Kristina Wong‘s Big Bad Chinese Mama was one of the raddest Asian/gender studies projects ever. The zine-flavored, post-Riot Grrrl website gave the Mad magazine treatment to LA Weekly‘s personal ads, and has proceeded to deflate the erections of countless Internet surfers around the world. Since then, Kristina has gone legit. Sort of. She receives grants, hogs stages, and wins awards as a one-woman show/wrecking crew. Wong Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is her best-known piece, covering the crowd-pleasing topics of depression and suicide (which are disproportionately popular with Asian women). The performance has been captured on film and will premiere at the Burbank International Film Festival on Thursday, September 15–the same day she returns from a solo backpacking trip though Southeast Asia. I intruded on her getaway with some quick questions about the event…
MW: One of the best parts of doing a live show–especially a one-person one–is being able to fine-tune it to your audience. How did you set up an “ultimate” performance of Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to preserve in concert film format?
KW: We filmed it in late 2008 during the middle of a three-week run I did in L.A. for a live audience. I had been touring it for about two years at that point. When I first started the show, it scared me and there were points when I wasn’t sure if I was going to get through it. Most of the jokes in the show were things that were refined over dozens of shows with a live audiences. By the time we got to shoot it, I really felt like a rodeo champ.
As for “ultimate” performance, Mike Closson (the director) and I met over hundreds of hours trying to figure out if we should rewrite the show for camera, shoot on location, etc., but when it came down to it, the show was made for a theater and the content would change if we rewrote it as a screenplay. My patience was waning and we didn’t want to wait any longer for a perfect time. Perfect was now. And “now” was 2008!
MW: Does having the movie bring any sense of closure? I know you still performances booked!
KW: Into the fourth year of touring this show I realized all my friends were getting married, cranking out kids and buying houses while I was putting on the same costume and doing my depression show over and over again on the road, talking to strangers about the heavy topic of suicide, and then returning home to the same post- college apartment in West L.A. It wasn’t a great feeling; it was an existential crisis. I began to wonder if I’d still be touring this show 20 years from now because, perhaps, it was the only thing I was good at doing and the only thing people would pay to see.
But now, it is great to have a DVD/film archive that can now go to places where my live show cannot. And now I’m doing things like traveling the the world and moving outside the dark world of Asian American depression and suicide. I still have shows scheduled this fall at Stanford and Virginia Tech, and I look forward to both of them, but I am glad I to have new shows and projects to keep my mind moving. Was it Einstein who said the definition of insanity was doing the same thing again and again expecting a different result?
MW: I know you taped commentary for the DVD. Was it weird to comment on yourself? Was it kind of like looking into a hall of mirrors in any way?
KW: It’s a lot harder (and weirder) than it seems to talk over a DVD. We had start over about three times because I’d fumble and panic that I fumbled. It’s like doing a duet with yourself. Personally, I think that it’s enough to watch me do the show on DVD. For those who want the true Wong Overload, the commentary track is for you!
MW: While you are unhinged in Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, you’re pretty refined compared to your Big Bad Chinese Mama days. Do you ever look back at your old work and wonder how the heck you did that?
KW: I think there was a compliment tucked into this question…. “Refined,” huh? I could show you over a few beers how while my work has become more refined, my lifestyle has not! I only hope that my work is evolving, though. I get bored easily and would be annoyed (as would my audience) if I was churning out the same “the man is evil, so beat up white men” work year after year. I’ve been offered opportunities to repeat the Big Bad Chinese Mama person, but I can barely stomach the idea of doing that unless I’m getting paid a crapload. Nope! I must evolve and do work about cats!
MW: Are there people who are afraid of you because of your work?
KW: Yes, I am still single.
MW: Right now, you’re backpacking throughout Southeast Asia. I don’t want to get into that because I’m sure it will become a future piece, but what do you tell people when they ask what you do for a living?
KW: You know, the difference between traveling and being in my life in L.A. is that the travelers I meet are much less obsessed with talking about what we do for a living. I think it’s because we are so overwhelmed by the beauty of our environment and the task of travel. It’s great to finally be somewhere where I am not my occupation. That was the break I needed the most from America.
And oddly enough, unlike when I travelled in Europe, people don’t ask elaborate questions about my ethnicity or where I’m from “originally.” It could be a language thing but people seem to just accept it when I tell them I am American who is Chinese instead of being insistent that I must be from China. And people don’t bust out horribly pronounced Chinese and Japanese to me to confirm I’m not from China.
MW: What do you have in store for the world premiere gala in Burbank, CA?
KW: Dove apparently has donated $1,000 in chocolate for this reception beforehand (which should be good for depression!) and we have are springing for booze and food at the after party. I’ve also gotten a dress made in Vietnam especially for the premiere and will comb my hair for the first time in months! It’s going to be the best $12 you ever spent!
Buy tickets to Kristina’s premiere/chocolate fest here, and keep your camera phones ready for sightings of Fred Willard, Roger Corman, and other superstars as well.