Sit, Eat and Chew 五味杂陈 has performances on Saturday and Sunday: October 14 and 15, 2017 at 2pm, 2:45pm, and 3:30pm (each tour is approx. 75 minutes). Tickets are $25 General Admission, $15 Students/Seniors/MOCA members, $10 Chinatown residents, and can be purchased here.
“Chinatown is like a hardcore tonic that shakes up my system–it’s like I still do not know what is inside the bottle or how it came to be, and that makes me want to find out more,” says artist, dancer, and choreographer Mei-Yin Ng.
Her latest show, Sit, Eat and Chew 五味杂陈, is a movement exploration across Chinatown performed by dancers from Ng’s company, as well as participants from a number of Chinatown’s senior communities. Through out the 90-minute performance, tour guides lead the audience members to five distinct Chinatown locations. Ng’s ultimate goal for her piece? An insider’s perspective into the vibrant complexities of the historical neighborhood.
We sat down for a quick Q&A with the artist on her inspirations across Chinatown and beyond.
How did you decide on the five Chinatown locations for the immersive show?
In making this work, I focused on the Chinese proverb–Wǔ Wèi Zá Chén 五味杂陈–which uses the five tastes of cooking (sour, sweet, bitter, spicy and salty) to describe the complex emotions in life’s ups and downs. In Sit, Eat and Chew, this proverb connects to personal stories that have become the creative and emotional inspiration for the dance theater performances in these five, unusual local spots.
I also kept the three main occupations that most Chinese immigrants work in my mind. They surfaced many times in the story-telling workshops. They are what the Chinese call the three knives: kitchen knife ( restaurant business), scissor ( sweatshop, tailor shop) and shavers (barbershop or hair salon).
For Sit, Eat and Chew, securing the sites was the main challenge. I had to gain the trust of the venue owner to host such an unconventional performance for the public. It took a long time and many, many “inside connections” to made it happen.
What is something you think might surprise people about Chinatown?
Food and taste is so important in Chinese culture that most Chinese senior citizens enroll themselves in more than one senior center, and they decide which day they will attend which center based on the menu they offer. They can tell you which center has the best roast pork rice or steamed egg dish!
What initially inspired you about Chinatown?
Chinatown is like a time capsule. While China is going through intense transformations to become a modern country, NYC’s Chinatown still looks and feels like its in the 1970’s. Residents are very close-knit, and wary of newcomers, whether a westerner or Asian, and they are also very private. At the beginning of the project it was not easy to learn their stories. I was happily surprised at what I did discover, and this kept me going back to learn more.
I also worked for many years with children adopted from China with American parents, started a Chinatown summer camp to provide them with Mandarin language and Chinese cultural lessons. I could see how connecting the kids with the food and being surrounded by other Chinese was healthy for them. My experiences introducing these children to Chinatown made me re-examine the structure of Chinatown, and how it was created when the community was experiencing alienation during the Chinese Exclusion Act, and how Chinatown now embraces other Chinese that feel excluded.
What was it like working with senior dancers from the Chinatown community?
They are the most adorable and hardworking people I have ever met. When they have to prepare for a dance competition, they can rehearse three to four hours non-stop. By comparison, my dance students often start to complain after just one hour of rehearsal!
Again, at the beginning of the project, it was not easy to gain their trust. I hosted some story sharing workshops at the senior center, but they were very private. I was not allowed to take photos or video during the workshops, and every time I took out my recorder or started to make notes in my notebook, the environment instantly became very formal.
For this project, I really got more connected when, after the workshops, I hung out at the senior center regularly for a couple of months. I would help them with their dance rehearsals, share tea and talk with them during breaks. Those in-between moments were when I was really able to dig out some juicy personal stories. I used them to inform and support the on-site dance performances.
I even got pulled into working as an extra for a big budget movie from China with one of the seniors from the Lin Sing Association (senior center). You might be able to see a glimpse of us on the big screen during the Chinese New Year when Chinatown Detective 2 premieres. The greatest thing I got from that gig was talking to all the seniors who were extras in the movie during the long waits between shooting the movie. That was my real movie-experience behind the scenes of the movie.