I took my daughter and two of her friends to see Crazy Rich Asians yesterday and it was a milestone not just because we haven’t seen an all-Asian cast in a Hollywood movie since The Joy Luck Club 25 years ago, but also because I’ve loved Kevin Kwan’s books and have enjoyed following his career since I plucked Crazy Rich Asians off my then-teenage son’s dresser some years back.
We in Chicago are so fortunate to have a theater company that prides itself in all-Asian casts since 9-11. Silk Road Rising produces the work of Asian and Middle Eastern playwrights. David Henry Hwang’s plays have been staged at Silk Road Rising and the famous playwright has helped produce other Chinese plays there. I reviewed one earlier this year in the Los Angeles Review of Books and recently saw two of the three plays in its New China Festival, also produced by Hwang.
The latest was Stan Lai’s Sand on a Distant Star, translated by Lai and Tian Hongyi. The story takes place in contemporary Taipei, much of it in the night market. Nightingale is a middle-aged woman whose husband, David, disappeared twenty years earlier. Their daughter, Stranger, is a film student and often doesn’t see eye to eye with her mother. In order to speak to the daughter she wished she had, Nightingale creates an imaginary daughter named Strangee. Nightingale thinks her husband was abducted by aliens twenty years earlier and on the twentieth anniversary of his disappearance believes he may return to her.
Stranger’s boyfriend, High, is a film director and claims his paparazzi friends have seen David in Shanghai with a new wife and children. When I heard the words, “Taiwan”, “twenty years ago”, and “Shanghai with a new wife and children”, I immediately thought that David had gone to China with the wave of Taiwanese businessmen in the mid-90s and began a new life there, leaving behind his wife and child in Taiwan. The same thing started in Hong Kong back then, although the men have an easier time returning since Hong Kong borders China. But new families over the border abound.
After the play, the audience could stay for a discussion with Silk Road Rising associate producer Corey Pond and director Helen Young. Most of the audience stuck around for this discussion. Helen Young mentioned that Stan Lai wrote the play after a friend’s spouse had died. I never thought that David had died in the play, but I guess it was because I was so focused on the timeline that matched up with this exodus of Taiwanese businessmen to China. But the dead explanation makes a lot of sense.
Another storyline I became fixated upon was that between a fellow hawker at the night market (and thus a friend of Nightingale), whose own wife had disappeared. He was on a search for her, too. When we learned that Hawker’s wife had been a mail-order bride from Vietnam and left him because he was abusive, I again thought that Stan Lai was depicting the tough times another group of women have faced in Taiwan–that of the mail-order bride from Vietnam.
In Mara Hvistendahl’s book, Unnatural Selection (Public Affairs, 2011), she writes about the disparity between men and women in China, but also in Taiwan. Taiwan’s gender imbalance became more obvious before China’s, or at least the implications of it did. Before the birthrate tapered off in Taiwan, there was an abundance of marriageable men who could not find wives. So they resorted to places like Vietnam–poor countries that had maintained an even gender balance–to find mail-order brides. These women couldn’t speak Chinese and had no family or friends when they uprooted to Taiwan. Since the community of Vietnamese women in Taiwan has grown over the decades, women have more of a support system than ever before and have come to see Taiwan as home, even if the leave their husbands and stay there.
The play may have been about a woman whose husband had died and didn’t want to accept the truth, but I couldn’t help reading a feminist interpretation of it, too: Nightingale didn’t want to believe her husband had left Stranger and her alone in Taiwan while he started a new family in China, and Hawker had a hard time coming to terms with the reality that his wife from Vietnam had escaped his abuse and wanted a better life for herself as she tried to support herself in this foreign land.
The cast of Sand on a Distant Star was phenomenal, as all Silk Road Rising productions have exhibited, and featured Asian actors. While Hollywood is slow in the representation field, we in Chicago have been getting it right for quite a while.
Silk Road Rising productions are performed at The Chicago Temple, 77 West Washington Street in the Loop. For more information about their performances, check out their website.