NYC Theater Review: “The Chinese Lady” by Lloyd Suh

Lloyd Suh’s new play, The Chinese Lady, takes us on a journey with the first Chinese woman to set foot in the United States. Her name was Afong Moy. She arrived in 1835 at the age of 14 and was put on display as “The Chinese Lady.” The cost of admission? 25 cents for adults, 10 cents for children. Co-produced by Ma-Yi Theater Company and the Barrington Stage Company, the cast of two–Shannon Tyo and Daniel Isaac–takes the audience on a journey through Afong’s life.

Afong (played by Shannon Tyo), we are told, comes from a well-off family, the youngest of seven, and has bound feet–making her a curiosity to New York audiences. Her family sold her into two years of service with American merchants. We are quickly introduced to Atung (played by Daniel K. Isaac), her translator, who we are told speaks both Chinese and English. Most of the speaking stays with Afong, with occasional interjections from Atung that bring warmth and comedy and humanity to these largely forgotten historic figures.

We follow Afong as she ages, but remains on display, even meeting President Jackson. Her optimism begins to waver, her clothes changes, and still she thinks about relations between the U.S. and China, between her and her audience. Towards the end, the play rapidly casts its audience through Chinese American immigration history via Afong–1882 Exclusion Act, the Geary Act, and on–before jumping to the present. This is an important lineage, but I felt this contemporary jump overly much and a bit didactic.

Still, Suh’s play seeks to dive into and through our constant conversations about identity and cross-cultural understanding and belonging and otherness, all the while weaving in our collective past. And that makes it worthwhile.

The Chinese Lady is playing at Theatre Row (410 W. 42nd Street) through Sunday, November 18. Cost: $30-$42.25. Tickets are available by calling 212-239-6200; or online at: or through TodayTix at

Photo by Eloy Garcia

NYC Theater Review: Once On This Island

Once on This Island, now playing at the Circle in the Square Theatre (W. 50th), is an utter delight. Your heart will swell and weep and swell again before the night’s over. The musical, set on a Caribbean island, follows Ti Moune, a young girl who’s fallen in love with someone from the other side of the island. Kept apart by class and culture, Ti Moune is guided by the gods on a remarkable journey. An amazing and diverse cast is captivating and engaging. And there’s a live goat on stage to boot.

I first heard about this revival because of Lea Salonga, who plays one of the gods. If you don’t already know who she is, I’m not going to tell you, except to say that I would see her in anything. But as amazing as she is, the whole cast of Once On This Island really blew me away. From the debut performances of Haley Kilgore playing Ti Moune (girl, those vocal cords are no joke) and Isaac Powell as her love Daniel, to Alex Newell’s blow the house down number “Mama Will Provide” and the tenor that hums in your soul from Quentin Earl Darrington, to the “Storytellers” who round out the cast.

Continue reading “NYC Theater Review: Once On This Island”

8Books Review: “The Leavers” by Lisa Ko

Lisa Ko’s debut novel, The Leavers, follows a mother and son separated by immigration agents, borders, and new families. Deming Guo wakes up one day in the Bronx to find that his mother Polly has disappeared. Soon, he is Daniel Wilkinson of upstate New York. We follow Daniel as he struggles through high school, the emotional turmoil of his mom’s abrupt departure, makes a friend who isn’t white, makes a friend who was adopted from China (same but different), and graduates high school. Until he learns some information about his mom’s whereabouts.

The novel flits back and forth between Daniel’s story and Polly’s, told from her own perspective. But while we follow Daniel’s story more or less linearly, Polly’s unfolds more circuitously. From her present life in China married to a successful businessman who doesn’t know she ever had a son, we follow Polly’s life backwards and around: Days raising Deming in the Bronx to her life as a child in China, to the terrifying series of events that led to her forced separation from her son unfolding in the very last pages.

This is a story about family, about bonds that are broken and reforged. About immigration and injustice. About forgiveness and moving forward. Who are the people who live in between and how will they find their way? Lisa Ko’s two protagonists are deeply human, flawed and enticing, shaped by circumstances often beyond their control, yet seemingly fully aware of the choices they make. In the end, Polly and Deming search for themselves, in each other and in constant turmoil over what kind of life to lead. Parts of The Leavers are truly gripping, stunning in their storytelling arc, in other places, a bit slow, but overall, Ko offers an interesting arc and a truth about our current time.

