The 200-year-old story of The Chinese Lady will only end if we learn to listen
When I first saw her, at an intimate New York theatre one Saturday night in 2018, it was our differences that stuck out to me. I arrived in the United States by plane; she, by boat. I hail from Argentina; she, from China. I came here to study and work, and while she undoubtedly did both, the main purpose of her visit to America was to be part of an exhibit where she “performed” her culture for 25 cents a ticket. I’m 31 years old; she, by now, is a bit over 200, as I learned as soon as she started speaking (through actress Shannon Tyo): “Hello. My name is Afong Moy. It is the year 1834. I am fourteen years old, and newly arrived in America.” For the rest of Lloyd Suh’s The Chinese Lady, Afong made a slow but unrelenting case for our similarities. No one has ever infringed so much upon my body and culture as they did hers, but as visitors gawked as she ate, drank tea, and walked around the room, I couldn’t help but think of people in this country that have made fun of my accent (or commented on how “surprisingly good” my English is), made assumptions about my character or tastes because of preconceptions about Latinx people, or repeatedly called me “Fernando” instead of “Francisco” (I blame ABBA).
“I understand it is my duty to show you things that are exotic, and foreign, and unusual,” said Afong, and I felt my heart break. She didn’t condemn the curiosity that brought us to the exhibit, even as it robbed her of her personhood and made her a stand-in for an entire people; the play is, after all, called The Chinese Lady, not “Afong Moy.” Her experience is her own, but her life resonates with all of those who have at one point or another been considered exotic, foreign, or unusual—and we may wish (at least I did) for her to put duty aside, lead the revolution, tear down the exhibit and those who put her there! But she didn’t. She ate and drank, she told us the history of tea, she walked around in her bound feet that so enthralled Americans. “The power of the play,” reflects Long Wharf Theatre’s Artistic Director Jacob G. Padrón, “rests in its ‘quietness.’”
Lest quietness be equated with passivity, I feel it important to mention: Afong—both the historical one and the play’s—led a remarkable life. She learned English, toured the United States, even met with President Jackson. Her quietness was not a lack of resolve, quite the contrary: she considered it her life’s mission, as she told us that night, to promote “understanding, learning, sharing.” That I hoped she reacted differently to her circumstances was, to put it bluntly, my problem: “Is it not appropriate for me to decide what is my concern and what is not?” scolded Afong at one point.
It was towards the end of her journey, as she witnessed the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Chinese massacre of 1871, the Rock Springs Massacre, and the Snake River Massacre, that she doubted herself: “I offer to you, my friends, my deepest and most sincere apology. For I too did not fulfil [my purpose]…Perhaps if I had been more worthy of the task. If I had shown you more of myself. If I had walked differently. Eaten differently.” As I walked out of the theatre that night in 2018, that apology rang in my ears. It felt unnecessary. It felt unfair. Nevermind our disagreements over course of action: Afong didn’t owe me anything.
Cut to 2021. The world is reeling from a pandemic which, amongst other tragedies, saw a spike of violence against Asian Americans. Long Wharf Theatre announces that The Chinese Lady, which was abruptly canceled before its opening during their 2020/21 season, will come back to open the current one (the play, following its protagonist’s lead, has traveled around the country, making stops in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and The Berkshires, among others). I don’t understand it—how does Afong keep going? Isn’t she tired by now, defeated by all the hate she has witnessed for 200 years? When Long Wharf Theatre commissions me to contribute to their blog, I know I have to write about her. I email the play’s team to ask: why are they bringing Afong back to the stage?
Jacob answers with certainty; in his view, what has happened in the last few years is precisely the reason to let Afong tell her story yet again. “The best theatre often responds to our current moment as human beings on this planet. The Chinese Lady is the right story for all of us, as a community, to sit with.” Ralph B. Peña, who directs the play, agrees: “After the white-nationalist presidency of Trump, and how he unleashed racist violence in the country, it’s vital to tell stories of how immigrants shaped this nation, and the US’s long dalliance with empire and display.” He is saddened by how timely her tale remains, though: “Afong was a witness to the brutal forces that ripped this country apart—much of which remain today, in different forms, but with the same goal.”
It is in Ralph’s last comment that something clicks for me: Afong’s resilience is her most effective weapon. She may not have been able to stop each individual act of hate, but she outlived them all—in memory, if not in body. Afong’s mark in our culture was so indelible that over a hundred years after her death, people are still gathering to hear her speak. What do we still want from her? Hasn’t she given us enough? What are we hoping will be different this time? “I don’t know how audiences will receive the play in light of everything that has happened in the world,” concedes Lloyd Suh—the playwright who, like the character Atung in the play, has taken on the role of relaying Afong’s words to us. “But their reaction seems outside of my control. What I’m appreciative of is the opportunity to gather with my Asian American peers in processing it all together.” Actor Jon Norman Schneider (who plays Atung in the Long Wharf Theatre production) agrees: “Lloyd’s work is vital to this endeavor.”
Afong has proven me wrong. Her quietness and sense of duty were much more powerful than I anticipated. Through them, she has managed to keep her message alive, aware as she was that “it is human nature to forget.” Maybe that’s why, as Jacob said in our conversation, “the best playwrights are historians.” Because someone has to remind us constantly not to repeat the mistakes of the past, even when it seems hopeless to do so. Shannon Tyo (who is reprising the role at Long Wharf Theatre) hopes it sticks this time: “I feel like the world we’re in right now is uniquely poised to be able to receive the message of this play in a way it hasn’t been able, or willing to, in my lifetime.”
The world may be able, it may even be willing, but will it listen? Regardless, Afong will continue to do her duty, unfair as it may seem to those like me. She understands its importance. She is, in fact, eager: “I have been waiting for you for so long,” she tells us in the play, “for this chance to try again.”
Francisco Mendoza is an Argentinian writer currently living in Brooklyn, NY after spending several years in Brazil. His writing spans theater, prose, audio, and the screen, and he also works as a freelance teacher and marketing consultant.