Q & A with Performance Artist and Comedienne Kristina Wong

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Thank God for extended cable, because if it wasn’t for my family’s subscription to Bright House, I probably would have never stumbled upon Kristina Wong. We try to make a habit of honoring women with our Women Every Woman Needs to Know (WEWNK) series, but we’ve never gotten the chance to actually communicate with one of the honorees. I’ve never even published an interview on AGT before, which makes this Q & A particularly special for me.

I was watching MYXTV, a network with a huge focus on Asian American culture, when I was introduced to a new and interesting docu-series that follows various personalities from the Asian American community. I’m obviously not Asian, but the new series I’m Asian American and… instantly drew my attention because of my interest in racial and gender relations. The first episode I saw featured a young man who was facing an identity crisis regarding the specifics of his ethnicity. Curious, I decided to find some of the earlier episodes. That’s when I found Wong’s…

“I’m Asian American and…I Want Reparations for Yellow Fever”

The title got me. The concept of racial fetishes and the stereotypes that come with them have always intrigued me, so I simply had to watch that episode! Wong was a treat. With her sarcasm, tell-it-like-it-is attitude and occasional Flavor Flav impersonations, her character transcended the screen and left enough of an impression to make me look her up just to make sure she wasn’t an actress.

But by God, she was real alright.

Wong’s Flavor Flav impersonation. Image via MYX TV

Kristina Wong is primarily known for her work as a solo theater performer and artist. (She’s also pretty darn funny too.) She is a third generation Chinese American born in San Francisco and graduated from UCLA fought her way through the sweltering collegiate battlegrounds with double degrees in English and World Arts and Cultures and a minor in Asian American Studies. Wong has made appearances on PBS and Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, and has written for American Public Media’s Marketplace, Jezebel, Playgirl Magazine, and XOJane. But most importantly, she has a high affinity for cats.

After stalking her website and having my laptop scream “Wong” at me for a decent amount of time I decided to contact her on Twitter and give her my kudos.

Little did I know I would end up getting a Q & A her. Can anyone say score?

This guy certainly can. Image via MYX TV

Q: Comedy isn’t necessarily a career path that parents push on their children. It’s always doctor this, lawyer that. What made you decide to be a comedienne and artist? Were your parents resentful of that?

A lot of creatives will say, “It’s not that we chose to be artists, the arts chose us.” I agree. I always knew I wanted to do something creative with my future. My mother says I am argumentative and that I had the makings of a lawyer. But I much preferred cracking jokes and entertaining people. Even in high school, when performing in plays written by dead white people, I saw how much I could change how people saw me, Asian Americans, and their world by seeing someone like me get in front of them and make them laugh, or show them Asian women could be good performers.

It was really hard for my parents to accept that I was not going into a stable work field after college. I think most of the anxiety for my mom was not knowing what to tell her friends what it was that I did for a living. And it was really stressful because I didn’t have a lot of mentors who could relate to how crazy I felt for pursuing art like I did. Most of the Asian American women pursuing art had really supportive family members who helped them financially and really went out of their way to give support. My 20s was totally frought with financial, career, and emotional struggle. I’m not one of those artists who got really lucky and hit it big in her 20s.

After doing this for a good long time, my mother finally stopped saying, “One day you may run for president, so be careful.” I think she knows I’m in it for the long haul. To be honest, I feel like I finally got the hang of how to balance this lifestyle in the last year.

Q: What kind of expectations or discrimination do you face being a woman in comedy? Even better, what do you face being an Asian American woman in comedy?

I consider myself more a “performance artist” than comedian because I do a lot more performance-based projects than tell jokes on a mic. I’ve just accepted the label “comedian” in the last few years because it’s just easier for people to understand and activates a larger audience. Unfortunately, I meet a lot of people who think that “comedian” means I’m a stand-up and that I should be able to hear racist and sexist comments and just laugh or go along with the “joke.” Sorry folks, I laugh at things that are funny, not fucked up cheap shots.

I had a jerk of a Hollywood manager who explained that he wasn’t giving my career the attention he gave his other (male, mostly white) clients because “there was no market for an Asian woman in her 30s in Hollywood.” I was naive, and believed that indeed if I was so undesirable, I had to keep him as my manager because nobody else would take me on. I finally couldn’t take being a second-class citizen, and fired him after five awful years.

Now I have an amazing manager who treats me with the same respect as her other clients.  She gets my politics and my audience.  And she doesn’t tell me what isn’t possible in my career. Instead, we talk about what I want to make possible and we work from there. It’s how I wish I knew it could be from the beginning and what I want to tell other people to aspire to–surround yourself with good people! I would have been a lot more confident and I would have gotten a lot further along had I trusted my gut earlier and just did my own thing until the RIGHT people came along.