Day Laborers, Flood Victims, and the Other One Percent: Illustrating the Gap between Asian American Rich and Poor

Much has been made about Asian American success, with articles pointing to average and median Asian American income being greater than whites, Asian cultural advantages, and incorrect exaggerations about the percentage of Asian American CEOs in Silicon Valley. Much less is made of that fact that Asian Americans have a wider (and widening) gap between rich and poor than whites.    I am came across three stories that when taken together strongly reflect the gap that exists between Asian American rich and poor.  The first is the piece above on Asian American day laborers in New York.  The second covers a guest lecture by the author of a book called “The Other One Percent:  Indians in America  that discusses how Indian Americans are a population unlike any including those in in India, produced by a self-selection process largely responsible for Indian American success.   The third is about the flooding in San Jose that financially devastated many Vietnamese Americans living in the heart of a very wealthy Silicon Valley.

For those who may not be familiar with what a day laborer is, day laborers are workers who gather in areas looking for work for the day.  Employers drive by and work out jobs just for the day.  I often see day laborers near the Home Depot I drive by going to work.  The ones I see here in Silicon Valley are Hispanic, and I have never seen an Asian American day laborer there.  I was surprised to hear about Asian American day laborers in New York, but then again, after writing about Asian Americans riding a bus for hours a day to make their rent, I really should not have been.

There are a number of very prominent Indian American CEOs such as Indra Nooyi of Pepsi, Sundar Pichai of Alphabet (Google’s holding company), and Satya Nadella of Microsoft.  Devesh Kapur, an author of The Other One Percent:  Indians in America, talked about the self-selection process that made this possible in a lecture at Columbia University.  He argued the Indian Americans never went through “the ghetto phase” as other did Asian immigrant groups, as many went through a selection process of being trained professionals, fluent in English, and leaving voluntarily.  While that is true for many Indian immigrants, it’s worth mentioning that the early 20th century saw a wave of Indian immigrants that worked in farming or on the railroads that formed communities in the agricultural Yuba City or the Mexican-Punjabi ones mentioned here.   Still, despite that history and the fact that there are many Indian immigrants working not so lucrative jobs running newsstands and taxi drivers, there are enough prosperous Indian Americans to move aggregate statistics and the perception of wealth to make them targets of crime.

I was one the East Coast when the flooding in San Jose in February occurred.  Looking at a map of the flooded areas, it struck me that the water was really close to the Little Saigon area.  As this story points out, many in the local Vietnamese community were badly impacted, especially since there was no warning that Coyote Creek was rising dangerously.  Of the 400 families that were still displaced as of March 7, 80% were Vietnamese.  Billionaire Kieu Hoang saw the flooding and donated $5 million to flood relief.   “This is the time you have to payback,” he is quoted as saying.

We have written about the subject of impoverished Asian subgroups, and others have analyzed the data on Asian American incomes.  Aggregate statistics like median and average, when applied to incomes, can hide income disparity.  The last two stories, taken together, hit home for me as a San Jose resident in illustrating a massive income divide.  The displaced Vietnamese families are going to have a challenging time finding affordable housing in Silicon Valley, where wealthy Asian Americans, many from India, own some of the most expensive real estate in the United States.  It’s telling that Asian American billionaire made a massive donation for relief.  I don’t know whether the income gap between rich and poor Asian Americans will continue to widen, but these stories show that there are rich Asians Americans and poor Asian Americans, and that the gulf between is very wide.

Eking out a living riding a bus: Asian American Seniors in New York

8a-2016-12-120116-wabc-casino-buses-seniors-02-imgIn the Asian ethnoburb where I live, one sees three kinds of buses.  One kind is the Santa Clara Valley Transit public transportation bus, and another is the kind is the tech bus, as white Google buses pick people up and drop off every week day near my house.  A third kind is the bus that stops at the local Asian shopping center that picks up people to trips, often to casinos.  My dad takes buses like this to gamble at distant casinos like Cache Creek – about two hours away from my house.  I recently saw this article and was stunned to learn that some Asian Americans from New York, mostly seniors, take a similar two hour casino bus ride for a surprising reason: to make ends meet.

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Asian American Commercial Watch: Seamless – stereotypical or racist?

A friend of mine posted on Facebook recently this TV commercial that he saw air during prime time on network television by Seamless:

“Ah, New York City. The people, the culture, the food. It just doesn’t get any better than this. Until it does. Get all your favorite New York food delivered anywhere in the city.”

(and food delivery service like GrubHub) and asked for opinions. I responded, “A bit stereotypical to say the least.” with the added unwritten thought of the commercial being somewhat racist. Afterwards, he added in his thoughtful commentary on the matter:

“The scene is the building of a skyscraper or the Empire State Building era, in the 1930’s. Poor Irish and, probably Italian, immigrants.

