5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Fay Ann Lee

Peter Zumthor's St. Benedict Chapel (1988) is a humble, human-scaled church perched on a Swiss mountain slope.

Two couples are dining on the Upper West Side. One must leave early because they have theater tickets. The second couple didn’t know this and, as people might be wont to do, benignly inquired what play the first couple will be seeing. “Ching Chong Chinaman,” says the husband between bits of Peking duck. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the entire restaurant, busboys included, comes to a dead halt. The husband looks around, incredulous. “It’s the name of a play, people.” At which point the patrons, mildly miffed and wholly intrigued, go about finishing their food.

But China Chong Chinaman is the name of a play — by Lauren Yee, directed by May Adrales and presented by Pan Asian Repertory Theatre. As one might surmise by the title, it’s a satire that, per the press materials, tells the story of the Wong family, who are “as Chinese-American as apple pie, but once their teenage son imports ‘Ching Chong,’ a stranger from China, their lives will never be the same.

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An hour after you see the play, by the way, you might want to see it again.

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The six-person cast includes James Chen, Jennifer Lim, Angela Lin, Ron Nakahara, Jon Norman Schneider and Fay Ann Lee — the latter is well known for the film Falling for Grace, which she wrote, directed, produced and starred in.

I happen to be a fan of the trailer, which you should check out below:

Ching Chong Chinaman, produced by Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, runs at the West End Theatre (263 W. 86th St.) through Apr. 11. For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or click here.

And now, 5 questions Fay Ann Lee has never been asked — and a bonus question:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Professor Richard Brown of the famed film class Movies 101 asked me if my favorite movie directors were Ang Lee and Nancy Meyers after seeing my film Falling for Grace. I was astonished, flattered and almost started to cry — I so want to be an Asian American Nancy Meyers or a female Ang Lee. I am in love with their work as directors and I really respect Nancy Meyers as a writer as well. You can see such heart in their work. I put my heart and soul in what I do, and my hope is that that comes through.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
A question about Falling for Grace, which I also wrote and directed and have done a ton of Q&As for. It’s about a woman from New York’s Chinatown who seeks acceptance in the elite social circles of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. An audience member asked: “Wow, you were so natural in the movie, are you a real actress? And what about all the other Asians that played your family, are they actors or are they your real relatives?” Believe it or not, this question about being a “real actress” has been asked not just by one person, but by at least a dozen people in Q&As across the country. Even a famous New York figure asked me this question recently, in a public forum. I don’t know whether to be complimented or insulted by questions like that. Do I not seem like a professional actress? But then, maybe that’s a good thing, an actor’s dream — if I seem truly believable and the audience doesn’t see it as “acting.” I’ve even gotten calls from reporters wanting to know if they can talk to my parents about healthcare services in Chinatown. My parents live in Texas. I told Clem Cheung, who plays my father in the movie, that the next time we do a Q&A and a silly question like that pops up, we should just tell them we are father and daughter. Why burst their bubble?

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Did I write, direct, and spend half a decade raising money to produce Falling for Grace just so I could kiss my costar, Gale Harold. It was such a strange and unexpected question that I actually wanted to say yes, and that now I’m writing another120 pages of story — which will take me months on end, and probably another few years to raise the money, just so I can make out with, let’s say, Craig Ferguson (he’s so wickedly witty). The crazy thing is that the person that asked the question was completely serious. I quickly realized through these Q&As that if you really listen, people are often just telling you about themselves. It’s never really about you, not even when people are asking you questions about your own movie. It’s usually about them. She was actually mad that I got to kiss Gale Harold. She had concocted this unflattering picture of me in her head about how I had schemed to get Gale to kiss me. It was so crazy! I hope she doesn’t read this.

From top right: Fay Ann Lee, Jon Norman Schneider, James Chen, Jennifer Lim, Ron Nakahara

4) Even the title of the play you’re in — Ching Chong Chinaman — sounds satirical, a finger in the eye of all that’s politically correct. Do you think there can ever be times when ethnic satire can go too far for you? Are there lines you’d never agree to say to an actor?
I think Ching Chong Chinaman is a brilliant title — it’s so bold that it makes everyone I mention it to stop in their tracks and envision with horror what this play might be about. Then I explain that it’s nothing like what they might imagine. They stare at my Asian face and wonder how I could possibly be in a show called Ching Chong Chinaman, which raises even more curiosity. Asians tend to play it safe: don’t say too much, don’t cause trouble, just work hard, make money and pursue the American dream as far as you can. And when you hit the glass ceiling, that’s okay too, just as long as you make a decent living — best not to cause trouble. Lauren Yee, the young, talented playwright in question, represents the new young breed of Asian-American writers who throw caution to the wind and write with such freedom that it sometimes can confuse people that aren’t used to this from such a writer. The character of Grace in the play is certainly the most challenging role I’ve ever had.

The name Ching Chong Chinaman also reopens the question of whether or not racism against Asians still exists. Our society has become so politically correct that sometimes it does more damage than good by shielding the real danger of deep-seeded racism, which unfortunately still does exist.

Can ethnic satire go too far? Certainly, and it’s quite a tricky question. Satire is only effective if the audience really gets it. Through the eyes of a bigot, the satire could actually perpetuate and reinforce stereotypes, especially if it’s not done well. For me, personally, ethnic satire only works if it manages to teach the audience to reexamine insensitivity. The best teacher of all, I believe, was Archie Bunker, the ultimate superstar bigot.

I have not yet refused to say a line to an actor. I have, however, refused to participate in a show that was so badly written I dropped out after the table read. With a little tweaking, it could have been an excellent spoof of a failed satire.

5) Having written, directed and starred in Falling for Grace, is it harder or easier to focus on acting in a play written or directed by someone else? How has your acting changed as a result of the film? How do you resist offering viewpoints on lines or blocking?
It’s such a pleasure, in some ways, to not have to worry about absolutely everything about the project. The reason I produced Falling for Grace is because there are so few good roles written for Asian Americans. I really didn’t enjoy acting any more. But I agreed to do Ching Chong Chinaman because I could see that acting in this would be challenging and fun again. The big thing I did learn from doing my own movie is the importance of respecting the director’s vision. As a first-time film director, my vision was constantly challenged. So I’m actually a great actor for a director to work with now, because I’m so sensitive to not creating tension or trouble on set or in rehearsal. I become a real ally for the director. I still offer my viewpoints as every actor naturally does, but I also know when I must stop. I think I have become a better actor as a result because I now care more about how to fulfill the director’s vision than I do mine — I try hard to keep my ego in check and take me out of the equation.

Bonus Question:

6) What is the biggest advantage that Asian actors have over actors of other ethnicities? (This is, of course, if you believe that even thinking about ethnicity should matter.)
Honestly, I don’t think we have any edge over actors of other ethnicities. The only advantage might be — and this is really downright wrong for me to say, after answering all the above questions — but I think you will find Asian actors to be hardworking, respectful and with above-average math skills. Three out of the six cast members of Ching Chong Chinaman have Ivy League degrees and graduate degrees. One has an MBA from the Wharton School. So, the only advantage we have over actors of other ethnicities is that we could probably beat them in calculating the tip at the end of a meal. Perpetuating a stereotype? Guilty!

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