Bringing ‘Ching Chong Chinaman’ to the city

“Ching Chong Chinaman” — the name alone lends itself more to discrimination than to political correctness, but for Lauren Yee ’07, it signals a space for questioning what it means to be Asian in the United States.

This August, Yee had the opportunity to see what began as her senior thesis go up during the New York International Fringe Festival, the largest arts festival in North America. For 16 days in August, over 200 production companies invade 20 venues, resulting in more than 1,300 performances. As one of these 200 self-produced shows, “Ching Chong Chinaman” became more than an exercise in writing.

“Self-producing a play can be challenging because you have to focus on the staging and the marketing,” Yee said. “Our entire cast was from San Francisco, so it was definitely more difficult promoting the play since we didn’t have a built-in audience.”

Yee is no newbie to the theater world. She has written over 25 full-length plays and one acts, and her work has been produced over three dozen times in the United States and Europe — “Ching Chong Chinaman” was originally included in the 2007 Yale Playwrights Festival. To top it off, the San Francisco native is the founder and executive producer of the San Francisco Young Playwrights Foundation, which staged its second festival of four plays in May.

Asian American-ness is the focus of many of Yee’s plays, and “Ching Chong Chinaman” is certainly no exception. It tells the story of the half-comical, half-poignant problems that arise when a modern-day Asian-American family acquires a Chinese slave.

“Thematically, the play is about guilt,” Yee said, “about being Asian-American, about not being Asian-American enough, about being totally ignorant of the identity you’re supposed to embody.”

Jamie Yuen-Shore, who played the role of Desdemona, never expected the acting challenges and the identity issues she would face throughout the course of the play’s production. Yuen-Shore, 16, had to miss the first several days of her high school in San Francisco, but being part of the Fringe and performing in New York was worth it.

“It was a rush every single night, with only 30 minutes to prepare and 15 minutes to strike,” she said. “The audiences weren’t huge but they laughed every night. Comedy isn’t fun unless people are laughing.”

Eric Kubo ’07, the associate producer of “Ching Chong Chinaman,” read for the play during both its readings at Yale and volunteered to help with the production this summer because he appreciates Yee’s desire to consider Asian-American identity issues through theater. For Kubo, the Fringe was very similar to his theater experiences at Yale.

“Working in the Fringe was different from the professional theaters and festival I’ve worked at before,” Kubo said. “Like much theater at Yale, there is not much of an internal support system. Everything is done by those in the production wanting to do theater. And, like theater at Yale, it’s … much better for that.”

“Ching Chong Chinaman” was reviewed favorably over the course of its five-performance run on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Returning to California, Yee will be interning in the development department for the Berkeley Repertory Theater starting this fall.

“And writing too, hopefully,” she said.

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