Review: THE CHINESE LADY at Streetcar Crowsnest

Production provides a powerful look at forgotten history.

By: May. 14, 2023
Review: THE CHINESE LADY at Streetcar Crowsnest

A studio theatre is often known for being a "black box," wherein the entire space is a blank canvas, able to be manipulated in any configuration or to any appearance of the production's choosing. When you enter the studio at Streetcar Crowsnest in order to witness fu-GEN and Studio 180 Theatre's production of Lloyd Suh's THE CHINESE LADY, you get the distinct impression that you are, in fact, trapped in a box, as much an exhibit to the woman watching your gaze as she is to you. She stands on a small, white square platform with a rim that suggests Chinese carvings (beautifully and simply designed by Echo Zhu), the postage stamp that marks the confines of her life.

The woman staring at you as you enter is Afong Moy (Rosie Simon), a name mostly lost to history. Born in 1834, she came to the United States when she was fourteen years old to be put on display, watched for 25 cents an adult and 10 cents per child as she walked on bound feet, ate rice with chopsticks, and performed a small tea ceremony. Though she confides in us that the clothes she wears are only a fanciful impression of what she would wear back home, she is excited to participate in this supposed "cultural exchange" that will potentially build bridges between this new country and her own.

She's been signed away to a pair of traders, the Carnes, for two years of exhibition, to be the first Chinese woman of higher status that most Americans had ever seen. If the crowds had seen any Chinese people before, they were the male labourers searching for a better life, who would instead soon face dangerous conditions, poisonous xenophobia, and political exclusion.

But none of this worries 14-year-old Moy, who begins the play with an inflated sense of her own agency, all smiles and sunshine, ready to make a difference in geopolitical situations she doesn't begin to understand. She's shielded from this information by her employers and by servant Atung (John Ng), a lower-class Chinese man similarly on his own. Atung is paid to translate back and forth for the young Moy, who doesn't speak English (he translates selectively, at best), and Moy calls him "irrelevant." Atung holds the cynicism that Moy will gradually learn over far more than the two planned years: that the ability of one young woman to change the course of American-Chinese relations while inhabiting the equivalent of a touring human zoo is limited.

Though completely fictionalized because we have no record of Moy's true thoughts, Suh's script is direct and brutal. Introducing herself over and over with her name, increasing age, and the year, Moy speaks to the audience at various periods in her life, her musings fluent as they would be in her native Cantonese. She talks us through her reactions to the food and her audience, her delight that the cost to see her has been raised because she is so in demand, her tour of the magical USA - she longs to visit the magnificent-sounding Pittsburgh - and her visit with President Andrew Jackson (spoiler alert: it gets weird). Throughout the years, Moy gets closer and closer to Atung, who goes from holding a sense of resentment and jealousy for the spoiled brat to a grudging feeling of sympathy and even respect for her ability to make the best of her essential captivity.

As Moy's fame grows, Suh uses her story to parallel an American history lesson, while sound designer and composer Gloria Mok delightfully blends such bombastic period classics as Yankee Doodle Dandy and Sousa's Liberty Bell March with Chinese instruments (who's to say you can't play Sousa on an erhu?). We learn about the Chinese Exclusion Act, the exploitation of Chinese immigrants during the building of the cross-country railroad, and President Jackson's shameful Trail of Tears. Though the play is set in the US, it's still sadly relevant to Canadian history, Canada joining its southern neighbour in the same exploitation and exclusionary actions a few years later.

This isn't a simple bio-play or history class, however; it's also an exploration of how history is selectively told and easily erased. Suh's script admits to the audience that, while it is perhaps a more truthful exposé of the realities of xenophobia in American life, it's still putting words into Moy's mouth. We can speak now for those whose voices were silenced, but we can never know exactly what they would have said. Over the course of its 90 minutes, the play explores the nature of cultural exchange vs. exploitation, along with what it means to put people, artifacts, or a moment in history on exhibition. It's a pointed look at museums and what sort of stories they tell.

Marjorie Chan's assured direction makes sure that Moy and Atung aren't behind glass as a static museum display. Ng and Simon make an excellent double team. Simon effectively portrays Moy's perkiness and even delight at her situation, narrowing into hardness as she ages and is hollowed out. She always retains a bit of the early spark, though, that makes us think she can still change the world. Ng is wonderfully oily when he slips into the role of the fetishistic American president. For the most part, while playing Atung, he makes the servant's deference a clear mask for a roiling desire to take centre stage and tell his own story; when this desire eventually breaks through, things take on an almost surreal quality.

His need to consume the people and places that have been consuming him causes him to stalk about the room, while Moy remains on her platform; visually, she's always raised in status, yet clearly confined to her space within a space. It's a cathartic moment when she finally breaks past the platform's edge, bringing the audience into the present while consigning herself to the world of the past.

As you leave THE CHINESE LADY, you're invited to take a closer look at the artifacts Moy leaves behind, much as you're invited to look more closely at the history she represents.

This time, after she's told us her name, perhaps we won't forget her.

Photo of John Ng and Rosie Simon by Dahlia Katz



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From This Author - Ilana Lucas

Ilana Lucas is an English professor at Toronto’s Centennial College. She holds a BA in English and Theatre from Princeton University, and an MFA in Dramaturgy and Script Development from Columbi... (read more about this author)


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