Saturday, March 23, 2013

Review: (Toronto) Ching Chong Chinaman

Zoe Doyle (photo credit: Alex Felipe)
Inside the Family
by Beat Rice
(This article has been corrected)

This year Fu-Gen Theatre celebrates its 10th year anniversary by staging Lauren Yee’s satirical comedy about an assimilated Asian American family and an indentured Chinese worker. The Wongs are a nuclear family consisting of Father Ed (John Ng), Mother Grace (Brenda Kamino), university applicant daughter Desdemona (Zoe Doyle), and 15-year-old Warcraft addict Upton (Oliver Koomsitara Koomsatira). 

The four basically do not identify themselves as Chinese at all and seem to be completely oblivious to basic Chinese customs. Their ignorance is the base of the comedy for the first half of the play. When Jinquiang (Richard Lee), or “J”, enters their household they are not quite sure how to treat him, but they do find different ways of using him to their individual advantage. In this, Yee has created an interesting paradigm of the assimilated and the immigrant, something Torontonians and other North Americans alike can understand. J comes to America with dreams of becoming a dancer and is confused by cultural differences of the American family that looks Chinese.  Another character, simply called ‘Chinese Woman’ (Jane Yuk Luk), plays several roles and voices in the play, real and subconscious.

I admire the ensemble for their commitment and energy but I cannot say that I am a fan of the style.

The play is a highly stylized farce that feels like a 90 minute sketch comedy. Exaggeration is key, from yelling lines on top of each other, to iPhone touch screen acting. I admire the ensemble for their commitment and energy but I cannot say that I am a fan of the style. Most of the meaning is lost in the theatrics of running around, random dance sequences, and phone dialogue. Even though we understand the material desires of the characters their true intents are not clear and strong enough. I love when directors use the full performance space they are given but sometimes I was confused about where and when things were happening.

As an Asian Canadian I picked up on every stereotype but I did not necessarily find them funny or original. What does it mean to ‘break down’ a stereotype? There is not much analysis or exploration of why these stereotypes exist, they are presented to us as jokes, and I am left confused, and not even offended (which I was kind of hoping for).  Having your characters say things that are politically incorrect is not commentary, and does not make for politically charged theatre. It is just saying things that are a little rude and ignorant. 

The play also ends in a strange denouement of a monologue delivered by Ed the dad, who says a few words about each character to conclude the show, and yet again another cell phone conversation. I could have got past this if we at least found out how J had affected or changed the family, other than just being hired help. Desdemona seems to be the only one who struggles with cultural identity, a struggle that is largely motivated by her desperation to be accepted into Princeton, not by the presence of a Chinese man in her home. 

Other than the odd issues with the writing, Fu-Gen’s production of Ching Chong Chinaman shone. The set is clever and the colours and brightness matched the style of the staging and the acting. Several set pieces and most props are in cardboard and plastic packaging, a hilarious design choice to remind us that yes, a lot of products are Made In China, just like the ancestors of the Wongs, and just like J. 

I think it is wonderful that Fu-Gen is looking to expand their repertoire to include American plays, but I hesitate to say that this was not the best choice to showcase the talents of Asian Canadian theatre artists. 

Ching Chong Chinaman runs until March 30 at the Aki Studio Theatre in the Daniels Spectrum


  1. A correction to be made on the article, please. It's Oliver Koomsatira, not Koomsitara, and it's Jane Luk, not Yuk.

  2. Thank you very much for the note. The corrections have been made.


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