From left: Dad Eric, Charles Johnson (associate justice of the Washington Supreme Court) and Assunta Ng in 1992. (Photo provided by Assunta Ng/NWAW)
On this coming Father’s Day, I suddenly realized I have no memories of Father’s Day even though I had two fathers. How ironic!
Now that you’re both gone from this world, I wonder what it would have been like if I could have just one Father’s Day experience with either my biological dad or stepdad.
So why didn’t you spend Father’s Day with me?
Both of you abandoned me when I was a child. That torturing question has opened up old wounds.
Dad Wai, since you and mom divorced before I turned 6, I did not hear from you or see you until I was in my teens. Dad Eric, you and mom got married, but you didn’t really want me at first, because of the financial burden. I could tell that you had a change of heart when I was in high school. That’s when we started to have longer conversations, and I didn’t have to avoid you and hide in my room. You were impressed that I passed the Hong Kong public examination (for high school seniors) with flying colors. Since then, you accepted me as your daughter. You traveled for business most of the time, and mom would join you sometimes, in Japan and Thailand for months.
Dad Wai (left) with Jason Liu in 2006. (Photo provided by Assunta Ng/NWAW)
Mom did a great job in playing the dual role of both parents when I was growing up. I couldn’t imagine what it was like to have a dad loving me, raising me, nurturing me, playing with me, and protecting me like I observed my friends’ fathers.
I am forever grateful that you agreed to support me financially to study in the United States, after much begging.
By the twist of fate, we were never together on any Father’s Day! But I did go back to Hong Kong for your birthdays and paid for the dinners.
Dad Wai, mother wanted us to sever ties by lying to me at one point that you were dead. Mom got upset every time I went to visit you. When I left for college in the United States, you were both in Hong Kong. Although I tried to visit Hong Kong as much as I could, it was never on Father’s Day. But then, if I had visited you on Father’s Day, would you have made time for me?
You both had children in your other marriages. I was just one of the daughters. I didn’t think I mattered. Years later, I found out that you, Dad Wai, told relatives how proud you were of me and raved that I was your most capable daughter, but lamented that you were unable to get close to me.
Two years before you died, I visited your home. There on your bed, I saw the Father’s Day card and envelope with money I sent long ago. Amazingly, you still remembered my birthday at the age of 90.
And you, Dad Eric, thank you for treating me as your real daughter as you grew older. You trusted me more than your own son. I played a big role at your funeral service, which I never expected.
Research has found that boys, more than girls, have a hard time in adjusting to not having their father around, and society has to pay a high price for their rebellious behaviors. I never knew what it would be like to have a father growing up. I can’t describe what I have missed. That void in my childhood can never be filled. Yet, I am not angry or bitter. My unhappy childhood has helped me to develop the ability to cope with adversity without blame. It’s not in my nature to blame. Nor do I give myself excuses for not working hard and giving up. I guess that’s the difference between the attitude of a survivor and victim.
Also, I strive for forgiveness rather than hate. I turned out to be a better person in understanding and accepting human flaws. What else can you ask for? And thanks to you, dads, I watched and gleaned meaningful lessons from the way you lived your lives.
NEW YORK CITY: B.D. Wong would like to make it clear, in case it’s not already: White actors should not be playing Asian roles. “You can’t win when you have the yellowface on. You can’t win when you take the yellowface off,” said the Tony-winning actor in a keynote speech on Monday, May 2. “You’re in the wrong part!” The crowd cheered.
It kicked off with Wong’s speech, in which one of his key examples was the tale of making the 2007 television movie Marco Polo. Wong played a slave and Kublai Khan was played by…Irish-American actor Brian Dennehy. Wong’s speech brought home that white actors are still the default in casting, even when the role is non-white, and actors of color are relegated to playing side characters or stereotypes. Wong said he’d love for the shoe to be on the other foot, in a sense: “I would love to play a white person.”
The evening’s forum marked the launch of a national initiative to address the harmful effects of yellowface and brownface in U.S. theatre, with similar events planned for six cities and the creation of an online community.
The New York forum was spurred by the controversy last year surrounding the mostly white production of The Mikadoannounced, then swiftly cancelled by the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players (NYGASP). In the months since, the forum has taken on a broader resonance. While NYGASP’s The Mikado and similar traditional productions of that musical were decried for their use of yellowface (the practice of white actors playing Asian characters, makeup or not), the practice remains rampant, particularly in film. Most recently, Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton received fire for playing Asian characters in the upcoming films Ghost in the Shell and Doctor Strange, respectively.
