- The Interdisciplinary Theatre of Ping Chong: Exploring Curiosity and Otherness on Stage by Yuko Kurahashi
Although “a volume on this subject is sorely overdue” may be the biggest cliché a book reviewer can utter, the statement is unavoidable here. While there is a rich array of essays, interviews, and reviews about him, a book-length study of Ping Chong’s output over half a century has been conspicuous by its absence. The breadth and depth of Chong’s portfolio make the idea of writing a book on this luminary auteur as daunting as it is inviting. As a long-time fan, I picked up Yuko Kurahashi’s tome with a mixture of excitement and fear. What she has produced is a wonderful resource that is as valuable for those new to Chong’s work as it is for those previously familiar. The extensive research and preparation she undertook over many years, including considerable input from Chong himself, is evident throughout a study that is meticulous and efficient, affording attention to every single piece. It is logically structured to identify both key phases in Chong’s artistic career and connections between different pieces. Offering detailed textual analysis, it draws deftly on the full range of academic and journalistic sources, while also making passing but judicious reference to philosophers and theorists such as Gilles Deleuze and Michel de Certeau to help frame themes and ideas.
Following periods studying visual art and collaborating choreographically with Meredith Monk, Chong formed his first company in 1975. Ever since, he has continued to write and direct poetic, sometimes documentary, often enigmatic, stage pieces about acculturation. While the oeuvre is varied, it has tended, as Kurahashi delineates, to feature conspicuous clashing of the naturalistic and the symbolic across schemas of movement, speech, and costume to establish character and context in a vivid, [End Page 593] vibrant, but also elegiac fashion. In 1992, he created the first installment of Undesirable Elements, a series of testimonial performances that are still ongoing today, now often directed by Sara Zatz and other members of the company using the template that Chong created. Since 2008, Undesirable Elements has been complemented by a parallel series, Secret History, an in-school education program inculcating sensitivity to differences in which students exchange and process stories from their own experience.
The book is chronological in its approach. On its back cover, it is billed as a “biography.” After the first chapter, which does indeed tell the story of Chong’s early life, it is a biography only in the loosest sense of artistic biography. The first chapter thus seems a bit out of place at first glance, as if a life story has been grafted onto a book of criticism. Almost like a ghostwriter for Chong, Kurahashi tells the story of his mother, a singer in the Cantonese opera, and his father, an opera director and librettist, traveling from Guangzhou to the Chinatowns of San Francisco, then to Vancouver, then to Toronto (where Ping is born in 1946), and finally to New York City. Initially, they work in the Cantonese opera in each city, but these opera communities dwindle and most proponents return to China. Ping’s sisters go to Hong Kong to stay with an auntie just before Hong Kong is attacked by the Japanese. In Manhattan, Ping’s father opens a tiny restaurant that becomes famous for its pork buns and egg custard tarts. Kurahashi’s decision to begin a survey of Chong’s artistic career with this intimate, biographical account may seem strange at first, but that is why it works so satisfy-ingly: by providing precisely the strangeness that one gets from Chong’s work as geopolitical stories collide with the micro-politics of experience.
Although Ping Chong + Company has always been based in Manhattan, and they are often referenced as a node within New York’s experimental art network, they are also, distinctively, not insiders. Kurahashi underscores that Chong’s work has always been, more than anything, about travel, literally as well as metaphorically. Kurahashi is...