The delivery was for Thai food but I’ll use the parallel of Chinese food since that was the dominant type of Asian food in NYC in the 1930’s.

While Chinese restaurants existed in the 1930’s, the concept of Chinese food delivery did not exist. Moreover, that was the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act which lasted nearly 60 years and wasn’t repealed until 1943.

If the producers wanted to contrast the convenience of a food delivery service like Seamless and difficult to reach places, they could have simply use a neutral pizza delivery guy since Italian and Irish food was much more common those days. No respectable non-Asian hard hat Giovanni ate Asian food back then.

And so, there was no need for producers/ad to cast aspersions on Asians.”


Maybe the folks at Seamless thought their commercial needed some “diversity,” but the execution was kind of ridiculous. Taking a look at Seamless’s other TV commercial from a year ago was a lot more entertaining and relateable, as who doesn’t like free leftover food at the office?

NYC Theater Review: “Aubergine” by Julia Cho

Aubergine August 20, 2016 – October 02, 2016 Mainstage Theater Written by Julia Cho Directed by Kate Whoriskey New York Premiere A man shares a bowl of berries, and a young woman falls in love. A world away, a mother prepares a bowl of soup to keep her son from leaving home. And a son cooks a meal for his dying father to say everything that words can’t. In Julia Cho’s poignant and lyrical new play, the making of a perfect meal is an expression more precise than language, and the medium through which life gradually reveals itself. FEATURING Tim Kang Sue Jean Kim Jessica Love Stephen Park Michael Potts Joseph Steven Yang Scenic Design: Derek McLane Costume Design: Jennifer Moeller Lighting Design: Peter Kaczorowski Sound Design: M.L. Dogg Production Stage Manager: Cole P. Bonenberger
Stephen Park & Tim Kang, Photo by Joan Marcus

Aubergine, a new play written by Julia Cho, opens today at Playwrights Horizons in New York City. Running through October 2, it’s an emotional story about family, death, and food. Ray’s father is home on hospice with his son Ray, a first-generation Korean American chef, who is struggling with how to manage and how to cope. To notify his father’s brother, he calls on his ex-girlfriend Cornelia to tell him in Korean. When his uncle unexpectedly shows up with a soup recipe, Ray is thrown into new challenges–including a live and very expensive turtle, his own relationship with his father and career as a chef, and an uncle who speaks a different language. Rounding out those who care for Ray’s father is Lucien, the hospice worker, who offers his own perspective on death and the dying, and whose lines provide the play’s title.

Full of depth, Aubergine is a quiet play in many ways, yet it is incredibly moving. Cho deftly deals with that most human of events–dying and death–without being heavy handed. And through it all, food, its meaning flooding memories and interactions. I should say too that this is not a depressing play, despite dealing so intimately with death. “Catharsis” is the word Playwrights’ artistic director uses to describe the feeling. I would call it a kind of fullness, the feeling the audience carries out the door with them. Continue reading “NYC Theater Review: “Aubergine” by Julia Cho”

NYC Theater Review: “Green Card: A New Musical”

GreenCardGreen Card: A New Musical takes on immigrant artists and the American dream in a new musical from young director Dimo Kim. Playing at Theatre at St. Clement’s until August 26, it focuses on the story of Han, an actor and a South Korean immigrant living in Harlem with an expired visa who, as a result, can’t find work. And because he can’t find work, he can’t get an artists visa. Hijinks ensue. Han finds himself entering a fake marriage for a green card with Mia, in exchange for a sizable sum of money. They fumble through immigration interviews and the turmoil of a new relationship, fake or not. As to how Han’s girlfriend Kim feels about it? You’ll have to watch to find out.

This is an energetic musical with young talent and carries a relevant and provocative story in need of telling.

Continue reading “NYC Theater Review: “Green Card: A New Musical””

8Books Review: “Rich and Pretty” by Rumaan Alam


Rich and Pretty is not your average book about friendship, where everything is great, your friends can do no wrong, and everyone is beautiful. Ok, everyone is beautiful, at least it seems. But still, this is a book that offers a complicated look at a close friendship, between mostly best friends. Mostly because Sarah and Lauren met at age 11 and are now in their thirties, alternately casting backwards and forwards in their lives.

It is delightful in capturing those we hold on to, even as we change and our lives change. Set in contemporary New York, the novel occasionally jumps back to the moments when their friendship was closer, things they shared that are remarkable. They no longer share everything, sometimes their friendship feels burdensome. Less, but still meaningful.

