In 2018, when Daniel K. Isaac was starring in the world premiere of The Chinese Lady, about the first Chinese woman to set foot in America, he got some questions from white audience members that could only be described as “microaggressions.” “Are you born here?” “Have you been to China?” recalls Isaac, who is still aghast at it. “Someone said, ‘Your eyes close when you smile,’ to me. Was that meant as a compliment? Or an observation? What do I do with this information?” But to Isaac, while those questions were disturbing, they only proved why The Chinese Lady was a necessary play for him to do.
The Chinese Lady by Lloyd Suh is currently running at the Public Theater through April 10. It is co-produced with Ma-Yi Theater Company, one of the preeminent Asian American theater companies in the country. The play is about Afong Moy (played by Shannon Tyo), who was a real woman who came to the United States in 1834. She was brought to the US by white traders, who displayed her in a diorama not unlike the ones at the American Museum of Natural History. Moy toured through the United States, where people would pay money to see her eat with chopsticks and walk around on her bound feet. For an extra fee, they could touch her feet. Eventually she became part of P.T. Barnum’s circus, until he abandoned her. She was not heard from again after 1850.
The Chinese Lady is also set around the time that the first waves of Chinese immigrants entered the US, and they were underpaid compared to white Americans. They were dismissed as diseased foreigners, job stealers, and they were even murdered and lynched. All of that swirls in the background of the play.
Isaac first starred in The Chinese Lady at Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires. He then reprised his role off-Broadway in 2018. Isaac is now doing the play again and to him, its relevance has only grown with time.
“When we did it in 2018, people didn’t believe us. It took labor for us to explain that to be Asian in America is X, Y, or Z, whether that is difficult, full of prejudice, or as victims of racism,” says Isaac.
Isaac is on break from shooting now, but he also currently plays the hedge fund analyst Ben Kim in the Showtime series Billions. In real life, Isaac grew up poor. He was raised by a single mom, who was an immigrant from Korea. To him, the minority myth that is placed on Asian Americans erases the real struggles that the community goes through: “There’s the stereotype that all Asians do well in America: ‘Look how many of you go to Harvard.’ And I would think, I remember being hungry. I know plenty of poor Asian Americans.”
Then 2020 happened: hate crimes against Asian Americans rose steeply during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Stop Asian Hate became a hashtag. To Isaac, now is a key time to return to The Chinese Lady. “I think people know now or have seen it in the news,” he says. “And Shannon and I do not have to do the labor of, ‘Do you believe that this is happening?’ Now we can say, will you receive this story? Can you hear us?”
In The Chinese Lady, Isaac plays Moy’s translator Atung. But unlike other period dramas about East meets West (such as, say, The King and I), neither character speaks with an accent. Instead, they directly address the audience, and talk candidly about their own lives, in a way that goes beyond the chinoiserie setting they are trapped in.
Such as when Moy talks about the American fascination with her bound feet, “Most Americans consider it barbaric. Of course, in China there are many who feel the same way, but it is tradition, and so there is hesitancy to alter it,” smartly adding:
I have noticed there are traditions in the American identity that are similarly entrenched … Such as corsets. Or the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Perhaps this is the way of tradition. We set systems in place so that we can provide a structure. So that we can feel secure. And then, at some point, as we evolve, these systems become unnecessary. But before we can move on to a new set of traditions, we must live in a slow dismantling of the old ways. It may take time. But it is useful work.
To Isaac, one tradition that the US has yet to dismantle is the exotification and othering of Asian people, which he and many scholars see as beginning with Afong Moy, and continues to the present day. In displaying Moy publicly, where she couldn’t speak and could only be looked at, Americans could label China as backwards and its people as submissive, unintelligent, and disease bearers.
“You took an entire culture, and tried to market it as vases and sculptures and clothing and chopsticks,” says Isaac. “And so of course, that has generations of repercussions—we were reduced to something novel, something different, something exotic.”
Though Isaac is Korean American, he feels an affinity to the story told in The Chinese Lady. Because he sees the history being told isn’t just Chinese American history, but Asian American history. “I know what it feels like to walk around in my body in America. And I don’t think in, say, hate crimes or casual playground prejudice, I am granted the specificity of being Korean American versus Chinese American versus Japanese American. They just see Asian, or other,” he explains.
Moy came in 1834, so Asians have been in America for “a long time, a much longer time than is afforded in history books. And yet we continue to pretend that history didn’t exist.” Isaac hopes other Asian Americans will feel seen by the story that Afong Moy is telling. “Asian American history is being given space again. And while I am not Chinese American, that space being created is space for me.”
As for non-Asian audiences, Isaac hopes that The Chinese Lady brings a greater awareness that “Asian American history is American history.” Isaac continues, “I hope there is an invitation to, sure, witness terrible erasure and atrocities that have happened to this community. But also, to then say, ‘What can I do in my everyday life?’ Because we can’t just look at history as something in the past. We have to learn from it and apply it to our present.”
Though The Chinese Lady is about an uncomfortable part of American history, where white Americans treated people of color like objects and second-class citizens, it is also a hopeful work. That is why, despite the low-key racist questions that Isaac received last time he did the play, he is still willing to do talk-backs after the show and speak to the audience.
“There is a journey in the play of pointing out and purposely sending up stereotypes. And then stripping it away so that one sees the human and the point of empathy, and potential for what we can share, rather than highlighting the differences,” explains Isaac, before adding, “There is an answer to generations of prejudice and racism that is the DNA of our country. So I’d like to believe there is hope written into this. And that we can gift that hope to our audiences.”