On Display

On Display

The first Chinese woman to arrive in America is believed to have been a teenager named Afong Moy, who was put on public display, beginning in New York City in 1834, as The Chinese Lady. “AFONG MOY is a native of Canton city, about sixteen years of age, mild and engaging in her manners,” reads an advertisement of the time, preserved by the American Antiquarian Society. Its pitch continues by stating that The Chinese Lady “addresses the visitors in English and Chinese, and occasionally WALKS BEFORE THE COMPANY, so as to afford an opportunity of observing her ASTONISHING LITTLE FEET! For which the Chinese Ladies are so remarkable.” The ad also promotes Moy’s “splendid CHINESE SALOON, fitted up with rich Canton Satin Damask Chinese Paintings, Lanterns, and Curiosities.”

In his 2018 play The Chinese Lady, which opened last week at Long Wharf Theatre, playwright Lloyd Suh fills the gaps in the story of Afong Moy (Shannon Tyo), imagining what she might have thought about her position and her translator, a Chinese man named Atung (Jon Norman Schneider). At the same time, we become the audience of the spectacle itself, complicit in the exhibition and left to question our own cultural tourism.

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Moy was originally brought to the United States by importers Nathaniel and Frederick Carne, who hoped that putting her on display might help them market Chinese goods to the burgeoning middle class. “People would come to see the exotic Chinese woman with small feet, they hoped, and in the process develop a taste for Chinese fancy goods—which, conveniently, would be for sale elsewhere in the city,” writes John Haddad in his study “The Chinese Lady and China for the Ladies: Race, Gender, and Public Exhibition in Jacksonian America.” Of the many sojourns Moy made to American cities, at least one brought her to New Haven.

Setting is crucial to this theater-within-a-theater production directed by Ralph B. Peña. Scenic designer Junghyun Georgia Lee has delivered a simple, beautiful set that delights with its moving parts and dovetails seamlessly with the theme of the play itself, involving boxes inside boxes inside boxes, from a life-sized shipping container to a small treasure chest. Afong Moy, played with versatility by Tyo, is both literally boxed inside the theaters at which she appears and metaphorically boxed in by circumstances that include her financial servitude to her promoters; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and similar laws barring Chinese immigration; her gender; and her age, which eventually becomes a liability.

The audience understands the cultural horror from the opening scene, in which Afong and Atung introduce themselves, though not without humor. The first two scenes, in which Afong is 14 and 16 years old, knock the audience over the head at times with didactic explanations of cultural appropriation that are already clearly on display. But this is a small price to pay for Atung’s moving monologue on his own boxed-in existence and a poignant scene in which the pair visit Andrew Jackson. The president’s inappropriate remarks must be translated by the protective Atung, who, at the same time, doesn’t have quite enough English—or desire—to convey Afong’s poetic and laudatory remarks to the powerful man. The exchange is cleverly rendered such that we understand both what is being said by all parties—Schneider slips in and out of the role of Jackson—and how it’s being translated.

The Chinese Lady was originally slated to open on Long Wharf’s stage in March of 2020. While much of the world has moved on from its original plans over the past 19 months, there’s a feeling of redemption in the opportunity to sit in the theater again and see this production as it was originally intended to be seen, following what artistic director Jacob Padrón has referred to as a long intermission. With COVID protocols in place including buffer seats between parties, the opening night audience was smaller and, in their masks, a bit more subdued than opening night crowds of the past, but they cheered Padrón’s emotional welcome, and the requisite list of curtain speech thank-yous was more heartfelt than ever.

The Chinese Lady
Long Wharf Theatre – 222 Sargent Dr, New Haven (map)
through 10/31
(203) 787-4282

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images photographed by T. Charles Erickson and provided courtesy of Long Wharf Theatre.

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