Meanwhile on social media, Asian-American theatre artists have shared stories of professional microaggressions under the hashtag #MyYellowfaceStory. Among them was Tony winner Lea Salonga:
This erasure of ethnic faces can be quantified in numbers. At Beyond Orientalism, after Wong’s speech, AAPAC presented the latest version of its annual report, “Ethnic Representation on New York City Stages.” The report broke down the racial makeup of actors hired in 2014–15, both on Broadway and in 16 Off-Broadway houses. While the numbers of actors of color hired were the highest yet recorded, at 30 percent of all available roles, the numbers are still underwhelming: African-American actors were cast in 17 percent of all roles, Latino actors in 3 percent, Asian American actors in 9 percent, and all other marginalized groups (including disabled actors) comprised less than 1 percent.
By contrast, Caucasian actors filled 70 percent of all roles, even though in New York City, non-Hispanic whites make up just 33 percent of the population. And just 10.2 percent of all roles were cast without regard to race (what the study calls “nontraditionally cast”), down from 11.2 percent in 2013–14. Those numbers have remained stagnant over the nine years of data collection by AAPAC.
“Asian-Americans were the least likely to be nontraditionally cast,” said actor and AAPAC member Pun Bandhu. “They were the least likely to ‘transcend’ their race. Perhaps there’s a connection between that and our invisibility and all the yellowface that continues to happen.”
The first answer came, appropriately enough, from NYGASP executive director David Wannen. He admitted that last year’s controversy was both a shock to the system and a learning experience. The company has assembled an all-new creative team, he reported, including Asian-American artists, to reimagine a Mikadothat is more inclusive and that can be embraced by all audiences, not just white ones.
“Theatre is a living organism,” Wannen said. “By reimagining TheMikado, you actually create a safer place for actors of Asian descent, and all actors of all ethnicities, to embrace and find that The Mikadois something that they can enjoy performing, and that they can tell the story of.”
But what about new work, Morgan wondered. What is the line between artistic freedom and cultural appropriation? Responded Victory Gardens artistic director Chay Yew, “Are you stealing beautifully? Some of the best artists steal.” Artists can write about experiences different from their own, he said, but research and respect is paramount. “We do borrow as artists. I think the question then becomes: Are you borrowing intelligently? Are you stealing thoughtfully? Are you coopting these things and making them into something else?”
It was not just the panelists who gave their input. The audience was also given microphones to share thoughts on how to combat the practice of yellowface and brownface. A point that was brought up multiple times was the need for outside—i.e., non-Asian—allies to help amplify the message. Though in his speech Wong cautioned that this shouldn’t be put in terms of a “white savior” narrative, he lauded the affirmation that white allies can bring.
One such ally was Michael Robertson, managing director of the Lark, who called on more white artists to step up (though the forum was primarily attended by Asian artists). “I think it’s really incumbent on the white folks in the room to decide what you’re gonna do, who you’re gonna talk to, how we’re gonna educate ourselves, how we’re creating awareness, how we’re talking to other white folks about these issues,” he said. “It’s incumbent on us to actually make the ecosystem healthier. We cannot depend on people of color anymore to be doing the fight. People cannot just fight on their own. We have to step forward and realize that we always have blind spots.”
To which Morgan responded, “We do need white folks to claim this and speak to your people!”
Indeed, one big takeway from the evening was that the fight against Orientalism and cultural appropriation needs to make allies and connections so that it is seen less as an us-versus-them problem than as a problem that affects all artists and needs a collective solution. The event’s program contained seven pointers for audience members interested in advancing race equity, among them being: teaching works by Asian-American writers, purchasing tickets to shows by or featuring Asian-American artists, and speaking up whenever racial appropriation is present.
Perhaps the evening’s loudest applause greeted playwright and panelist Lloyd Suh, who put a human face on the issue. “[Cultural appropriation] is not theoretical,” he said. “It’s not political. It’s emotionally painful. It’s humiliating and demeaning.”
Suh came under fire last year for refusing to grant the rights to his play, Jesus in India, to a college that planned to cast white actors in South Asian roles. For that decision, he received support from the artistic community, but also massive pushback. He compared the conversation around cultural appropriation, and those who defend the practice, to a question of physical assault. When white artists wonder about their freedom to culturally appropriate, what he hears is, “How many times can I punch you in the face before I’m not allowed to do that anymore?” To which Suh answered, “Why do you want to punch me in the face? Why do you want to appropriate? Who is that for? What conversation do you want to have in the world and why does it involve trying to see how much you can take from us?”
The entire event can be viewed online on HowlRound.