Arts Listings

Impact Presents ‘Ching Chong Chinaman’

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Thursday September 11, 2008 - 09:59:00 AM

Hedging, when I saw that Impact’s new production, Ching Chong Chinaman, was written by Lauren Yee, a San Francisco native, I said to myself, “It isn’t Sarah Silverman, so I guess I can review it.” 

But what’s wicked about the play isn’t the derisive title. It’s the satiric results of assimilation and a left-handed longing for tradition—any tradition—in a white bread (not white rice, though daughter Desdemona [Cindy Im] might opt for brown), chopstick-challenged suburbanite Chinese-American family, harboring an illegal alien as an indentured servant to teenage son Upton Sinclair Lewis Wong (Arthur Keng), who justifies exploitation by citing the Transcontinental Railway, giving Jin Qiang (the “Ching Chong” of the title) his math homework, while practicing up video games for a Xmas-time tournament in Seoul. 

It turns out to be a wild ride—fast, furious and very funny—as the well-matched cast of six takes it around the bend, ending up with Yuletide in Mexico over tequila, in search of supposed Hispanic roots dug up on the web, a baby on the way and further unsettling revelations of who begat whom, as well as championship dance routines to “Hernando’s Hideaway” as well as James Brown, featuring math-challenged Jin Qiang (Sung Min Park) and occupationally handicapped housewife mom Grace (Lisa Kang). 

As father, whose self-described job is keeping everyone happy, Ed (Dennis Yen) puts it perfectly when his daughter laments that her Princeton application may be trashed by the latest cross-ethnic revelation: “Who knows the difference? Nowadays, we’re all Asian!” 

There’s a wealth of throwaways adding to the hilarity, from offhandly camp Chinese Opera gestures to “Frosty the Snowman” in Cantonese, to daughter Desi’s reaction to the heartwarming angst after watching a DVD of Joy Luck Club: “Dad, why didn’t you ever tell me? Exactly what I need for my Princeton application!” 

Her search for her ancestors’ culture (read “hardship”) as antidote to her pampered upbringing pushes the limit over and over, as she snaps at her parents not to talk with Jin Qiang (”It’s insulting!”) to bursting out with, “If you disowned me and I had cancer, I could be myself!” 

And there’s much in the way of funny sight gags. The pacing sometimes syncopates physical humor with skewed lines that become silly non sequiturs, like “Time is money, not socks!” 

The cast, both as ensemble and in each player’s performance, shows verve and invention, with energetic and savvy direction by another, not so clueless Desdemona, surname Chiang, one of Impact’s artistic associates, who’s helmed a couple other fast-paced comedies in La Val’s basement for them. 

Entering the action at all angles throughout the show is Pearl Wong, playing countless roles, from an adopted Korean orphan to Jin Qiang’s mother, whom he calls (she’s apparently in customer service or phone sex) to report on his American family: “They eat their food with this sweet-and-sour sauce—only not sour; they wear their shoes indoors,” to which she replies, “Why? To track in the dirt? Is this family really Chinese?” 

On all levels, it’s an exhilarating send-up of that Yankee mock-up and fixation, Tradition. As one character says, “I love Christmas. It’s so American!” 

Even Colin Trevor’s sound design proves hilarious. There are little touches, too, in set (Edward Ross), costume (Choco Couture/Sarah Pugliaresi), lighting (Kelly Kunaniac) and props (C3/Joshua Schisser). And I promised to mention the new seats! Impressive, and a relief to those who’ve braved padded folding chairs in the past. As Steve, at the ticket counter asserted, “We insist you bring food in ... and now the seats are drip dry, too!” 


Presented by Impact Theatre at 8 p.m. Thursday–Saturday through Oct. 11 at  

La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave. 

$10-$17. 464-4468.