Playwright unpacks identities, desires and prejudices

This article represents the latest installment in my annual series of Queer history columns, a tradition that I have maintained for almost two decades now. Several of these columns have explored the history of representations of LGBT Japanese Americans in theatrical works by other Asian Americans, such as Soon-Tek Oh’s “Tondemonai…Never Happen!” and Alberto Isaac’s “Coda.”

Today, I will deal with another such work, Chinese American author Reggie Cheong-Leen’s “The Nanjing Race.”

Premiered in 1994, it tells the story of a gay Japanese American businessman in China, and his relationship with two “floor boys.”

Cheong-Leen was born in Hong Kong in 1951. He was the oldest of four children of Hilton Cheong-Leen, a businessman and politician. Reggie came to the United States at age 15 to attend St. John Kanty Prep school in Erie, Pennsylvania, where he served as co-editor of the yearbook. He attended Notre Dame University in the early 1970s. During his time there, he attended a performance of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Follies” and fell in love with theater. He broke into theater work as stage manager for a student production of Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke.” After finishing college, he returned to Hong Kong, but found it stifling, especially after coming out as a gay man. He ultimately settled in New York City, where he established himself as a playwright. Two of his plays, a comedy called “Squeeze,” and a musical, “Cut Sleeves,” were performed in New York under the auspices of Asian & Friends. In 1988, three years after Cheong-Leen became a U.S. citizen, he and his partner (later husband) Peter Spielhagen moved to Milford, Penn., where they bought a retail building and ran a store, Forest Hall Antiques. In later years, Cheong-Leen became notable as a painter and a philanthropist. In 2019, following his husband’s death, he established the Reggie Cheong-Leen and Peter Spielhagen Scholarship Fund, which assists children of first-generation immigrants graduating from Delaware Valley High School.

“The Nanjing Race,” Cheong-Leen’s third play, was his most successful. Set in 1988, it opens with Philip Hagen, a 40-ish Japanese American metals engineer, arriving on a business trip in Nanjing, China.

Philip, who grew up in Woodbury, New Jersey as the son of a white American father and a Japanese mother, has always felt racialized (and stigmatized) as Japanese by white Americans because of his Asian features. Now Philip’s boss has sent him to China to meet with Chinese officials, figuring that Philip’s Asian heritage will help him arrange a deal. However, he knows nothing about Asian culture or dealing with corrupt Chinese. Philip feels at home amid the sea of Asian faces. Yet his large American body, relative wealth and inability to speak Chinese identify him as a foreigner. Worse, in the eyes of Chinese, whom the Japanese massacred at Nanjing in the 1930s, his Japanese ancestry makes him suspect.

At the hotel where it is arranged that he stay, Philip meets two floor-boys (valets). Yu Ahn, who is desperate to leave China and to go America, befriends Philip in the hope of being sponsored. It is Bao, another floor-boy, whom Philip desires, but Bao is caught in the grip of traumatic past history. Philip gets into conflict with both men over issues of race, power and sexuality. As a playbill for a theatrical production explained the play, “Trapped in their social and racial identities, the three men struggle to come to terms with their desires and prejudices.”

The play was first presented in 1993, under the title “The Nanjing Banana Race,” in a pair of staged public readings as part of the Cleveland Public Theatre’s 11th Festival of New Plays. Shortly afterward, it was selected for production at Princeton, New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre, as part of McCarter’s “Winter’s Tales” new play festival. Loretia Greco, the producer of the festival, told journalist Jane Huth that she, literary manager Janice Paran and artistic director Emily Mann had all chosen to produce the play in part because of the author’s subtle fusion of political and personal conflicts. “We wanted a play that was political: but (Cheong-Leen) doesn’t get up on a pedestal and pontificate.”

Greco praised the play’s grace and simplicity. In an unsubtle reference to the blockbuster musical “Miss Saigon,” she said, “There are no helicopters, no fog, no glitter, no spinning turntables. It’s about three men.” Paran also enthused about the “incredible beautiful” play: ”The writing is simple but haunting. It has a very modest but still poetic sense to it that for me lifted it out of living-room drama, that cried out for the theater.”