In the comedy show situations I’ve worked in where there are other comics, they tend to be very male and very white. I’ve had a couple of instances where the male comedians are all shaking each other’s hands like old buddies backstage and then don’t shake my hand. It could be because I’m a new face and they don’t know me, but I think in a couple of situations, they didn’t realize I was actually another comic on the same bill as them, and not someone’s assistant.

Q: Your show Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest focused on the rising rates of depression and suicide among Asian American women. As an artist and Asian American, do you feel an obligation to voice the problems of your community?

Yes and no. I think because of what I’ve experienced in my life as an Asian American woman, I feel like it comes to the forefront of what I want to explore. And it’s not that I don’t do work that isn’t just about the “problems”–it’s that the shows focusing on “problems” tend to be more popular and more in demand than my other work.

My follow up show to Cuckoo’s Nest was a play called Cat Lady. It was about what it was like to perform Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest ad nauseum, to the point that I was becoming a shell of myself. I was really lonely in the first few years of touring Cuckoo’s Nest and found myself fascinated with the really fucked-up subculture of Pick-Up Artists–men who teach other men how to pick-up women.

Cat Lady didn’t tour as much as Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for several reasons–one was that it was an ensemble show and therefore, expensive to tour. I also think it wasn’t touring because it didn’t have any hard and fast social justice themes attached to it. If I had marketed the show as a “domestic violence,” “Asian male identity,” or “queer identity” play (actual threads explored in the work), it might have had more traction with the venues that had presented me in the past. But I didn’t market it the way I marketed Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I wanted to “just be an artist” with that show and not a social worker–and that wasn’t enough, unfortunately, for theaters to want to take it on.

A lot of Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a self-satire of what it feel like to be an “Asian American artist.” I cannot even begin to describe how excruciating the sense of “community obligation” to “save” a very large and dynamic community felt before I made the show. It was an insane amount of pressure, and I had mostly put it on myself.

I don’t think this pressure is just me. I think that many artists of color are in the double bind of having developing good craft as artists, but also being the inadvertent “voice” of the marginalized communities they come from.

Q: In your episode of I’m Asian American and…, you mention that other Asian women have come to you about how disgusted they feel when men try fetishize them. In your opinion, how common or widespread is the “yellow fever” epidemic? How do you think this fetish socially impacts second or third generation Asian American Women v. Asian Women who come to America first generation?

I think every Asian woman in this country has at some point encountered a Yellow Fever guy and has been fetishized. I have not had enough conversations with first generation Asian American women to give you hard numbers about how wide the epidemic is.  But just google “Asian woman” and see the characterizations of Asian women that come up in the Google ads–that will show you.

Each person’s body is “coded” with cultural markers of “value” and “meaning.” And whether we are cognizant or not of it, even in our best attempts to “treat everyone as equal,” we are treated with those pre-existing codes and treat others with them. What I’m interested in is subverting those codes to get into spaces and turn systems on their heads.

I think  my reality TV episode of I’m Asian American and… is a great example of subverting the expectations these Yellow Fever guys had of me. They expected me to be obedient, submissive, and classy–instead, they were.

Q: In your performances you seem to be very conscious of space, especially between the performer and the audience. What does distance from the audience represent as opposed to a lack of?

In my live performances I’m always dancing with that line between audience and performer. I was never comfortable with shows where the audience was safely in the dark observing me like a specimen behind museum glass. With Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I involve the audience because I want to blur the lines and create a living picture of sanity–we are all subject to depression.  By involving the audience in my actions with me, they are also implicated as “possibly crazy.”

I like talking to my audience and making them do things, and pulling them into the spectacle I am trying to create.  In my reality show and my guerrilla performances, I’m interested in casting people as unsuspecting characters in my commentary.

I wanted to find a way to thank Wong for taking time out of her life to answer these questions for me. And because I am a broke eighteen-year old who only knows how to draw crude doodles and write basic sentences I decided to end this post by gifting her a piece of fan art. Enjoy this doodle of Wong running away from an explosion that she may or may not have caused in a 007-like fashion.

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Wong. James Wong.

 

I also encourage everyone to visit Wong’s website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter! You should also watch her episode of I’m Asian American And… because it’s well worth your time.

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  • Adriane

    Best thing we’ve ever posted. Ever.

  • Dakotah

    This is so fantastic! “Each person’s body is ‘coded’ with markers of ‘value’ and ‘meaning’…” Wow, this really put a lot that is so hard to grasp into words. We need more like this on AGT. And the drawings are fabulous too!

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