David Henry Hwang in Conversation with Ping Chong

By David Henry Hwang, Ping Chong, and Shannon Lee
December 20, 2022

Lauded as one of the most significant multidisciplinary artists in the nation, theater artist Ping Chong announced his retirement from his position as Founder and Artistic Director of his company earlier this year. For nearly half a century, Chong’s genre-defying performances expanded the vocabulary of NYC’s avant-garde in order to better understand themes of otherness and identity. In his best-known series, “Undesirable Elements” for example, Chong explores how culture, identity, and politics become distilled into personal histories. By interviewing individuals within specific communities, Chong’s process is one that honors the profound and surreal poetics of the everyday.

His accolades include a National Medal of Arts, a Guggenheim fellowship, numerous National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a Bessie Award for Outstanding Creative Achievement, and an OBIE Award for Sustained Achievement of Direction, among many, many others.

In celebration of his extraordinary career, Tony, Grammy, and three-time OBIE Award-winning playwright, librettist, screenwriter, and professor David Henry Hwang sat down with Chong to discuss his life, his approach to creating groundbreaking theater, advice for the current generation of artists in NYC, and what’s next after retirement.

David Henry Hwang: Hi! Good seeing you.
Ping Chong: Likewise!
DHH: I’m glad you’ve continued to be really productive during the pandemic. This transition you’re making toward your retirement is a great moment to look at where you come from and what you’ve achieved. But we’re going to start at the very beginning. I know that your parents were Chinese opera performers, and I believe your grandparents were as well.
PC: My grandfather’s generation and my mother’s side of the family all were involved in Cantonese opera in one way or another, whether they were on stage or backstage. My grandfather was actually a director-librettist and my father was also a director-librettist. My mother was a Chinese opera singer. Her father was a major figure in Cantonese opera.
DHH: What is your family’s immigration story?

PC: My parents immigrated separately and met in the U.S. They both arrived in the early 1930s in San Francisco at the turn of the century. There were something like five Chinese opera theaters out there at the time, seating up to 1,000 people. I mean, it’s really kind of amazing that they existed. But by the time they arrived, that scene was starting to diminish. That might have had something to do with the Great Depression. They ended up having to leave. I don’t know exactly whether it was because of immigration reasons, because I don’t even know how they stayed. But they had been in San Francisco for quite a long time. My sisters were born in San Francisco.

When they left, they wound up in Vancouver, which I think has the oldest Chinatown in North America. Eventually, they moved to Toronto. That’s where I was born. And then they came to the U.S. as part of a traveling theater company. That’s what it said on their visas. On mine, my occupation was listed as “infant.” I don’t know how they managed to stay here but when they moved to New York, they really couldn’t make a living supporting five kids from Chinese opera. My father also still had another wife in China, who had two kids who he continued to support.

Many of the Chinese opera people who found themselves in New York wound up in the restaurant business. Fortunately, we ate very well. And whenever any Chinese opera troupe came through town, we would always go and have good tickets and all that because we’re this old Chinese Cantonese opera family. But as a kid, I didn’t see western theater until I was in high school. I was seeing Chinese opera, Chinese movies, and western movies, of course, but my first western play was Julius Caesar in high school. So by that time, it was too late. I was not going to be heading in that direction. The roots are too deep, you know?

DHH: Your biographies say you came to New York in 1972. Is that when you came here or is that when you started working?
PC: I started the company in ‘72.
DHH: Before that you were a dancer with Meredith Monk. When did that start?

PC: I should correct myself. I didn’t start a company in ‘72. I did my first piece in '72. I didn’t officially become a nonprofit till '75. In 1970, I met Meredith. She was teaching at NYU and at the end of class, she came up to me and said, “You’re a good mover, come to my personal workshop.” And I didn’t go. I didn’t know what she was talking about; I’m a good mover? I had no idea what that meant. I had no history in dance at all. I studied film at film school.

