The Bay Area at large and San Francisco in particular boasts an extremely large Chinese population. Stores, restaurants, the iconic lamps on Grant Avenue and the sounds of the erhu fill the salty, ocean air as residents and tourists make Chinatown an essential stop when visiting the City.
The Chinese community makes up more than five million residents in the U.S. and more than 20 percent of San Francisco’s 880 thousand residents. With those numbers, it’s strange to think of a time when the Chinese population in America was very small.
Very small as in one, which came in the form of Afong Moy, the first recognized female Chinese immigrant brought to the United States in 1834.
The history of Moy is full of interesting yet heartbreaking detail. A mere teenager when she was brought to the U.S. without her family by American merchants in order to sell Chinese goods, Moy was the subject of both fascination and racism. She ultimately signed on with P.T. Barnum, who managed Moy in her later years as an Eastern curiosity. People were curious about her bound feet and clothing – a woman who was gawked at, a novelty item stripped of humanity.
The last recorded documentation of her life was in 1850, which coincided with the American public’s waning interest in her. Moy disappeared, and no date was ever confirmed for her death.
Lloyd Suh wasn’t quite sure he had enough to form a full play about Moy, but his persistence and dedication to the story paid off. The Bay Area premiere of “The Chinese Lady” is now running at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco through Nov. 3rd. The show, Suh’s third at the Magic, features Bay Area theatre veteran Rinabeth Apostol in the title role, along with Will Dao, who plays her interlocutor. The show is directed by Crowded Fire Theater’s artistic director Mina Morita.
The story of Moy has a level of mystery, and Suh dove in head-first to research as much as possible. For Suh, a Korean American playwright born in Detroit and raised in Indianapolis, the idea of perception is a huge driver of the narrative he created through Moy’s story.
“It’s clear to me working in the performing arts as an Asian American, there’s a feeling of being between who you are and who you imagine you are perceived to be,” said Suh, 44. “That sounds so familiar to me and made me want to interrogate this for myself.
Ultimately, that interrogation led to a deeper examination of Moy’s circumstances, and sustained him to write a play that saw its New York premiere in 2018 at Ma-Yi Theatre Company.
“I didn’t know whether it was a play to be honest, but I wanted to examine what she might have felt like, how that might have gone for her and what that might have done to her to be put on display,” said Suh. “Who she felt she was when she came here at such a young age was the initial hook, and feeling that struggle and tension really resonated with a lot of things I had been thinking about already.”
Some of what Suh was thinking about had a lot to do with how to humanize a real person with very little historical documentation. History did not leave Moy much of a voice, so Suh did everything to give her one.
“One of the things about the act of writing a play is trying to write historical figures that are noble, and there’s a lot of responsibility of honoring them as individuals and what they can mean to people in the present and future tense,” said Suh. “I think a lot about her, and what I want to know is what she felt about things that may not necessarily be answerable in conversations.”
The play makes a strong push to bring poetic justice to the voice of Moy.
“The reason why I felt like her story was so resonant was because I wanted the opportunity to change the nature of how people look at her, which will allow us to view her with more empathetic eyes than the eyes of history. There is really nothing that exists from her point of view, and why is that? Because nobody really cared about what she thought about all this.
“We don’t have the ability to understand her perspective as someone who was a pioneer. She had a perspective on America that no one else in history could ever have – no one asked her about that perspective.”
But now, Suh is the one asking the questions and providing the answers.
“I am trying to give her a chance to engage with an audience in a very different way.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Magic Theatre presents “The Chinese Lady”
Written by Lloyd Suh
Directed by Mina Morita
Through Nov. 3rd
The Magic Theatre
2 Marina Blvd, Building D, Third Floor
San Francisco, CA
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets range from $15 – $75
For tickets, call (415) 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org