Acting Up & Acting Out: The Wondrous Work of Kristina Wong

June 15, 2015
kristina-wong-cats
Kristina Wong. And cats.

Kristina Wong (@mskristinawong) has dedicated her life to holding up a mirror to Asian America’s politics, pride and foibles through her work as our community’s foremost contemporary performance artist. Wong has influenced generations of Asian American activists with the range of her work tackling such weighty issues as mental health (in her one-woman show “Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest“) and celebrity obsession (in her ongoing performance piece wherein she appears at public events with hopes of marrying Jeremy Lin).

Wong’s latest show “Wong Street Journal” has its world premiere this week June 17-June 21 in San Francisco as part of the United States of Asian America Festival (link contains full schedule of festival events) hosted by Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center (APICC): tickets are still available here

As someone who tries and fails to be even a fraction as funny as Kristina, I’m always in awe of her work, which is simultaneously hilarious and deeply thought-provoking. I had a chance last week to interview Kristina and learn a little bit about what it takes to “act up” and “act out” from one of my long-standing Asian American feminist sheroes. 

When’s the wedding to Jeremy Lin and am I invited?

It takes money to marry money.  And sadly: Right now, I have not been able to raise the money to get his attention.

Last summer, I tried to raise $5400 on Kickstarter for courtside tickets where I’d show up in a wedding dress, and he would propose on the spot (because how could he resist?). I came up $394 short after a grueling month of cyber beggary and still have no wedding date.

Kristina Wong
Kristina Wong

On a more serious note: You have built a career as Asian America’s foremost performance artist. How did you get into doing this, and what do you hope audiences will take away from your work?

I have three reactions to being called “Asian America’s foremost performance artist.”  One, where do I send the check? Two, there are plenty of other Asian American performance artists before me (check out the work of Denise Uyehara, Jude Narita, Club O’Noodles, Leilani Chan, Alison M. De La Cruz and  Erin O’Brien, for example). Three, owning a title like “performance artist” (which I totally do!) is like saying “I’m Asian America’s foremost loser” because “performance artist” is like the most non-job title someone could dare take on.

I got interested in this line of work in college (UCLA) when I found myself really interested in performance but not as interested in Western style plays where the roles of the actor, the director, and the playwright were mutually exclusive.  Further, the roles available to Asian women — even those roles written by Asian American playwrights — were willowy, non-threatening characters that I was not interested in playing.  I was interested in work where people were working out their pathos in visceral ways on stage. I loved watching graduate students in my World Arts and Cultures department get naked and drool all over themselves while talking about crazy shit in their lives.  I naively watched this and thought, “You mean I can have live therapy on stage, tour the world, and make money at this?  I’m in!”

None of my ideas of what it would mean to be a “professional performance artist” have turned out to be true.  There are many stereotypes of what it means to be a “performance artist”; the worst are those who believe it’s pursed by “people who need attention and/or therapy” and who working their shit out in public. But, actually, it takes so much work and so much craft-honing to actually do this line of work — particularly if you want to do it well enough to be at the caliber where you tour and procure an income.

My work helps me grow in ways that therapy does not. It has allowed me to consider the bigger issues that I grapple with in my life.  And lately, like with my new show (“Wong Street Journal”), I find myself taking on “impossible” topics that have no easy answers.  In my shows (unlike with my shorter form essays) I’m interested in moving past “blaming ‘The Man'”. I want to leave my audiences with a deeper inquiry into issues that really have no easy answers.

Your shows have spanned topics from mental health to sexuality to Asiaphilia to gender roles and more.  In a recent crowd-sourced campaign fundraiser, you described your work as creating a “public spectacle” for the purposes of fomenting discussion. In the past, you have appeared in a wedding dress at Jeremy Lin’s games. You have appeared at speaking engagements dressed as a giant human sized vagina.

Where do you get your inspiration from, and is it challenging to find ways to translate the things you want to talk about into performance art pieces that will create those spectacles?

I have been blessed to have lived in California my whole life, where I get a lot of exposure to creative work by Asian Americans. I think a lot of my work reacts to a certain frustration of seeing Asian American performances, and wanting to see stuff that’s more crazy, more vulnerable, less reductive, less self-victimizing, and which straddles more of the line between public and private space.

Many of the public spectacles I’ve created come from thinking about how to point to the performances that are happening, and that we don’t even realize are happening.  For that reason, red carpet “celebrity” press lines have been my most favorite thing to crash.  I like thinking about what kind of art I’d like to make if I was not of a marginalized identity, and speaking from that perspective in loud and obnoxious ways.

kristina-wong-wedding
Kristina Wong, performing her piece on celebrity obsession and Jeremy Lin.