Anyway, she invited me. I didn’t go but I happened to live in the same neighborhood that she lived in and ran into her. She said, “Why didn’t you come to my class? I have a class tonight. Come!” That day, I walked around the block four times to get up the courage to go take the class. And the rest is history. It’s because of Meredith that I’m here today. She invited me to join the company around 1971.

That was when I had my first performing experience, which was major because it wasn’t dance. It was more like performance theater. It was the wild days of the New York avant-garde. I was in a four-hour extravaganza with four different locations and over 80 people, horses, motorcycles, flares, bikers, a boat on a lake with performers painted red. I mean, it was wild. In a funny way, it wasn’t that far from my roots because it wasn’t realism. It was a highly stylized performance form. Almost immediately after I joined the company, I started doing my own work. My first piece, which I’ve revived and updated as the closing piece as Artistic Director of my company, originally cost $100 to make. This was New York when it was a much more artist friendly city. You could really survive on a nickel.

DHH: You said you graduated in film but you also were studying visual arts at Pratt, right?
PC: I studied visual arts at Pratt for the two years that preceded film school. I also went to the High School of Art and Design, which happened to have a very progressive dance department. That school is still there on 57th. In 1964, when I was in high school, 57th Street was where all the art galleries were. I got to know the avant-garde in the art world which was starting to do artwork that included media. That was completely new.
DHH: So you founded the company in ‘75. I believe you’re the only person who’s gotten a National Endowment for the Arts grant in four different disciplines. And it makes sense, given the multi-disciplinary work that you do and your training. But when you founded the company, did you make work through a method that’s similar to the way you’ve made it over the course of your career or has the way that you make work changed?
PC: The earliest work was what I would have called visual theater, or imagistic theater. It was really closer to the visual arts. It relates to theater only in the sense that it was a highly stylized form. It was coming from my visual arts roots and my film roots. From the beginning, I was using media which was pretty new back then. For me, coming from film, the idea of using sound as an integral part of a performance was natural for me, because I can’t imagine not using sound. That’s come a long way since; now you can get a degree and all that stuff. Back in the day there were no design degrees for projection design and for media design.
DHH: How do you put a show together? How would you describe your method?

PC: In the beginning, I was pretty autocratic because I was coming from a visual arts background. With visual art, you have a canvas and you put something on it and that’s how I was treating the actors. For the first decade, the works were much more visually oriented instead of textual. There were some movement and dance elements. When the ‘80s started, I moved towards theater more in the traditional sense of using actors to act. That was a time where I was exploring how much media and visual art relates to the performer on stage. Can a piece be largely nonverbal and be mostly movement-based theater?

By the end of the first decade, we were devising together, because I didn’t know anything about writing a script. I had a company of performers; some were dancers, some were actors, some were mimes. It was kind of a mix of all these different performance art forms. They were the ones who helped me evolve my vocabulary. I would say the first decade was very clearly visual theater. The second decade was a mix of visual theater with theater-theater, so to speak. But the theater-theater portion was almost always stylized, still. It wasn’t realism. I almost never did realism. Maybe one or two works. I have done shows that are relatively realistic where there are realistic scenes. But it’s still very stylized in terms of the shaping or structure of the work.

DHH: I didn’t come to New York until the early ‘80s so I only started to encounter your work in that period. I saw Nuit Blanche and Nosferatu and your projects with Muna Tseng because Muna and I had worked together. I was discovering you as an avant-garde theater artist. One of the things that I noticed was that there was always what today might be called a social justice element. You’ve been very aware of political issues and injustice and what we would now call BIPOC unity (which maybe then was called third world unity). Where do you feel that comes from?
PC: It’s hard to say where a sense of the world not being a very just place began for me, but it began very early. As far back as junior high school, I think. It was just a part of my being. I can’t really pinpoint exactly where that begins.
DHH: I also came into contact with your work through the “Undesirable Elements” series, specifically the AAPI one. It’s not traditional narrative theater, but it is certainly text-based. For those who don’t know about that series, can you talk a little bit about it, where the idea came from, and how it all got started?

