers Nathaniel and Frederick Carnes, traders of Far East Oriental Imports from her hometown of Guangzhou to New York City. There she was exhibited at Peale’s Museum as “The Chinese Lady” in a special room built to simulate a room in a Chinese house and filled with Chinese antiques. The brothers calculated that exhibiting Moy would increase interest among Americans for Chinese goods.

Though the exact date of Moy’s birth is not known, Suh tells us that she was 14 years old in 1834. Her role was to sit on a chair dressed in her “native” costume, use chopsticks to eat, drink tea, and walk about her platform on her tiny feet, the result of the practice of foot binding. (Foot binding became a symbol of feminine beauty in the Song Dynasty [960-1279] and was not banned until 1912 by the Republic of China and not fully eradicated until 1957.) She would speak about Chinese cultural practices but since she knew no English she used an interpreter. From this information Suh created the character of Atung.

In Suh’s play both Moy and Atung speak English because, as Suh has the actors tell us, they are merely playing the two characters and are recreating scenes from the past. On the one hand, Suh is telling us what every audience already knows when going to see a play. On the other hand, Suh is deliberately making us aware in Brechtian fashion that we are seeing a performance. Indeed, Moy says early on, “My entire life is a performance”. She says she has been told to highlight features about herself that may seem as “exotic, foreign and unusual” to the viewing public.

Suh takes us from Moy’s first exhibition to the height of her fame when she went on a tour of the United States in 1835 and “performed” in Washington, DC, for an entire month during which time she had an audience with then President Andrew Jackson. Interest in Moy declined after 1837 and her last known exhibition was in 1850, after which time nothing is known of her.

This does not deter Suh from imagining a future for her that extends her life through the California gold rush (1848-55), the American Civil War (1861-65) and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Suh has Moy live to see the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first US law ever imposed to prevent members of a specific national group from immigrating to the United States. Suh’s version of Moy lets her live to see the Act renewed in 1892 and made permanent in 1902. (It was not repealed until 1943.)

The reason for Suh’s extension of Moy’s life beyond what is known is clearly to allow Moy to comment on how Chinese people were treated in the US. Moy shows us how Moy begins her first exhibition at age 14 filled with the hope that it will provide Americans with a window on Chinese culture and that audiences will see the beauties of what is different as well as what is similar between the two cultures. The young Afong Moy is convinced that the exhibition with help promote peace and understanding. By allowing Moy to live to 1882 and beyond, Suh allows us to see how all of Moy’s youthful hopes fade into a bitter reflection on what, if anything, her extraordinarily restricted life has accomplished.

What is fascinating is how the two actors differentiate their characters’ aging. Simon has Moy begin with almost breathless enthusiasm since she believes that what she is doing will really help the people of China and the US understand each other better. Once her two years are finished and there has been no sign that the Carneses plan to send her back to China, Moy still carries on but Simon now adds the slightest hint of doubt to her voice. Setback follows setback, her interview with Andrew Jackson being a far more disturbing than pleasant experience.

Yet, despite the bad news Moy relates about how Chinese people are treated in the US, Simon still depicts Moy as an inherently positive person. Moy may have lost her initial naïveté and become wiser in the ways of the world, but she still believes that change is possible.

Simon conveys this complex trait of positivity despite doubt with surprising ease, just as she shows us how Moy gradually leaves her girlishness behind as he develops into a mature woman. The stages of this development are highlighted by means of the fantastic costume designed by Jung-Hye Kim. Each time Moy announces that we have moved on to another year, she removes a design element of the costume. Thus, not only does the costume indicate that we move forward in time but is also shows that Simon is moving farther from the historical persona she plays and closer to herself.

John Ng’s role is primarily to serve as a comic foil to Simon’s Afong Moy. At the very start of the play Moy declares that Atung is “irrelevant” and he agrees. As the action progresses, however, we see that there are many ironies associated with his supposed “irrelevance”. When Moy is 14 and for many years afterwards, she speaks no English and requires Atung as an interpreter. Initially, he, not she, explains what all the “exotic” things are that Moy is doing and that are usual about her dress and person.

In the key scene when Atung and Moy recreate her audience with Andrew Jackson, Atung plays both himself and Jackson – an excellent display of Ng’s talent and sense of comedy. What we see is that Atung often simplifies the questions that Moy asks, especially when he thinks they might upset Jackson. Similarly, Atung will alter, sometimes radically, what Jackson asks of Moy, especially when what Jackson says is offensive or indelicate.

Thus we see that Atung is not as “irrelevant” as he and Moy claim. Moy is right that his translations of her words often make her looks stupid when she clearly is not. But, we also see that Atung’s translations are often his way of protecting her both in modifying what she says to others and in softening what others say to her. Ng conveys how gradually Atung’s protectiveness toward Moy turns into a deeper emotion.

A further irony attached to Atung is that as far as the paying public is concerned, he actually is irrelevant. They have come to see Moy not him. And although designer Kim has got Atung up in traditional black jacket and a black silk skullcap with a long queue, Moy’s colourful clothing is the attraction, not his. The play’s emphasis is how Afong Moy is being exploited, but over time we recognize that Atung is also being exploited and does not even receive fame as a result of his work. Yet, an irony beyond this, is that Atung has a skill which is still useful after he is older, whereas Moy does not, her only skill being to demonstrate the clothing and behaviour of a young Chinese woman.

Majorie Chan does well to point out in her Message from the Director that the exhibition of a person of one ethnicity to people of another is not exclusive to Afong Moy’s exhibition to Americans. She mentions the exhibition of the so-called “Venus Hottentot” in Europe and of Tibetans in China and Koreans in Japan. What Suh’s version of Moy comes to realize is that people of one ethnicity bring their prejudices with them when they look at an “exotic” human exhibit. They may admire the physical objects that surround the human exhibit but they in no way see themselves in the exhibit herself. The circumstance of exhibiting a human being as “exotic, foreign and unusual” already precludes any possibility of seeing similarities.

Suh draws so much to contemplate from the example of Afong Moy that it is a pity he concludes his play with an “in case you didn’t get it” speech of a kind all too familiar in Canadian drama. Inevitably, the moral he wishes us to draw from what we’ve seen is narrower than the complexity of the issues regarding presenting Moy to the public. Despite this, The Chinese Lady is a fascinating play that rescues an important person from obscurity to bring before our gaze. How that gaze is affected by the person it regards and how that person affects those who gaze upon her will have you thinking about Suh’s play for weeks afterwards.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Rosie Simon as Afong Moy; John Ng as Atung and Rosie Simon as Afong Moy; Rosie Simon as Afong Moy; John Ng as Atung. © 2023 Dahlia Katz.

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