Kristina Wong’s stereotype-skewering humor: Stop and think about it
Kristina Wong has crashed Miss Chinatown pageants as a pimply, cigar-smoking, over-the-hill contestant.
She has posed as a rabid Jeremy Lin fan, waving sexually suggestive signs at the NBA player’s games. On a sewing machine in her Koreatown apartment, she makes vagina puppets out of colored felt.
So when she found herself in front of television cameras discussing the popularity of Asian women on the dating scene, Wong was in her element.
“Suck it, white ladies! I got it! I had to live under your shadow all through high school and now I’m the hottest thing on earth and I can do anything and some crazy white guy will still like this,” Wong declared before spitting and loudly blowing her nose.
The clip from the cable TV network Fusion went viral, with more than 100,000 views on YouTube. Some observers found the performance tasteless, while others praised Wong for skewering a dating preference rooted in stereotypes of Asian females as exotic and submissive.
Wong, 35, has been the bane of white men with Asian fetishes since her college days at UCLA, when she created a fake mail-order bride website to expose them. She moved on to other topics, including crazy cat ladies and depression in Asian American women, while touring her one-woman shows in a pink Mercedes powered by vegetable oil.
Wong’s work is taught in college classrooms, and she is well known in Asian American theater circles. But only recently has she reached a wider audience, starting with an essay on the XO Jane website: “9 Wack Things White Guys Say to Deny Their Asian Fetish.”
Wong’s decorum-breaching humor has brought attention to an issue familiar to Asian Americans but not often raised in mainstream media. Even positive racial stereotypes can be damaging, Wong argues, as can being loved for the wrong reasons. Her inspiration for diving back into the race debate was the Trayvon Martin verdict.
“She makes us all aware about ourselves and the things that come out of our mouths,” said Paul Tei, who has directed several of Wong’s stage productions. “OK, you’re attracted to Asian women. How many do you really know? What is it you’re really attracted to?”
Wong grew up in San Francisco, the daughter of an accountant and a bank employee. Her parents were born in the United States but still subscribed to a Chinese immigrant mantra — in Wong’s words, “Go to med school, marry a Chinese doctor, have Chinese doctor babies who are bilingual.” The burden of those expectations has been a recurring theme in her work.
At UCLA, Wong considered an acting career but found it limiting to execute someone else’s vision. A Chicano theater class made her realize she could write and perform her own material.
Her senior project, “Big Bad Chinese Mama,” superficially resembles a website for American men seeking demure brides from Asia. To lure unsuspecting daters, she posted links to the site in chat rooms and took out ads in a local weekly.
Men logged on only to be scolded by Wong, in her “Chinese Mama” guise, for their “patriarchal, colonialist longings” and “sick sexual desires.” The women’s online profiles were parodies of subservience: “My life is but to serve ME. Get your own damn beer.”
After college, Wong began showing up at Miss Chinatown pageants in a tiara and sash as a former second-runner-up named Fannie Wong. Fannie’s outrageous garb was matched by her behavior: doing push-ups on the red carpet, humping people’s legs like a dog, chugging Jack Daniels. She sometimes got as far as signing autographs and granting media interviews in a thick Brooklyn accent before being thrown out by security.
At the same time she was mocking the culture of ethnic beauty pageants, Wong was selling everything from Janet Jackson postcards to microwave ovens on eBay to pay her bills. Hostessing at a restaurant, she ran into classmates from UCLA who had careers her parents would approve of.
Her one-woman show “Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” about suicide and depression in Asian American women, allowed her to quit her side jobs but subjected her to an exhausting touring schedule. The constant traveling hurt her personal life, and there was an emotional toll exacted by portraying deeply depressed characters night after night.
She was away from home so much, playing mostly small theaters and college auditoriums, that her cat urinated everywhere — behavior that became the subject of another show, “Cat Lady.”
In 2008, Wong gave the commencement speech for the UCLA English department — a proud moment for her conventional parents, who sat in the audience. Afterward, she overheard actor James Franco, who was one of the graduates, dismissing her performance as “not very good” and angling for an invitation to speak the following year. She tore into him on a blog post that was picked up by the feminist website Jezebel.
Even now, Wong’s mother urges her to get a government job.
“The way my mom raised me was so conservative,” Wong said. “She even tells me before I do a show — ‘Don’t talk bad about me.’ I can’t turn back. I’m not going to play the violin for an hour.”
In person, Wong is anything but combative. She uses academic phrases like “heteronormative” to describe the subjects she satirizes. Since the pink Mercedes caught fire on the 405 Freeway, she has gone carless in Los Angeles, relying on a motor scooter and rides from friends. She shares her apartment with Octavia, a gray tabby who is the successor to Oliver, the sprayer featured in “Cat Lady.”
In a DVD performance of “Cuckoo’s Nest,” Wong accosts a white audience member and fingers his hair, exclaiming at how soft it is. Asian women with straight, silky locks and black women with springy curls get the joke — curious strangers have touched their hair without permission.
In her private life, the in-your-face performer was so lonely that she dated almost anyone who came her way. Often, she was one in a long string of Asian girlfriends.
When Wong started writing for XO Jane, her editor suggested a piece about Asian fetishes. But she had been there, done that with Big Bad Chinese Mama. It was not until the Martin verdict and the racially polarized reaction to it that Wong plunged back into the issue of stereotyping.
“We have progressed and yet we haven’t. We’ve just figured out how to hide obvious markers of racism,” Wong said. “There are people who think, ‘Look at all my diverse friends,’ or ‘I’m not racist — I’ve dated all these Asian women,’ or ‘I’m so nice to everyone.’ It’s avoiding a very difficult topic.”
In an XO Jane piece published last July, Wong responded to the justifications her ex-boyfriends have given for exclusively dating Asian women.
Statement: “I don’t see race.”
Response: “Then how is it that your dating habits have me feeling like I’m on an assembly line of Asian blow-up dolls?!”
Wong’s next show, “The Wong Street Journal,” will be about global poverty and her recent trip to Uganda, where she made an impromptu rap album with locals.
The Fusion television segment, which aired in late November, begins with host Alicia Menendez describing a survey of online daters. According to the survey, men prefer Asian women over other races, while women tend to prefer white men.
To Josh Fischer, whose company Are You Interested produced the survey, the results prove that people nowadays are more open to interracial dating.
Actually, Wong responds, what comes to mind is a stereotype of Asians as “submissive, delicate, model-girlfriend types.”
On the other hand, she says, why not embrace her own popularity?
That’s when she launches into her “I can do anything I want” taunt.
“Kristina’s going to talk about that?” said Phil Yu, author of the blog Angry Asian Man. “She’s going to come in with something. True to form, it was pretty spectacular.”
Yet, judging by the online reaction, not everyone got the message.
“I am a sucker for Asian women ...,” one man wrote. “Aside from that exotic trait about her (yes, I said it, I don’t know where that exotic trait comes from but it’s there) she has a very fun hilariously witty personality ... that any guy would be lucky to date her ... Believe me, it would be awesome to date you, Ms. Wong.”
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