PC: I’ve been doing that one for over 30 years now. There have been over 65 different productions of it. It began as an installation at a gallery in New York called Artist’s Space, which still exists. They invited me to do an installation there when I was still working as a visual artist. This was in the Reagan years. I had said, “When Reagan comes in, that’s the beginning of intolerance in this country. This is when the right is going to rise.” This was also during the height of the AIDS epidemic. The gallery had a rotating monthly installation featuring work dealing with AIDS and I created a work called, “A Facility for the Channeling and Containment of Undesirable Elements.”

Several months before that, I was in Amsterdam teaching an intensive, radical stage design class. The students were international but they all spoke English or understood English. We would have lunch together and get drinks and when we drank enough, people would start speaking their own language. I wanted to use language as a strategy to remind white America that there are other worlds. “Undesirable Elements” was an opportunity to do a show with multiple languages. I was just interested in the music of language. When the curator at Artist’s Space asked if I would consider doing a performance within my installation, I thought, “here’s a chance for me to try this idea out of doing a performance with multiple languages.”

That’s how it actually began. The first performance was in the installation. It was a 40-minute prototype. When I did that first production I was flabbergasted. I didn’t know what I was doing. I had never done a show that was so textual for one thing. There’s no action. Everybody sits in a chair and talks. But it’s amazing how successful that project has been. The people in it were telling their own stories. They were not actors. They were themselves. The power comes from that. I am retiring as Artistic Director of Ping Chong company but I’m working on a new piece, Undesirable Elements: Ukraine. It’s been an intense and incredible experience. I’ve already interviewed all the people that will be in it.

DHH: Are you going over there?
PC: They’re all here. The Ukrainian Museum may be presenting it in May. We’re going to do a trial run at the New School because there’ll be a symposium on “Undesirable Elements” there in February. The cast consists of people who were born here and someone who actually has a firsthand, eyewitness account of the war. He’s here not as an immigrant but is here to raise funds and consciousness around the war. We have a very diverse group of people, but most of them are musicians. So it’s wonderful. There will be wonderful music in the show.
DHH: I want to ask about your sense of yourself as an Asian American, because certainly when you began, the term was not really in use. That sense of a pan-Asian identity was not a widely used idea. How did you perceive yourself when you were starting out as an artist?

PC: I grew up in an insular community, which was Chinatown. My culture was completely Chinese, except for whatever was on television. My elementary school was probably around 98% Chinese; there were maybe three Italians in my class. I went to junior high school right across Canal Street in Little Italy where it was mostly split between Chinese and Italian students. That was where I made my first white friend. He was Welsh American and was always getting beaten up. I tended to gravitate toward people who didn’t belong.

When I started at the High School of Art and Design, I definitely experienced culture shock. I was the only Asian in the whole high school of 500 kids. By the time I left high school, there were four Chinese kids. And then I went to Pratt Institute, where again, I was completely alienated. In high school for some reason I didn’t feel it as intensely. But when I was at Pratt, that was when that feeling of being Other became very heavy for me…very heavy.

I lasted two years there. I was very unhappy. I decided to transfer to the School of Visual Arts to study film where I was a couple of years older than the other kids. I think I had a little more confidence because of that. But still, when I left that and met Meredith Monk, I still felt like an outsider. Meredith motley crue consisted of all kinds of strange people and even there I didn’t feel like I completely belonged. I just felt like I was standing aside a little bit during those first 10 years working with Meredith. She was very welcoming, but it’s just that I didn’t know where I belonged because I had left Chinatown and I was in this world that I wasn’t 100% comfortable in.

During my high school years, I was acculturating myself to white values. As a Chinese kid, if you go out with friends, you take them all out and you pay for them, if you can. I grew up working, so I had money. My parents paid me for my work. But that’s not the way it works in white culture. There were all these things I was trying to learn.

