Interview with Kristina Wong
By Steve Su
Kristina Wong is a hilarious and cutting-edge performance artist who has performed in major theatres, festivals, and dozens of universities all across the U.S. Wong is best known for her one-woman shows, such as Miss Chinatown 2nd Runner Up and Free? Her latest show, Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, has won her rave reviews from sources like The Associated Press, San Francisco Bay Guardian, and New York Newsday. This week, AsianLoop had a chance to catch up to this daring artist to talk about her work.
Wong's impressive resume contains much more than just solo performances. Among other notable experiences, Wong has acted in numerous independent films and commercials. She has also written for Playgirl Magazine. She has performed as a comedian at the Hollywood Improv. She has even produced and directed the documentary Beat the Bus. And one of Wong's earlier claims to fame is the website bigbadchinesemama.com, a mock mail-order bride site that pokes fun at Asian fetishes.
Although Wong could focus more on pursuing her acting career, she actually prefers doing her solo performances. Wong explains, "Many actors create solo shows so they can ‘showcase’ themselves to get more film and TV work. I do my own solo shows, not because I want to get more TV work, but because I just really like creating my own material. It’s the means and the end." Despite having chose the road less traveled, Wong is definitely making a name for herself. In addition to her acclaimed shows, Kristina was recently selected from thousands of actors to write and perform in the 2008 CBS Network Multicultural Comedy Showcase. And on a more personal note, she was invited to be the commencement speaker at her alma mater, UCLA.
Like many Asian parents, Wong's parents wanted her to follow a more profitable career path like being a doctor or a lawyer. However, the third-generation Chinese American knew that that wasn't for her. "I was trying to make everyone happy, but at the same time make myself happy. I was hungry to see what else the world had to offer," says Wong. After graduating from college, it was a really stressful time for Wong. Her choice to go into the arts was not supported by her family. "I say I ran away from home at 22," jokes Wong. But that actually drove Wong to work even harder to get to where she is today. Now, her parents are very supportive and proud of their daughter.
Many people think of Asian American women as demure, submissive, and quiet, but Wong is anything but. She firmly believes in expressing herself, and it comes across clearly in her work. "That's just who I am. I've always been outspoken, but I am also very shy," Wong says about herself. You wouldn't guess this cutting solo humorist was shy though from her characters. From the whiskey swigging, cigar smoking Fannie Wong from her show Miss Chinatown 2nd Runner Up to the Big Bad Chinese Mama from her mock mail-order bride website, her characters are always refreshingly, unflinchingly expressive. "It is me to a point, but I think a lot of the process is me trying to figure out who I am," comments Wong about herself.
Ironically, despite her efforts to fight racism and sexism, Wong has actually been criticized by other Asian Americans for misrepresenting the demographic. But that is not Wong's intention. "I just wanted to represent myself and my own intentions as a artist the best I can. I firmly accept that I no one artist can ‘represent’ an entire demographic," clarifies Wong. Yet surprisingly, part of her is glad to get such responses about her work. "I think that's awesome," comments the former SoCal student. She hopes that such reactions will invoke others to speak up themselves and express how they feel Asian Americans should be portrayed.
Wong covers a wide range of issues in her work, from sexism and racism to the current war in Iraq. But she also talks about many issues that are not as obvious. For example, she recognizes how hard it is to be honest to your family sometimes, but she stresses the importance of it. Wong recalls, "My friend told me this story about a guy who dropped out of college and didn't want to tell his parents. And he lied all the way through to graduation. And when they came down for the graduation ceremony, he called in a bomb threat."
Even more importantly, Wong believes in being honest with yourself. Wong continues, "We’re very good at lying to ourselves and day about our reality. You often hear people say ‘I’m fine’ when they are not. It’s a way of psychic survival. We have to find and create spaces to communicate our truth so that we don’t implode."
Of all her work, Wong is proudest of Cuckoo's Nest. "I am very proud this show is bringing a lot of attention to an issue that people are afraid to talk about, which is mental illness and depression," Wong says of the project. This show had themes that had a personal resonance with her family and friends. And unlike many of her past projects, this one was much more intense to the point that she wasn't even sure she could complete it. "I had to confront a lot of my own history and challenge my personal boundaries," says Wong about the development of her show.
Doing research for the show was difficult as well. Upon exploring the topic, Wong unexpectantly found a lot of other Asian American women who sought her out because they felt safe to talk about the topic with her. She says, “With my past work being so cynical, I didn’t expect to be put into the position of a healer or counselor.” Wong faced a lot of pressure to incorporate everyone’s perspective of mental illness into her performance. "The difference between an artist and an anthropologist is that anthropologist must be more objective in collecting and detailing research, but the artist researches and interprets on an emotional, creative and intuitive level resulting in the work of art that beg more questions and answers. I feel frustrated sometimes that audiences expect me to be an anthropologist that offers up concrete and comprehensive research," Wong says of the experience in writing the show. Even though Wong accepted that she couldn't please everyone, she was still able to put together a show that shines a light on a serious topic in an entertaining and thought-provoking manner.
What's next for Kristina Wong? Hopefully, taking it a little easier. "This show, The Cuckoos's Nest, was so exhausting," says Wong. But she is already planning a new show, The Cat Lady. Traditionally, cat ladies are thought of as old spinsters with lots of cats. But Wong has noticed a new trend: "You have all these career women, who in this “disposable love” world of internet dating, can’t stay in a long term commitment to save their lives. Many of my lady friends who are single and gorgeous live alone with their cats, and we joke that we are modern day cat ladies." So one of the topics of the show will be to examine the loneliness that a lot of us go through in today's world. (Incidentally, another topic of the show involves pick-up artists.)
In addition to all her other endeavors, Wong is also working on her first novel, Between The Peaks. It is a coming-of-age story about a Chinese girl growing up in San Francisco with questions about her body and her identity. The story is not autobiographical, but inspired by some of the same questions Wong had faced in her own childhood.
Not everyone gets Kristina Wong's work, but Wong is okay with that. As Wong says herself, "The job of good art is to leave people with questions."
You can catch Kristina Wong in Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at the upcoming Asian Cultural Festival, to be held from April 23 to April 27. For more information on the Festival, please go to http://queenstheatre.org/7AsianMenu.htm. For more information about Kristina Wong and her other upcoming performances, please visit her official site at http://www.kristinawong.com
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