Ping Chong: Intents and Purposes
Innovative theater artist Ping Chong has approached his life’s work with unrelenting intensity.
Ping Chong is a multidisciplinary creator of performance and installation art, known for his collaborative work Undesirable Elements, which explores culture and identity through scripts based on interviews within selected communities.
Born in Toronto, Canada, in 1946 to Chinese parents, Chong was raised in Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood. He studied filmmaking and visual arts at the School of Visual Arts and the Pratt Institute in New York City before beginning his performance career as a member of esteemed composer and director Meredith Monk’s The House Foundation.
He created his first independent work, Lazarus, in 1972, and founded Ping Chong and Company in 1975. The company has since created over 100 original productions and performed at venues across the globe. Chong received the National Medal of Arts from President Obama in 2014 for his “innovative performances [exploring] race, history, technology, and art.”
Most of Ping Chong’s early life in the 1950s took place in one stretch of New York City: two blocks on Bayard Street in Chinatown.
Ping Chong: My public school was there, my parent’s business, a cafe, a little cafe was there and across the street was where we lived. So that was my life.
He eventually moved away from this small world, but when he would return as a grownup, he was often surprised by his own reaction to how the place had changed.
Chong: Between ’65 and the eighties, Chinatown started to change. And in the eighties, I went into a store and I asked for something and they didn’t speak Cantonese and I was shocked. You have this sense of territory I guess. This is the Chinatown I grew up with forever and ever and ever. And now it’s going, going, going. It’s not gone yet, but it’s going. It was just shocking but then you put two and two together and say, well, the world doesn’t ever stay the same now does it? It’s a hard thing to deal with. I’m not a person who adjusts to change immediately. It’s hard. I find change hard.
But difficulty has never really deterred Ping Chong from pushing through the inevitable changes of life. Born in Canada, his family immigrated to the United States when he was just four months old.
Chong: On my entry document, under profession was written the word “infant.”
And the living conditions in Chong’s childhood home were, at best, cramped.
Chong: We lived in an apartment which had one bedroom where my parents were, a closet almost where my two sisters had a bunk bed. My brothers, sister, and not myself, we slept in the living room. I had one corner about the size of this table on top of the air conditioner, which was my space.
The responsibilities of family extended beyond that tiny dark apartment. Chong’s father also had to support his first wife and kids in China, as well as his brother’s family. So young Ping and his siblings worked in the family’s Chinatown cafe. But Chong wanted out. He had dreams of a bigger life. And these visions often presented themselves cinematically.
Chong: I needed to create worlds for myself to escape other things, and I’m not sure why I needed to escape, but it was important to escape. And film, obviously, to escape into film takes you out of your immediate situation. What I love about film is that it’s about light. For me, light is mystical. I mean, if the light’s streaming into the room in some way, it’s almost a mystical experience for me.
And so Chong began studying film and graphic design at the School of Visual Arts and the Pratt Institute in New York City. But it wasn’t a storybook escape. He was the only Chinese student and he still worked in the family cafe, commuting back and forth between home and school. He didn’t connect with the other students and felt alienated. It wasn’t until after he graduated, that he met the teacher who would change his life. An old schoolmate was taking a class with the celebrated composer and theater director Meredith Monk, and invited Chong to come along.
Chong: I took the class with her for a semester and at the end of the semester, Meredith said, “You’re a good mover.” And I didn’t know what she was talking about. I had never done dance or anything before in my life. That’s why I took the class. And she said, “Come to my workshop.” And I went, “Oh, okay.” And didn’t go. But I happened to live three blocks from her loft where she taught her classes. And one day I ran into her on Houston at the corner of Houston and Broadway and she said, “Oh, hi. How come you didn’t come to my class?” And I went…And she said, “Come, I have class tonight.” So when it was time, I walked around the block four times before I could get the courage to go up to the class and then that’s why I’m here today. It’s one of those fateful moments. And so when people say, “Do you believe in fate?” I say, “Yes, I do,” because that changed my life.
