Perhaps the most memorable and affecting moment during “Sit, Eat, Chew,” choreographer Mei-Yin Ng’s recent dance tour-meets-oral history project in Manhattan’s Chinatown, took place in a hair salon at 189 Centre Street.
There, a young woman draped in white moved from table to mirror to chair, telling the story of Bow Kum, a Chinese immigrant from the 1880s — from being bought from China as a bride in San Francisco, to being rescued by missionaries, to remarrying and relocating to New York City, then being tracked down by her first husband, who demanded compensation and then stabbed and maimed her when her new husband refused.
But what the young woman didn’t share was what happened afterwards: that the fight over this woman exacerbated Chinatown’s notorious, bloody tong wars — gang wars that made their way into the history books, but mostly without her story.
“I found her story while looking through library archives,” explained Ng. “Things like this still happen, so even when it’s set in 1880, not a contemporary scene, it’s relevant. That’s why I put her in a hair salon, because this is where stories like these are shared.”
For dancer Tsai Hsi Hung, the experience of portraying this character resonated as both a timeless immigrant story and as a woman. “The piece is very deep. Salon workers use their hands and when performing, I’m that girl. Intense movements, no sounds, stop-stop-stop,” she said, describing the abrupt gestures she employed.
“I’m a green card holder and I married here after coming on an artist visa, so I recognize how it’s very hard to immigrate,” even when it’s not so tragic, she added. “As an Asian woman, it’s difficult for me and difficult for that girl, too.”
Last weekend, “Sit, Eat, Chew” also staged performances in a private apartment, a restaurant, a public park, and a museum. The stories — told in Mandarin, Cantonese, English, and through movement — were culled from interviews with senior citizens and local youth. The project, born out of a desire to share oral histories from Manhattan’s Chinatown residents with the public in an engaging way, was funded through a Kickstarter campaign as well as several nonprofit and city and state grants.
“I group stories by category, based on the idea of the five tastes in Chinese proverbs to describe life experience: sour, spicy, sweet, bitter, and salty,” explained Ng. “Emotions are associated with each taste. So it’s one story, but different stories within. Sometimes I’d hear conversations while in a café, and I’d write them down.”
While most performances featured professional dancers, several Chinatown seniors also danced to variations on their own memories.
That included Wu Bing Shao and Zhang Xiuping, two friends and performers with the Lin Sing Association Senior Dancing Group. In their piece, set inside Fuleen Seafood Restaurant on Division Street, Wu and Zhang portray old friends catching up over tea and a meal, reminiscing through Chinese opera and ‘70s pop tunes, and discussing the generation gap by wondering whether Wu’s daughter would marry “a banana man or an egg man” — aka an Americanized Chinese guy or a white guy who loves Chinese language and culture — before breaking out into song and dance.
For Zhang, the performance came naturally because her character’s story, she said, “is like mine, working in a restaurant, except [my character] eventually owns the restaurant!”
“The story matches our new immigrant story, wondering if his daughter will marry an American guy and forget about you,” said Wu. “Then he sings and they dance to a song that I changed the words to, to talk about how you think coming to the US is all good, but it’s not true, you actually have to work hard.”
All of the stories emphasized the struggle to bridge distance between loved ones, personal dreams and family obligations, and cultures new and old.
There was the scene in a fourth floor walkup on the Bowery, where a man and a woman danced around the dinner table, moving dishes and pulling their limbs in different directions as they sought to deal with the loneliness of trying to hold a relationship together across time zones.
“It’s about the deep conversations we have over dinner and breakfast, and the uncertainty of when they can see one another again because of visa issues,” explained Ng. “The story was borne from a guy who spent 22 years away from his family and sacrificed his life for his family, but now has no family because they don’t know him. All people want is a better life, opportunity, but they don’t know how deep that sacrifice will be.”
There was also Ng herself performing as a sweatshop worker, doing the dance of folding shirts while dreams of owning her own cheongsam dress shop danced in her mind. There were a dozen elderly women dressed in red, performing a synchronized dance routine to a traditional folk melody in the park, dancing to “celebrate life” and enjoy a freedom of expression that they hadn’t indulged in in their youth.
Finally, a trio of young Asian American women rehearsed a Korean pop-style routine set to lyrics that explicitly called out stereotypes that the audience recognized, such as “Are you a cool Asian, or a school Asian,” and “do you eat rice all the time,” before stopping and breaking those same stereotypes in their casual conversation about a decidedly more multicultural experience, including their love for salty rolled ice cream and bubble tea, while both sharing and disagreeing with their moms’ food preferences.
Ng hopes to take “Sit, Eat, Chew” to other Chinese and Asian immigrant communities in San Francisco, Toronto, Montreal, and elsewhere to “develop their own Chinatown story.” Based on the experience of seeing these New York City stories, the project is a welcome challenge and contribution to the growing conversation about how immigrant and Chinese American experiences are defined.
Mei-Yin Ng’s “Sit, Eat, Chew” took place throughout Chinatown, Manhattan on October 21 and 22.