paper son

<<written & performed by byron yee>>

Contra Costa Times, Tuesday, January 12, 1999

Cultural journey unfolds in 'Paper Son'


Comedy show follows one man's path to accepting his family's Chinese heritage


By Pat Craig, Times Staff Writer

Like most children of immigrants, Byron Yee wasn't particularly interested in his ethnic heritage nor, in those prediversity days, was he encouraged to look into it.

This was America; he was an American; and that was basically all he needed to know.  He was a Chinese-American kid in Oklahoma, doing what he could to be an all-American boy, and without realizing it, gathering a treasure trove of material for the comedy he'd do when he graduated from college and couldn't find a job.

It was Yee's comedy that eventually brought him to San Francisco and, later, face to face with his own distant past.

All that and more is packed in a funny, touching and charming one-man show, "Paper Son," in which Yee traces the journey that eventually provided him a relationship with his Chinese Immigrant father, something he avoided when his dad was alive.

Yee quickly puts his comedy chops to work, reviewing the first 28 years of his life where he did everything he could to not be Chinese to his arrival in San Francisco, where his heritage hit him squarely between the eyes.

There are two incidents Yee sees as turning points: being called to an audition for "Grumpier Old Men," where he was asked to speak in a broken-English Chinese accent, the accent of his father and another time when an elderly Chinese women began animatedly talking to him Cantonese.

It turned out the woman was simply asking for the correct time, but Yee found himself adrift in a sea of faces that looked remarkably like his own, yet he had not a clue to what they were all about.  He was "ABC: American-born Chinese, a banana, yellow on the outside, white inside."

Not long afterward he found himself on Angel Island, the Ellis Island of the West, where, for the half-century before World War II, after the Chinese Exclusion Act, all immigrants, who were mostly Asian passed through to enter the United States.

And all their records were now part of the national archives -- Mr. Yee, meet your father, and your grandfather, or uncle; it was always difficult to tell in the time of "paper sons," when money paid in China could get your name on another family's immigration papers as a son.

What follows is a fascinating story on his father's coming to America at a time when there were maybe 60,000 Chinese people in the United States.  The immigration centers often become prisons for the immigrants, whose painful poems are still on the walls of the Angel Island barracks, where some found themselves spending years.

  For Yee, the story was made up of jigsaw-puzzle parts that completed a bridge with the past, that reintroduced him to his father as a man with passion guts and a history that went well beyond the house in Oklahoma and the job as an engineer for Exxon.

It is a story quite familiar to anyone who is the child of all but the most recent immigrants.  The details may be different and the heritage may encompass a different culture, but the essential nature of the discovery is the same.

At some point, clues are unearthed that lead to other lands and other stories, and it quickly becomes clear that your heritage didn't begin at a border crossing or Angel Island or Ellis Island.  Suddenly, the cultural thread runs well beyond the horizon, and the bond between your three-bedroom, two-bath present becomes linked to a past, an ethnicity, a heritage, and the picture becomes more detailed, like the large family group picture that begins and ends Yee's show.

Only, in the end, Yee can put names with the long-ago faces.

And that makes all the difference in the world.

The show is an emotional experience that gently blossoms and transcends one family and one ethnicity to become a stirring universal tale.

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