In outlining the complexities of such relationships, Rich and Pretty is altogether familiar, sometimes uncomfortably so. Compellingly written, it draws us through a range of human emotion and interaction–from a moment in an early chapter where Lauren imagines how a relationship with the new office temp might play out, whirlwind of thought punctuated with commas, never periods, that plays out across pages, to later capturing those long-held secrets kept from best friends that sometimes make it out into the open and sometimes never do.

It is the kind of thing you want to read on the beach–a novel of a long-time friendship with all its ensuing tumult, nostalgia, resentment, and love. Not entirely happy, yet complex in a fulfilling way. I, on the other hand, read it predominantly on the subway, careful not to get too enraptured as to miss my stop.

Linsanity Left off the list of 21st Century Knicks Highlights

8A-2016-07-BrooklinsanityThe New York Post is disgusted that Linsanity has been left off of Madison Square Garden Network’s list of Top 21st Century Knicks Moments.  Lin’s career high 38 points should at least be as good as Iman Shumpert’s career-high 27 points in 2014!

Ironically, Linsanity began with a game against the Knicks’ crosstown rivals, and he is leaving Charlotte to play for the Nets in Brooklyn.

(h/t:  John)

NYC Theater Review: “Kentucky” by Leah Nanako Winkler

Satomi Blair & Sasha Diamond in KENTUCKY, Photo by Jody Christopherson
Satomi Blair (Hiro) and Sasha Diamond (Sophie) in Kentucky, Photo by Jody Christopherson

Showing in New York until May 22, Kentucky by Leah Nanako Winkler is a tumultuous and energetic ride through the lives of a Kentucky family on the eve of a wedding. It’s a play about home–home and family, for better and for worse. And it’s both over the top theatrical while also sweetly engaging and relatable.

Hiro’s younger sister Sophie is about to get married to a born-again Christian, six months after their first meeting. Hiro–returning back to Kentucky (which she insists is no longer home) from New York–is determined to free her sister from their abusive father, “brainwashed” mother, and the small world of Kentucky. And this is only the beginning. Continue reading “NYC Theater Review: “Kentucky” by Leah Nanako Winkler”

Apparently in Silicon Valley, only non-Asians are allowed to have fun


By Leeland Lee

The New York Times recently published a collection of photographs by Laura Morton depicting the “entrepreneurs, geniuses, idealists” who have flooded Silicon Valley in search of vast riches.

In image after image, we see millennial techies in situ, both at work and at play. But only some of these techies are drinking beer and smoking stogies and, well, enjoying life. Those would be the white techies. The Asian techies, most of them, just look utterly miserable.

Entitled “The Silicon Valley Hustle,” the photo montage is an interesting study of contrasts. The white techies, mostly young men, are dressed in plaid or light-colored shirts. They strike animated poses, they point, they laugh, they are the cynosure of attention.

Meanwhile, there’s a photo of their Asian counterparts, an undifferentiated mass competing in a recent hackathon. These techies stare intensely at their laptops and wear boring T-shirts. They’re surrounded by human detritus and penned in like farm animals. These little techies won’t be allowed to go home tonight.

Moving back to white person world, we see a young techie coding from the airy rooftop of his Sunset apartment. We see techies chasing after venture capital tail at an industry mixer. And of course, what would this photo collection be without an image of white techies posing in—what else?—the backyard of a fraternity.

Want to see something really depressing? Scroll down a little farther and you’ll see an Asian techie asleep at her computer. Her mouth is agape, she is burnt out from hours of non-stop coding. Do white techies sleep as well? Why yes they do, as evidenced by a photo of a young man resting comfortably on fake grass.

Apparently when white techies sleep, they even do so in a way that’s vaguely photogenic.

Looking through these photos, you might wonder: Certainly, Asian techies must have some fun—sometimes? After all, remember, Asians are also human! And if you look hard enough, finally you see her: A lone Asian woman at a dinner party. She is staring up at her white techie co-worker, who just made a hilariously bombastic remark.

And so there you have it, an insider’s view of how Silicon Valley really operates. As I scrolled through these photos, I couldn’t help but think about our Asian parents, and how they groomed us into becoming academic superstars. Have we forgotten that rote memorization and perfect SAT scores can only get you so far? Have we failed to grasp the value of exposing ourselves and our youngsters to varied and unpredictable social situations to foster valuable communication skills down the road?

As these photos remind us, even in Silicon Valley some of the most crucial moments in life occur serendipitously at its ragged edges, far from the classroom, cubicle or computer.

Photo credit: Original photos by Laura Morton; compiled as a montage by 8Asians from screenshots for this piece

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Leeland Lee has written previously for about two Asian Americans set up on a blind date