Chinatown ’89: Outside Looking In
October 31, 1989
THE AUDIENCE LEAPS TO ITS feet, moved to wild applause. The reviews are ecstatic, and the public reveals itself to be as keenly appreciative and discerning as it is culturally mixed. Not once, in a society expansive enough to encourage heterogeneity, are the labels exotic and ethnic mentioned.
This is the dream, shared by all artists of color.
And this is the nightmare: The reception reeks with politeness, even noblesse oblige. But what the crowd sees/hears/reads isn’t you, only a pale apparition. The crowd addresses itself to this apparition even as you gesture frantically. You scream. No one hears. They’ve buried you alive and they don’t even know it.
PING CHONG, A CHINESE-AMERICAN theater and performance artist who grew up and still lives in Manhattan’s Chinatown, recognizes both the dream and the nightmare. Chong, who won an Obie in 1977 for his work Humboldt’s Current, realizes the dangers with which cultural hyphenation in an immigrant society is fraught, where an Outsider — or someone perceived to be an Outsider — becomes the harbinger of a new and unsettling order. He acknowledges “the problematic nature of being not just an Asian-American artist but an artist of color, knowing the biases of this culture.”
Chong deals with this problematic concern by employing material that is ostensibly not Asian, at least not in the traditional sense. His works are highly eclectic, drawing from sources as varied as film noir, vampire legends, Archie comics, cartoons, Indonesian shadow plays, and Alice in Wonderland. Yet his elliptical pieces suggest an Asian sensibility, with their yin-yang interplay of light and shadow, cartoon humor, and totalitarian menace. They suggest, above all, a continuity — darker than we would ordinarily care to admit — between the perception of wake time and the time of the buried self.
Chong’s characters rarely have conversations; instead, they speak in codes and at cross-purposes. Their few exchanges are marked either by cheery banality or by melancholy and despair: earmarks of an impotent, and ultimately fragmented, society. There’s a loss of awe, of spirituality — a big concern of Chong’s — and the only thing that makes sense is non-sense. Chong’s latest work, Noiresque, which had an all Asian-American cast, is a perfect example: Its main character, Alice, gets stuck in Terminal City, an Orwellian nightmare that might be New York. Or Hong Kong.
However you want to read the dilemma of the hyphenated artist, one of its essential aspects is the fashioning of a sensibility secure from the demands of both sides of the hyphen (whom do I write for when I write for “myself”?). Then there’s the fact that all art, as David Henry Hwang once said, is ethnic. The dominant (read white, male, upper-class) ethnicity has the power and the privilege of disassociating itself from the term “ethnic,” categorizing itself as “universal,” with self-anointed guardians holding up lily-white standards for all to emulate. And so the peculiar logic of the crossover, of cultural hyphenation — where the hyphen sways like a frayed rope bridge over a roaring chasm — dictates a one-way movement, from the “particular” to the “universal.” Or, as Chong puts it, “How white do I have to be?”
BORN IN CANADA and brought to New York’s Chinatown at the age of one, Chong grew up on Bayard Street, where his parents opened a restaurant. “Chinatown was more of a village then,” Chong, who is in his forties, recalls. His first experience of the staged arts was the Chinese opera, his father having been a producer/director of Chinese opera and his mother a performer. This influence is evident in the ritualistic and imagistic aspects of his work. Indeed, Nosferatu opens with two angels in stylized combat reminiscent of martial arts, and the musical punctuation includes cymbals, used much as they are in Chinese opera.
Chong believes it’s extremely difficult to expand in a ghetto. “The Chinese there don’t support the arts. They’re very pragmatic, they’re into making money. They’ll watch soap operas. Don’t forget, when we talk of the art of China, we’re talking about the aristocracy.” Eleanor Yung, codirector of the Chinatown-based Asian American Arts Center, agrees: “Most of the immigrants recognize physical survival and are so busy with this they forget cultural survival.”
A similarly pollinated sensibility informs the works of Ming Fay, a sculptor who’s lived in New York for 16 years. Fay is known for his modernistic giant sculptures of fruits and vegetables such as coconuts, pears, and peppers. Because they’re such familiar items, they can be easily appreciated — or just as easily disparaged — as Claes Oldenburg spin-offs. But Fay works in a very different context, choosing certain items because of their iconic value in Chinese tradition. Thus, a pear represents prosperity, a peach, longevity, and an orange tree, good fortune.
Like Chong, Fay is pragmatic enough to know that recognition of the Asian-American artist is as much a political as an aesthetic act. “As we grow in number, politics will come into play. Critics will be forced to pay attention. It will be the younger artists” — and here he names Martin Wong, David Diao, Mel Chin, Ti Shan Hsu — “who will reap the fruit — no pun intended.”
There is, of course, always a gap between artists and their audiences — narrower when a cultural history is shared, wider when it’s not. Asian-American reference points puzzle; we know WASP and JAP, but what about sansei, ABC, and Flip? Inevitably, the audience turns to familiar imagery, determined largely by totemized stereotypes, e.g., the opium den, the Filipino houseboy, the submissive Asian woman. The audience itself becomes a problem. As Filipino-American novelist, poet, and performance artist Jessica Hagedorn points out, “I’m not going to give up my ‘inside jokes’ to accommodate them, but I do hope there’s enough there that a discriminating reader can understand and appreciate.”
The insularity of New York audiences is a familiar beast to all artists operating outside the mainstream. Laments Kimiko Hahn, poet and director of the multicultural arts organization Word of Mouth, “We have trouble getting people outside the community to attend our readings even though they’re held in Manhattan’s Chinatown, easy to get to. There’s a refusal to expand beyond the familiar names of small circles.” In addition, she points out, the phenomenon of crossing over often results in what she terms “one writer per season,” that is, the Chosen One Stands In for All.
Yet the success of David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly on Broadway, of Ping Chong’s works in the downtown art scene, and of Maxine Hong Kingston’s and Amy Tan’s books continues to tantalize, keeping alive the dream, however peripherally. But just as there exist guardians of the “universal,” so too are there guardians of the “particular,” quick to portray each step across the gap as a betrayal. Hwang and Kingston, for instance, have been attacked within the Asian-American community for revisionism; for writing for a white audience; for, in short, “selling out.” Clearly, in the minds of both sets of guardians, “culture” and “ethnicity” are irrevocably defined. It is this dogmatic, ultimately sentimental attachment to an old order that constitutes the most difficult obstacle for the artist intent on crossing over. ■
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