Review: ‘Paper Son’ unwraps true identity
Yee, born Chinese in Wichita, Kan., grew up in Oklahoma City, which he considers his hometown, and now lives in Los Angeles. “Paper Son,” his one-man show at the Gascon Theatre Center in Culver City, is about his ethnic identity and the American identity.
Like any stereotypical Asian student, Yee did well in school and got a degree from Oklahoma University in chemical engineering. Yee’s day job is as a computer technician, but his love is stand-up comedy and acting.
He said he’s staying in Los Angeles “my last move,” and looking for parts, which has been tough. “As a comedian, I’m not a traditional Asian type,” he said.
There are currently a lot of Asian gang leader roles. “But I don’t do kung-fu and I don’t speak Chinese, so I’m out of luck,” he said.
Yee started doing stand-up in college in Oklahoma City. He gravitated to San Francisco and headlined at the Holy City Zoo, where the likes of Robin Williams broke into comedy. He soon was performing all over the country and studying acting.
The defining moment in Yee’s life, and in “Paper Son,” was when he was called to Los Angeles to audition for a part as a “wacky Chinese restaurant owner.”
The portrayal of this event is the funniest bit in “Paper Son.” Yee doesn’t have a trace of an accent. He had to go to Chinatown in San Francisco and tape record a Chinese waiter so he could learn an ethnic Chinese accent. The audition was another farce.
After the audition, trying to be an ethnic stereotype, Yee ended up back in his San Francisco apartment, feeling a little sick. He had sold himself as a “ching-chong Chinaman.”
These days Yee is philosophical about Hollywood’s stereotyping. “Hey, I’ll do anything for a buck. If “Bonanza” came back, I’d be Hop Sing II in a minute.”
But back in San Francisco, the sick feeling wouldn’t go away. He wandered to Chinatown to witness a Chinese New Year celebration. In the midst of his ethnicity he was an outsider.
Yee dug deep into this identity crisis. What he found was painful and disturbing. He had been running away from his heritage, trying desperately to assimilate, to be as white as possible.
“Paper Son” tells the story of how Yee got his identity back. The fact that he had to lose it is an indictment of a society that judges people on rigid standards for beauty, correctness and which categorizes Chinese people, for one, as small-time merchants, brainy scientists and bucktooth imbeciles.
Yee’s search for his past turned up the underlying story of “Paper Son.” It has to do with his immigrant father and uncle, the Angel Island (in San Francisco Bay) Immigration Station, his Chinese mother, their struggle and a lie.
It has to do with the racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Yee’s story of growing up Chinese in Middle America.
Yee is a good storyteller and was happy to discover he had a great story to tell — his parents’ story.
He plays his father, mother, various relatives, a Chinese restaurant guy, federal officials and himself. His performance is, at turns, funny, insightful, dramatic, tender and full of pathos. Those acting lessons came in handy.
He had the sensitivity to study how Chinese people really talk. But when he is portraying his father speaking to his mother in Chinese, there is no accent. This makes sense and helps us see the characters behind the stereotypes.
And that is what “Paper Son” is about, identity and stereotype — wacky restaurant owner stereotypes and real people bent out of shape by the pressure of living in a foreign culture.
The set and production of “Paper Son” are elegantly simple and the Gascon Center Theatre is well suited to the show. The set is dressed with poems Yee discovered at Angels Island, where in the 1930s white immigrants were processed in a day or two, but Chinese could be held for two years awaiting a decision.
The poems were carved into walls of this detention area. One of them reads: “Instead of remaining a citizen of China, I willingly became an ox. I intended to come to America to make a living.
“The Western-styled buildings are lofty, but I have not the luck to live in them. How was anyone to know, that my dwelling place would be a prison.”
Byron Yee has brought us to this poem and the deep longing that inspired it. He has looked into history and his own life and freed himself from such a prison. Maybe we, too, can be free of racism and free to be ourselves.
“Paper Son” plays at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 23 at the Gascon Center Theatre, in the old Helms Bakery building, 8737 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tickets are $22. Reservations and information: 310-428-6502.
Douglas Green is a
copy editor for the Daily Breeze.
Publish Date:October 3, 2003