DHH: Were you around other Asian avant-garde artists like Nam June-Paik or Yoko Ono?
PC: When I met Meredith, her world was all the Fluxus artists like Charlotte Mormon and all these conceptual art people, which, again, I didn’t actually relate to. I was feeling very alone. But the only Asian artist who came through town and was really hot for a moment was Winston Tong.
DHH: Oh, yeah! I really liked Winston.
PC: I reached out to him but he was such a hot number at that time, we didn’t manage to get together. At the time when I was getting started in 1972/73, Basement Workshop was also starting. Somewhere around that time, I met up with Jessica Hagedorn, Faye Chiang, and Danny Yung. But before then, I was kind of in a vacuum. I didn’t really have many Chinese or Asian artists that I connected with. It took me a while before that changed.
DHH: You’ve talked about how you didn’t want to have a family, but you did have a company. And I think it’s fair to say that you have a lot of artistic children. You’ve done a lot of mentoring. What do you tell young artists nowadays, particularly in New York?
PC: I actually think they might want to think about going somewhere else. It’s so, so hard to do what we did back in the day in New York now. I mean, if you’re willing to really suffer, then stay. If you really want to stick it out, stick it out. But so much has changed in New York. Back in the day, in the ‘70s into the beginning of the '80s, there was a community in the East Village of artists. You’d walk down the street and run into everybody; the dancers, the actors, the visual artists. Starting in the early '80s, everybody got kicked out. A lot of people in the '90s started moving to Philadelphia but Philadelphia is a very small city. It’s very hard to have anything more than a brief run. Mexico City was at one time the center of great artistic ferment. It might need to be someplace else in this country.
DHH: I live in Brooklyn, but now that’s expensive. It’s also just harder to stage something, figure out the budget, raise the money to do it, and then get attention. I’m particularly interested in that last part. Like, why has it become so much harder for young artists to get reviewed and get audiences than it used to be?
PC: The newspapers seem to be less supportive. I don’t know why that is. But the other thing is that the theaters in New York are having trouble retaining their technical crews because the cost of living is too high. The theaters have not necessarily been able to meet the salary that will make it possible for their talent to stay in New York.
DHH: Do you think young people should self produce?
PC: Everything goes in cycles, right? When Ellen Stewart and Joe Cino started their little theaters back in the day, it was no picnic. Ellen was chased from one end of town to another and almost had to go to jail for trying to start something in theater. Ed Koch was her mortal enemy. If you knew what they went through back in the day, it wasn’t any easier. And I don’t think anybody was reviewing them either. Of course, back in that time there was the Village Voice and Soho Weekly News but I don’t think there was much in the way of reviewing. Sam Shepard got his start at Caffe Cino. It would be interesting to know whether they actually got noticed at all back then.
DHH: Let’s talk about your future. Why did you decide this was a good moment to make a professional transition? And obviously, you’re still working which is great.
PC: I had actually decided that when I got to 70, I would retire. And then 70 rolled around and I still had the energy to continue. When the pandemic hit I said, “Okay, it is time to retire.” For me personally, too much was changing. I’m not a 21st century man, I’m a 20th century man. This is not my world anymore. I don’t really feel connected to the new technocrats. It’s not my world and I don’t relate to it. I feel much more connected to a more humanist tradition, which I don’t think is present now. I’m also a New Yorker so I take personally what’s happening in the city itself. It used to be a place where a mom-and-pop store could exist. My family ran a little cafe and raised six kids and sent them all to school. You can’t do that now. I want to take a real break. The other thing I should mention is that I feel like it’s a very ungenerous time on both the Left and on the Right. I can’t deal with that.
DHH: Do you think you might go back to working in visual art or even film?
PC: I think that it’s all unknown right now. I have been writing reflections and essays over the years, when I’ve had the time. The other thing is that I’m 76 years old. For me, the time right now is about putting my house in order. I have two older sisters who are in their 80s. They live in the same building I live in and I’m very close to them. They’re gonna be needing me. It’s time for finishing things up. That’s the way I see it.
DHH: Does that mean you’ll have time to have a drink sometime?
PC: Oh, always.

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