I’m certainly misread in my work.  I really think about my work in layers but frequently have people reflect back to me something superficial like “oh, you want attention.”  I feel like that sort of superficial dismissal of what I’m trying to do is part of what makes the spectacles so fun.  There will always be people who are really freaked out by me, and others who appreciate what I’m trying to comment on.

Your work involves creating a number of exaggerated public personas that reflect aspects of the AAPI community, and the spectacle of those personas facilitate a conversation around difficult topics. Which is the most fun of your personas to perform?

My running joke is I play a character year round called “Kristina Wong” which is why Halloween has become an unpaid work day for me that I’ve stopped celebrating!

I’m in this new era as an artist where I’m not as interested in my old work and personas, so I can’t even say what persona I liked the most because I have performed those versions of me to death.  I hate to admit this out loud, but the “Kristina Wong Obsessed with Jeremy Lin” persona is actually getting as tiresome to me as it is to some of my audience.  It’s a lot of work to “fake stalk” an NBA player!  Though it did help me “act out” publicly a lot of anxiety I was facing as an unmarried Chinese American “old maid”.

I’m really liking what I’m working on now.  I’m writing more from my life.  I’m very vulnerable about what I’ve done wrong and how I’m doing better.  I’m doing a combination of long form projects like my theater shows but also short form essays and videos that can be pumped out in shorter time frames.  This is what I love the most right now.

You used to blog at BigBadChineseMama back when I first launched my blog, and we were two of the few feminist Asian American sites up at the time.

Tell me a little about the concept of that project and your experiences with the BBCM persona and blog? Do you think you will ever resurrect that site?

The site is still there!  BigBadChineseMama.com exists as an archive.  I won’t blog there again because it sort of feels akin to putting on an outfit from the past that feels dated and doesn’t quite fit.  The site is a faux mail order bride site.  I made that site not so much as a protest to ever abundant presence of Asian pornography sites that I found in college, but because I was tired of going to spoken word performances where people were calling out “the man” but “the man” was not in the room.  I also found it more fun than going to a rally.  In its heyday, BigBadChineseMama.com was successful in intercepting viewers looking for porn.  It was my way of saying to armchair activists, “Look, just tell whoever you have a problem with that you hate them to their face.  Like me.”

I think I promptly went into live performance work in the years after the site went up because so many people misunderstood who I was and what I stood for with that project.  I really wanted to perform for people more and grew tired of keeping up a site.  It was the right decision.  And now I’m back on the web more and tougher than ever.

Kristina Wong
Kristina Wong

Tell me a little bit about your inspiration for Wong Street Journal? Do you think it’s a sort of unexpected shift in topics from what we’ve seen from you in the past?

Yes, this is the first time I’ve created work that is about the rest of the world.  Much of my past work was about issues within the community.

3407808588_fc24be7d41_oAsian America often feels pretty myopic and I was losing my mind after eight years of working on and touring “Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest“. Eight years is a long fucking time to tour a show about depression and suicide among Asian American women.

I decided that I would do a show about the economy and go to Africa to research it because both were topics I knew very little about.  I figured if I am going to live with a show for that long, it might as well be a project that has me learning about something I have no clue about, and that is about exploring how my life intersects those topics.

And, the bigger challenge would be how to make this show funny.

I understand that you traveled to Africa to in part prepare and research for the show. Can you tell us a little bit about what that was like and how that experience appears in the show?

I went to post-conflict Northern Uganda for three weeks in October 2013 and I volunteered with a Microloan organization.  While I was there, I met some guys in the street and recorded a rap album with them.  These songs play on the radio in Northern Uganda and are a living diary of my experience.  They are performed in the show.

I also had the very strange experience of being referred to so frequently as a “Mzungu” or “white woman” that I actually began to believe I was White.  I mean, I felt like such an outsider, so clueless, and such a colonial dick at times, that it was hard to shirk the label.  I really found myself in this weird negotiation of having been someone who writes about marginalized identity in the US, and then as the face of the oppressor / privileged/ rich in Uganda.

Initially, I expected that The Wong Street Journal would be a show about economic theory and larger conceptual ideas around poverty.  I thought it would be an excuse to learn about the stock market, currency and other global systems.  I realized pretty quickly that I couldn’t just use the Uganda experience to talk about global poverty without acknowledging the fundamental inequities of race, class and infrastructure that framed every interaction I had there.  So as a result, the show is both a love letter to the people I met and the experience I had, and it’s also about me learning to work through — rather than around — my own anxieties of privilege and how I benefit from a colonial legacy.

