by Lynn on May 16, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Studio Theatre, Streetcar Crowsnest, Toronto, Ont. Produced by Studio 180 Theatre and fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company in association with Crow’s Theatre. Plays until May 21, 2023.


Written by Lloyd Suh

Directed by Marjorie Chan

Set by Echo Zhou

Costumes by Jun-Hye Kim

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Sound by Gloria Mok

Cast: John Ng

Rosie Simon

A stylish production of a play that subtly illuminates blinkered perceptions of people from the West about people from China as seen through the eyes of two people. But of course the play’s scope is wider than that.

The Story. It’s 1834 in New York City and Afong Moy is believed to be the first female Chinese immigrant to the United States. She is 14-years-old. Two American entrepreneurs, Nathaniel and Frederick Carne, did a deal with Afong Moy’s father in Guangzhou, to bring her to New York City to be an ‘exhibit’ in a museum, to demonstrate Chinese clothing, food, culture, language and foot-binding. Afong Moy was supposed to be in America for two years and then return to China. It didn’t work out that way. She travelled from coast to coast of America; met President Andrew Jackson who fetishized her; and learned about American ways.  

The Production.  As the audience files into the Studio Theatre at the Streetcar Crowsnest we are ushered into the space by Atung (John Ng), dressed in black traditional Chinese shirt, pants and ‘slippers’.

Sitting on an ornate chair on an ornate raised platform is Afong Moy (Rosie Simon). Kudos to designer Echo Zhou for the beautiful and simple set that exemplifies how the Carne brothers displayed Afong Moy. It suggests exoticism, which is how Afong Moy would probably have been regarded by anyone who went to a museum to see a living exhibit.  

Afong Moy is dressed in an exquisite traditional formal Chinese costume that flows down to the ground as she sits. She is still, observant and smiling.

Atung is Afong Moy’s interpreter and aid in the exhibit. A protector of sorts. He is almost always at her side. As Atung, John Ng is reverential to Afong Moy, formal in his respect, not familiar. He whispers something to her as the audience fills the room. When they are ready to begin the play, John Ng gives the land acknowledgement in Cantonese and English. I think that is wonderful. Just perfect.

The positions of the two characters are clear: she is the star and he is her attendant. She says at the beginning “he is irrelevant.” He echoes that, head bowed slightly, playing the part. Ng brings out the sadness, loneliness and watchfulness of Atung.

Afong Moy gives the date and her age. She recounts how she came to the United States, brought by the Carne brothers. She is buoyant, excited at her future and prospects of traveling in the country. She explains how having small feet were advantageous in her culture. And she goes on to detail and explain the process of foot binding. Director Marjorie Chan directs this telling with breathtaking care. As Afong Moy, Rosie Simon’s hands flutter close to each other as the fingers curl down and into the palm as Afong Moy describes something that was acceptable to an insider’s view and horrifying to an outsider’s view. Foot binding began on Afong Moy when she was four years old to attain the smallest feet. Her feet were broken as were the toes and folded under and bound and the process continued until she was older and the feet were set. The gracefulness of the hands juxtaposed with the calm explanation of what might be called a brutal practice only emphasizes what Afong Moy in particular, and other Chinese (to use her word) women in general, went through to attain small feet. The image of Afong Moy standing and walking in halting steps only added to the emphasis.

The play chronicles the passing years in which Afong Moy was still an ‘exotic object for observation in the museum.’ Both Rosie Simon and John Ng mature in subtle ways, body language, shifting poses, ‘aging’ magically. Beautifully done. Afong Moy revels in the travel across America. She slowly acquires a maturity to observe and reflect on the racism she experienced, both subtle and overt. President Andrew Jackson treated her with creepy attention, wanting to touch her feet. He fetishized and objectified her. As the years went on Afong Moy noted the generally terrible treatment of her fellow Chinese people; vilified, forced into labour to build a railroad, subjected to restrictive immigration laws. Rosie Simon as Afong Moy is a cool observer.

Over time she and Atung grew apart. He has a stunning speech, delivered beautifully by John Ng, in which he reveals he is totally alone. All that singular attention and care of Afong Moy has left him friendless and alone. He thinks wistfully of her. Could there have been a romantic relationship. Here Marjorie Chan directs Ng to imagine a closeness. He reaches out and almost touches Afong Moy. It’s both sensual and wistful. Again, beautifully done.

Comment.  Afong Moy’s observation of the year she is in and her age go into the modern times, making her at least 180. In fact she disappeared from any museum/exhibit/or notice in 1850. In other words, in The Chinese Lady Lloyd Suh has not so much written a biography of Afong Moy, as he as written a metaphor for anti-Chinese racism in America. (I would also include North America there). I would offer that this could apply to any visible and invisible minority.

In a larger sense the play is applicable to society’s obsession, revulsion, objectification, demonizing and judgement of anyone who looks different, who is ‘other’. There is Afong Moy who was on display in New York City as an ‘exotic’ exhibit in a museum in New York. There is Sarah Baartman, a Black woman from what is now South Africa, put on display in Paris and then Europe in the 1800s. There is Joseph (John) Merrick (The Elephant Man), born with a debilitating disease, put on display across Europe in the 1880s and in London, England where he finally found sanctuary at the London Hospital. There are the ‘freak’ shows that ‘display’ the bearded lady or the tallest man in the world etc. Society’s fascination with people who are different, ‘other’ and their terrible behaviour regarding them is a larger theme of The Chinese Lady.

Fine production. Worth your time.       

Studio 180 Theatre and fu-Gen Asian Canadian Theatre Company in association with Crow’s Theatre presents:

Plays until May 21, 2023.

Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission).

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.