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The Chinese Lady: Immigrants as Eternal Outsiders

Dick Price: Based on a true story, Lloyd Suh’s one-act play tells of Afong Moy, a 14-year-old girl brought to New York in 1834 as perhaps the first female Chinese immigrant to America.
the chinese lady

Amy Shu playing Afong Moy

Children locked in cages at the border. Travelers turned back at airports for their religion. A president slandering souls who don’t look like him—desperate black and brown migrants, coming from countries he doesn’t like. An administration whose incompetence is matched only by its malevolence in dealing with asylum seekers.

These are dark times indeed.

Based on a true story, Lloyd Suh’s one-act play tells of Afong Moy, a 14-year-old girl brought to New York in 1834 as perhaps the first female Chinese immigrant to America.

But as “The Chinese Lady,” now playing at the Greenway Court Theatre, drives home, attacks on groups of people not part of America’s dominant white culture are far from the exception—they fall much closer to the rule—throughout our long history.

Based on a true story, Lloyd Suh’s one-act play tells of Afong Moy, a 14-year-old girl brought to New York in 1834 as perhaps the first female Chinese immigrant to America. Coming here on a two-year contract to entertain museum-goers in the Big Apple, Afong spends her days demonstrating how an “exotic” Chinese woman uses chopsticks to eat, wears silken gowns, speaks Chinese, and hobbles on purposely broken and bound feet.

Wryly comical and wrenching by turns, “The Chinese Lady” plays on the touchingly acted interchanges between Afong (Amy Shu) and Atung (Trieu Tran), her unreliable but increasingly adoring translator. Cruelly, Afong’s initial short-term assignment becomes a lifelong travail after P.T. Barnum buys up the original deal Afong’s father made so he can parade her from city to city around the country.

The Chinese Lady

Trieu Tran as Atung and as Amy Suh as Afong

“I am the first Chinese American woman,” she repeats to her audiences time and again, initially pleased to represent her culture to curiosity seekers. “I am the first Chinese woman you have ever seen. I am the first Chinese from nobility, the first educated Chinese, the first high-born, the first with bound feet, the first the first the first. And so you see, this gives me a great responsibility."

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Deftly directed by Rebecca Wear, Suh’s story becomes a larger story than the personal interplay between the two individuals, expanding to touch on America’s long and wretched racial history—think the Cherokee Trail of Tears engineered by President Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Chinese Exclusion Act initially instituted in 1882 when Afong was 62 to prohibit all immigration of Chinese laborers, and the slaughter of Chinese workers and sometimes their families already here in several western towns—including right here in Los Angeles—once their labor was no longer needed.

We are left with a universal immigrant’s story, especially poignant at this dark juncture in our nation’s history, as Afong is denied even partial membership in American society at the same time that the Chinese culture wrenched from her grasp fades from her memory as the decades of her virtual slavery slip past. Her increasingly haunting decades-skipping reports to the audience draw a bright line between past racist ugliness to today’s pervasive immigrant bashing.

Aging and recognizing at last the cruel trap her life has become—especially as even Atung abandons her to her fate—Afong’s disillusionment and rage grow at her permanent outsider status in America’s exploitive culture. Once she had thought she was something of a goodwill ambassador, instructing her audiences through Atung’s droll translations about Chinese culture, building bridges between East and West, showing how a cultured Chinese woman comports herself. But ultimately alone and rudderless, she realizes she has been little more than a sideshow curiosity, a figure of fun, on display to entertain gawkers who point and smirk, having paid their 25 cents for the privilege.

As the curtain comes down, we are left to imagine how Afong’s last real-life days played out after she was no longer curiosity enough to interest onlookers. Did she somehow return to China, to what might remain of the family that sold her into bondage? Does she make it out to San Francisco as she dreams of doing, perhaps finding some respite in the growing Chinese community there? Or does she simply wander aimlessly until she can go on no more?

the chinese lady

We don’t know, and Suh’s play doesn’t say, but today’s newspaper headlines tell us our nation’s treatment of “outsider” immigrants hasn’t improved much. Shining city on a hill indeed!

[dc]“T[/dc]he Chinese Lady” plays through September 29 at Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Avenue, in Los Angeles: Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. Tickets are available online at GreenwayCourtTheatre.org, 323.673,0544. Free parking is available in the Fairfax High School parking lot on Fairfax and Clinton, directly adjacent to the theatre.

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Dick's rating [rating =5]

Dick Price
Editor, Hollywood Progressive