So Chong jumped from film to theater and began using live performance to explore the sense of isolation he had felt in his early life. One of his first original productions follows the biblical character Lazarus famously raised from the dead to 1970s, New York. A few years later, Chong created, Fear and Loathing in Gotham which follows a white detective pursuing an Asian serial killer. The piece has no dialogue and many scenes are acted out through shadow play.
Chong: The first part of my career all had to do with resolving the sense of alienation, the sense of being an outsider, the sense of disconnection. So at the beginning, otherness meant resolving how I was gonna deal with this sense of alienation. But over time I realized otherness was a very vast theme that wasn’t just about me, but had much more universal application.
Exploring a more universal sense of alienation would mean growing his personal palette of expression. So in his late twenties, he put together a theater group, Ping Chong and Company, to begin expanding the scope and reach of his work. Since then, the company has created more than 100 original productions that have constantly sought to expand theater beyond the playhouse.
Chong: Our partnerships were unorthodox often. They weren’t with theaters necessarily. We had partnerships with a multicultural therapy center, trauma center. I don’t think that many companies can say we’ve played a 2000 seat opera house and a beauty parlor.
One of Chong’s longest running collaborations is Undesirable Elements. Company members travel to different communities and interview people who live there asking questions such as, where is home for you? What is your earliest memory? And what are some assumptions that people make about you? The production is then based in part on the answers to these questions and the interviewees form part of the cast.
Chong: When I started doing Undesirable Elements, I didn’t realize how emotional it could be for people. And after a while, I always had a box of Kleenex on the table ’cause I knew that people were just gonna, without even realizing they were gonna start crying, talking about stuff.
AJC: And was it that you were asking them questions that nobody else had ever asked or maybe they’d never asked themselves?
Chong: Both. Sometimes both. Sometimes no one’s ever asked them these questions and sometimes they were…And the thing about me is that I’m not afraid to go in. I’m not afraid to push the boundaries because I always go, if people don’t wanna tell me they’ll tell me to back off. And also if I feel that they’re fragile, I will pull back. I feel today, there’s a lot of touchy feely stuff about, oh, you can’t do that, you can’t talk about that. It might upset somebody. And I go, well, then that’s not art.
In 2014, Chong received the National Medal of Arts. In his remarks at the award ceremony, President Barack Obama cited Chong’s innovative performances, exploring race, history, technology, and art to challenge our understanding of humanity in the modern world. But Chong also sees the limits of how far he can stretch that understanding in a world evolving faster than he can.
Chong: I’ve said often that I’m a 20th century man and not a 21st century man. And I’m more and more inept dealing with the 21st century. It is a very different world and it’s changing rapidly on the technological level, on a social level and so on and so forth that I just don’t want to negotiate that anymore. There was a scholar at Kent State who wrote a book about my work and she wrote in the intro or preface or whatever it was, she said that I had done more work than any other Asian American artist. I had produced more work. And that made me tired. That was the first time it occurred to me that in fact, I had been going full tilt for almost 50 years. And I would be producing three or four works a year, which I didn’t think was anything strange, but it is strange because it is a lot of work and it’s exhausting.
For the last decade, Chong has been cutting back on his workload and preparing for retirement. Slowing down has opened new avenues for connection. Throughout the pandemic for instance, he says, he’s been able to get closer to his family through weekly video calls. He’s also been reflecting on his early life and that fateful moment at the corner of Houston and Broadway.
Chong: I often wondered what would have happened if I hadn’t gone up there that day. And so now in retirement, I go, now I’m gonna pick up where I left off before I met Meredith. That’s sort of the feeling I have. What’s gonna happen at this point? Obviously I can’t start a new career, but it is a question of what is this next part of my life? That’s an interesting question to me. What is this next part?
As for many, change can be hard for Ping Chong, but he also accepts that it’s inevitable. Whether it’s a family crossing a border, a young man escaping the confines of his neighborhood or a chance encounter on the street, he’s learned that navigating change often means pushing forward into uncertainty, always ready to embrace the unknown.