Also, the show is funny.

kristina-wong-money
Kristina Wong, in a promotional photo for “Wong Street Journal”.

I understand that some of the show deals with a more intersectional discussion of racism. Do you think recent events in America (i.e. Ferguson) influenced the show’s concept and writing?

Absolutely.

When I left for Uganda, I had just finished writing an essay for xoJane called “9 Whack Things White Guys Say to Deny Their Asian Fetish“. The essay went viral and led to television appearances, a reality show, and basically catapulted my career. Oddly enough, that essay was really born of my disgust for the Zimmerman acquittal and how sloppy the internet discussions of race were, especially among white people.  Rather than have any critical discussions about benefiting from white privilege, what I witnessed was a lot of comments deflecting from a deeper interrogation of what was really happening.  I witnessed white people talk about how they weren’t racist because they had black friends.  I witnessed white people talking about how they too could have been shot by Zimmerman because of their tattoos (because choosing to get tattooed is the same as being born black in this country?).  It made me realize in my own life how many times I’d challenged white people who are acting out in racist ways, only to have any critical discussion about racial inequity derailed with false equivalencies and self-victimization (e.g. “My childhood was hard”, “I grew up poor”, etc).

I went to Uganda shortly after my viral success and everything flipped. I had to exorcise a lot of my own stereotypes of the African continent and its people, having grown up inundated with 1980’s “Save the Children” commercials, and having those images therefore embedded in my head.

It was also really tricky to be “white” in Uganda, and to grapple with my privilege there.  For me, it brought up bigger questions about the role that Asian Americans have in acknowledging our privilege as a “wedge” between white people and the shared oppressions of people of color, and how we continue to work towards the liberation of black lives — in this country and on this planet.

In a recent essay, you talked about your tension in embracing the identity of comedian, and talked about how your work as a performance artist creates a nuanced and political humor that doesn’t (at least right now) mesh with how you perceive comedians to operate. You also talk about being an essayist.

How would you describe yourself? Why do you think people have described you as a comedian, and do you think this shift in title will change your art? Is there a Kristina Wong: Comedy Central stand-up special coming in the future?

I really owned “performance artist” as a career label in the early part of my career because it was sort of a catch-all job title that encompassed many of the multidisciplinary approaches I had to making work.  It felt safer to identify as a “performance artist” rather than “actress” or “comedian” because when audiences go to see performance art, the bar is pretty low and they already expect to be uncomfortable and bored.  So this allowed me to pleasantly surprise them by being the funniest performance artist in the room.

A lot of my early shows were me satirizing lousy performance art but with political intention which is where the “comedian” label started coming in.  Eventually, I started playing more and more comedy spaces, and it was extremely intimidating.  Those audiences are less patient, more drunk, and aren’t used to being challenged in the same way.  I often have people say things like, “Tell me a joke” or “Why are you offended? You are a comedian” — as if comedians can’t be offended by sexism or racism and have to be on all the time.

I don’t mind being called “comedian” anymore because I think the comedy is changing.  Comedians aren’t just sexist racist dicks making sexist racist jokes.  There are a lot more feminist-centered comedy events.  Storytelling, a more nuanced form of comedy is huge.  There’s a lot of “alt comedy” happening which essentially is like the stuff I was making ten years ago.

I don’t know if this means I have a Comedy Central special coming but there is a lot of good stuff I have in the oven right now…

Don’t leave us hanging! What’s next for Kristina Wong?

Same things as I’ve been doing but just with more joy.

kristina-wong-happy

I’m touring “Wong Street Journal“, and speaking at colleges all over the country.   I’m working on a new play, more essays, more scripts, more comedy material.  I’m a guest professor at the Cal Arts MFA Writing Program in the Fall. And, I’m pitching big things that I can’t go into detail about…!

I’ve pretty much been in this life so long that there’s no turning back now.  I have a confidence about what I’m doing now that I didn’t before, so I’m running with this confidence for as long as it’s here.

If you could give one piece of advice to the next aspiring Kristina Wong, what would it be?

Before you make a show, decide if you want to spend eight years of your life dragging out in public something that can be resolved in two months on a therapist’s couch.

Wong Street Journal” makes its world premiere debut as a full-tech performance this week (June 17-June 21) in San Francisco as part of the United States of Asian America Festival hosted by the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center.

Purchase your tickets for “Wong Street Journal” here and learn more about the USAAF festival here.

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  • Malcolm Shields

    Kristina Wong appearing on the Nightly Show was nice, Here’s hoping she appears on the daily show and I seriously think she’ll get her shot on a major stage

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