A Malaysian Jew in New York

When asked his age, Petaling Jaya boy Richard Chang, now a business news editor at New York’s Reuters as well as an Off-Broadway actor, says, “… if you publicize it, I may never getto play an ingenue or an old man again…”

He shouldn’t have to worry. After all, he has played everything from the scholar in Legend of the White Snake to the impotent Emperor in Empress of China, both staged by Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, New York.

All Richard would tell me was that he left after Form 6 in Taylor’s College to study Media and Advertising at the Royal Melbourne Institute. “What you think, Malaysian parents want their child to be a dancer, singer, artist or anthropologist (heh?)?”

For two years, he was a producer with the Singapore Broadcasting Corp. until he decided to take an MA in Journalism at New York University. But he had more on his mind than study. “When I arrived in New York,” he says, “I indulged my love for dance and all the artistic things I was deprived of growing up in Malaysia.”

His indulgence took him not just to stage roles, but also Hollywood ones, where he acted opposite Anne Heche (Return to Paradise), Danny Aiello (S.I.) and, Joan Chen (Saving Face).

The most unique role he has taken on, however, must be the subway battery salesman from China who speaks like a Jew. In November 2002, Richard premiered the solo performance he created called Goy Vey! Adventures of a Dim Sum in search of his Wanton Father. Richard attempts to break down stereotypes, even as his character “loined to speak poifect English.” The show had a three week Off-Broadway run. Now two years later, he is restaging it, complete with standup comedy, Broadway musical theater, Chinese opera, Western opera, Jewish Klezmer, hip hop, mime, and Looney Tunes.

Here are some amusing questions and answers from his FAQ. Asterisks denote my additional questions.

What does “Goy Vey!” mean?

“Goy Vey!” is a play on words. “Oy vey” literally means “Oh woe!” in Yiddish, the language of Eastern European Jews that is based on Old German. Chinese would say “Aiyah!” – which in certain situations can sound like “Oy!” “Goy” is Yiddish for anyone who’s not Jewish, but it’s also Cantonese for “demon” or anyone who’s not Chinese.

This inter-linguistic pun captures the essence of Goy Vey! Adventures of a Dim Sun in Search of His Wanton Father. The show spotlights what we have in common across cultures, including language, music, dance and food. By watching an innocent country bumpkin jump to the most ridiculous conclusions about foreigners, I hope we can laugh at our own absurd assumptions about other people, be less chauvinistic, and celebrate our one­ness within our diversity.

How did the idea for “Goy Vey!” come about?

I was sitting in the New York subway when I suddenly had an idea for a prank. Wouldn’t it be funny if I pretended to be a stereotypical battery salesman from China – a familiar sight in the subway – and suddenly spoke in the voice of Jewish comedian Jackie Mason: “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m not a homeless poy-son. I’m an illegal immigrant!” It would certainly startle people and make them think twice about making assumptions about people they don’t know.

Is “Goy Vey” autobiographical?

No, I’m not from China, I don’t have an overbearing Chinese Opera diva-mother, and I’m not a bastard who’s never seen his Papa. However, I do have what Americans call a stereotypical Jewish mother: she constantly tells me over the phone from Malaysia to eat more, put on weight, drink chicken soup, get married and have children, and shop for bargains for her. She’s also a retired schoolteacher, like many Jewish women of her age.

Is Jackie Sun based on a real person?

Many Chinese battery salesmen in the New York subway act just like him. But Jackie’s melodic sales pitch comes from one particular guy from Wenzhou City whom I’ve chatted with. Whenever he comes into the train yelling his trademark “Aaaah, battely, battely one dallah!” people either snicker, laugh loudly, or imitate him. But he doesn’t take offense. He’s clueless that he’s funny. He’s just doing his job, and that’s how salesmen in China traditionally announced what they’re selling. He has a very positive attitude and is happy to earn one dollar for a pack of two batteries.

Are you Jewish?

Not that I know of … even though I have a “Jewish nose” with a bump – which I got from countless silly accidents, like walking into the side of a door in the dark, swimming into the wall of a swimming pool, and hitting my nose with my knee when jumping around as a kid. However, my surname is actually one of the seven that Jewish settlers in China were allowed to adopt as far back as the Sung Dynasty. And my father is Hakka (literally “guest people”), a dialect group that settled in various parts of China but whose origins are unclear. So who knows?

On the other hand, Chang (also spelled Zhang) is a common Chinese surname. But apart from my nose, I’m anatomically not Jewish!

How did a Chinese Malaysian guy like you end up being so Jewish?

Living in New York, how can anyone help but become Jewish? The city has about twice as many Jews as Tel Aviv. I work with Jews all the time, and discovered that we have so much in common.

I couldn’t believe it when I heard that elderly Jewish ladies love to play mahjong. Of course it’s already a well­-worn joke that Jews had nothing to eat before the discovery of Chinese takeout restaurants. And both Jews and Chinese place great emphasis on family, food, education, getting a secure job, marriage, breeding grandchildren, bargains, and so forth.

How did you learn Yiddish?

I was surrounded by people who used words like “Oy!”, “boychik,” “meshugge,” “mishegoss,” “dreck” and “shmuck.” “Dreck” I could find in the dictionary, and “shmuck” I guessed from the way it’s said (though I later found out just how pointed a remark it was). But the other words made me feel inadequate about my vocabulary, so finally I asked a friend, who happens to be Jewish, to explain them to me. That started a chain of discoveries and bad jokes that eventually led to the birth of Goy Vey!

* How did a Malaysian childhood and youth prepare you (or not) for your eventual Jewishness? I mean, for your New York theatre life?

Growing up Chinese was enough to realize my Jewishness. Still, it was a revelation to discover the Jewish stereotypes beyond the usual bad ones, including the urgings to “Eat more. You’re too thin. Think of all the poor starving people in India!” In America, the starving people were in China. Maybe it’s Africa now.

Actually, the characters in Goy Vey! are universal. Everyone is just a human being, and should be treated that way. Forget the labels. It really rankled me when “Jews” were blamed for the currency crisis a few years ago. It’s saying “the Chinese” caused all the troubles in Indonesia. Or that Jews or Chinese control the world, or whatever. Is everyone who fits either label equally rich, vile, calculating, etc.?

The racial humor in Goy Vey! comes very much out of having grown up in Malaysia where people can laugh at and with each other without being offensive or offended. Americans who grew up in a mostly white society tend to be more “politically correct” in order to make up for past social injustices, so that “racial” is often misunderstood as “racist.” I don’t believe in “racial tolerance,” because you only tolerate people you don’t like, whereas you accept your friends.

* What’re the hardest things for you?

The never thought I’d do standup comedy. However, a few years ago at an acting workshop the instructor said we should study improv comedy because commedia dell’arte is a 500-year-old art form that is the basis for all the TV sitcoms and lots of Shakespeare.

At the same time I also began to accept the totality of myself as a multilingual cosmopolitan Chinese Malaysian with many unusual talents, a unique background, and a silly streak that’s worth taking seriously.

By allowing my imagination go free, I came up with “Goy Vey!” and ideas for unusual cross-cultural movies that I am writing.

* Any chance we get to see it back here?

I would love to perform Goy Vey in Malaysia. At first I thought only audiences in big cities with a lot of Jews and Chinese would appreciate it. However, there’s so much music, dance and physical comedy that the message comes across anyway. Some Malaysian Indians and Chindians said people “at home” would love it, especially Dr. Mahathir, who I think needs laughter therapy.

First Published: 04.11.2004 on Kakiseni

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