Review: Ching Chong Chinaman at Chippen St Theatre

Review By James Ong

The notorious script, the strong community support and the starved Sydney Theatre scene has definitely placed a lot of eyes on Ching Chong Chinaman (and a well-earned sold out run). As we slowly get back to normality, how exactly will 2021 audiences take to this provocative work? The show focuses on the Wongs, an exceedingly American family that just happen to be of Chinese descent. In fact their ethnicity is incidental and often at odds with their overwhelming American-ness. Each character exhibits their own form of a Western superiority complex. Parents Ed (Tony Goh) and Grace (Grace Ho) are ripped straight from the 1950s with bravado, xenophobia and babies on the brain. The children are a bit more modern in their toxicities, with daughter Desdemona determined to virtue-signal her way into a spot at Princeton University and her younger brother Upton (Jico Avedillo) using foreign labour to cover his homework and daily chores. The poor indentured servant in question is Jinqiang (Frank Yang), who soon becomes integral to the family and actually gives the show its eyebrow raising title. One particular bright spot is in the litany of energetic side characters portrayed by Alex Plenge Chan, who packed even the most minor roles to the brim with a unique zest. Especially impressive is Chan’s speedy costume changes, which is also a testament to the superb stage management. There are A LOT of props, costumes and sound/lighting cues throughout the 85 min show, and it all ran with remarkable precision. Tiffany Wong also served as the show’s director and leads the production with some crisp and effective staging choices. It’s likely the most thorough use of the Chippen Street stage I’ve seen to date, with all exits utilised and every inch of the space serving a purpose. However, Wong’s choice to spread her talents across both directing and performing (while certainly talented in both) did leave some things unpolished and in a way that a separate pair of eyes could have helped. The most notable example of this is in the severely inconsistent American accents, which did unfortunately get quite distracting throughout. Lauren Yee’s smash hit script from 2007 left me feeling a little confronted. Undoubtedly well-written, the play is also quite dark in its depiction of the West’s ability to assimilate foreign cultures. The award-winning script demands an all-Asian cast and makes the bold move to strip them of almost everything that America would typically describe as ‘Asian’. No tiger parents, no obsession with grades. They barely have a grasp of what Chinese food is. Instead, they are rebuilt as a prototypical nuclear family, complete with the associated bigotries one may find in middle-America. The Wongs are a product of generations worth of pressure to conform and they demonstrate just how arbitrary and hollow racial titles can be in describing modern families. This pointed commentary did take me bit by surprise, but I suppose I should have been tipped off by the name of the show’s production company. Slanted Theatre is a dedicated group of creatives who aim to highlight and showcase Asian-Australians in the world of drama, with Ching Chong Chinaman being their first full-scale production. This noble cause will hit home for many, and as a member of the community myself, it obviously did so for me too! Until the 2010s, the vast majority of Asian representation in Western media didn’t really capture my life experience at all. Sure it was nice to see the Jackie Chans and Ken Jeongs of the world make it big, but I shared little more than skin tone with these individuals who were supposed to make me feel ‘seen’. Whatever genetically Chinese blood courses through my veins, I am fundamentally not from China and it’s a rough stretch for me to ever accept the label of ‘Chinese’ - especially as I (and many others) have clamoured to earn the label of ‘Australian’. It feels that these insecurities are what have plagued the Wong’s family tree for decades, and the bizarrely detached group we are presented with is a reflection of just how far systemic pressure to fit in can push people. This is why the core concept behind Ching Chong Chinaman has resonated so strongly with so many. References to the Joy Luck Club and an adoration of rice cookers will make any Westernised Asians feel represented, sure. But it’s the expression of these anxieties that landed so hard for me and is the reason I’ll be keeping an eye out for whatever Wong and Slanted Theatre will be bringing to us next.

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