“The Nanjing Race” had its world premiere at McCarter in January 1994. Actor B.D. Wong, who had previously won a Tony award for his performance in the Broadway production of David Henry Hwang’s “M. Butterfly,” starred as Yu Ahn. Japan-born actor Thom Sesma portrayed Philip, while David Chung played Bao. (The author later remarked on the irony of a gay actor portraying a straight character, while two straight actors played gay roles.) Although some shows were canceled because of poor weather conditions, the play was welcomed by audiences, and won Best New Regional Play of 1994 by the American Theater Critics Association, with a $1,000 prize. It was then featured in the anthology volume Best Plays of 1994-1995.

Following its initial performances, “The Nanjing Race” was not immediately staged elsewhere. In 1995 it was part of a series of readings at the Taper Forum in Los Angeles, where it was directed by playwright Chay Yew. In 1999 it was presented at the New Conservatory Theatre Centre in San Francisco, in a production directed by Arturo Catricala. In 2000 it was performed by the Playwrights-Kitchen-Ensemble in Los Angeles.

In 2010, “The Nanjing Race” was mounted in New York City by the off-Broadway Abingdon Theater Company, in a production directed by Brian Tom O’Connor and featuring James Chen, Marcus Ho and Ian Wen. A critic in The New Yorker commented, “Though the history lessons in Reggie Cheong-Leen’s tiny drama…are informative, they overwhelm the simple story of two Chinese men with no good options, which might have been touching if it had been given the time and the space to develop.” Backstage magazine critic Erik Haagensen called it “an absorbing but flawed work.” Haagensen deplored the author’s reliance on clichés, but added, “Fortunately, the strong acting goes a long way toward mitigating the writing’s occasional missteps.”

“The Nanjing Race” is powerful in dramatizing the dilemmas over identity experienced by Asian Americans, especially mixed-race individuals. Philip is a “banana.” He wants love and acceptance, yet because of the hostile racial climate in America, he cannot accept himself or his Japanese heritage, preferring to see himself as all-(white) American. In interviews, author Cheong-Leen acknowledged that Philip’s situation reflected his own feeling of being suspended between two cultures. After leaving Hong Kong as a teenager, he lived all his adult life in the United States, and adapted to writing primarily in English.

Cut off from Asia, he never learned to speak Chinese well, and developed an American accent. Yet, he added, he didn’t feel completely American because he spent his childhood in a different culture. There was also the matter of racism against people of Asian ancestry. Cheong-Leen recalled how one time, returning to the United States in a planeload of Caucasians, he was the only one stopped by immigration officials, because, as he said. “I didn’t look American.”

This same lack of self-acceptance informs Philip’s desire for white men. In an interview, author Cheong-Leen noted that the play reflected his own journey of self-discovery as a gay Asian male. “Eventually, you have to face up to what you are, and writing this play was part of the process. Now I know there are beautiful people in every color.”

Curiously, while the audience is presumably supposed to understand that Philip’s being gay makes him even more an outsider in America, it is not problematized — he does not express either shame over his sexual orientation, or frustration for defiance in regard to the prejudice he experiences because of it.

In terms of Chinese history, the play’s message about the difficulty of escaping the past is made more poignant and ironic by its being located in the (recent) past, rather than the time of its staging. While there is no reference to the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre a year after its action takes place, Cheong-Leen seems to have recognized that China had already changed in their wake by the time his play was presented.

From the specific viewpoint of Japanese Americans, the play might seem incongruous.

While the text heavily references past traumas and the legacy of the Nanjing massacre, there is no mention of the complex and sometimes tragic history of Nikkei in America — notably their wartime confinement. Nor are the particular circumstances of Philip’s parents’ meeting and marriage (presumably a war bride union) described.

Indeed, apart from his mother, Philip seems never to have known any people of Japanese ancestry growing up. While many Sansei and Shin-Nisei did indeed grow up in such circumstances, Woodbury is barely 25 miles from the giant postwar Nikkei community at Seabrook, New Jersey, which makes such isolation curious. All the same, it would be interesting to take a new look at this landmark Queer Asian American play.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei News.

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