On her first visit to China for an avant garde exhibition in Hong Kong, comedian Kristina Wong unleashes her indomitable “Fannie Wong” persona and traces her ancestral roots.
By Kate Springer
Chinese American performance artist and comedian Kristina Wong has built a career on irreverently defying gender and race stereotypes. Regarded as one of comedy’s most thought-provoking entertainers, Wong has appeared on Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show” and The New York Times‘ “Off Color” comedy series.
For her first performance in China at Hong Kong’s Para Site gallery in June, Wong arrived in full force, unleashing her cigar-smoking, dirty-joke-telling “former Miss Chinatown 2nd-Runner-Up” persona “Fannie Wong.”
As she signed autographs with sassy notes like “love you baby” in her purple crown and yellow ribbon, she boasted about being a “real-life celebrity,” hit on men, and insisted that the bathroom line was really a line to see her. She also humped a few lucky fans’ legs.
The appearance was part of an experimental multimedia exhibition dubbed “In Search of Miss Ruthless,” which runs through September. Curated by Hera Chan and David Xu Borgonjon, the interactive experience explores Miss Chinatown USA competitions—annual beauty pageants held within Chinese American communities—through the eyes of 23 artists who are all flouting cultural norms in their own way.
Who is Miss Ruthless?
Growing up in a second-generation San Francisco immigrant household, Wong felt caught between cultures: not quite rebellious enough to thrive in San Francisco, but not quite practical enough for her traditional Chinese parents.
Poking holes in these expectations became a coping mechanism for Wong, she told me. Fannie Wong isn’t just a humorous character: She’s a rebellion against the pressure to be an obedient, overachieving Chinese-American woman.
In her one-woman shows, Wong has dressed as a giant vagina and explored Asian-American women’s oft-repressed depression. She’s also stalked basketball player Jeremy Lin, posed as a mail-order bride, and infiltrated Chinatown beauty pageants as Fannie Wong.
Revisiting the past
During her time in China, Wong came to terms with her cultural background in more ways than one. In addition to exploring Chinese identity through her comedy, she used her trip to trace her ancestral heritage back to the southern Guangdong Province.
Wong’s grandmother was born in a small hamlet near southern China’s capital Guangzhou before immigrating to San Francisco in the 1930s. Armed with the Chinese characters for Guang Mei Cun, a village southwest of Guangzhou near Kaiping county, Wong explored the tiny town to understand her ancestry.
“It was a podunk little place, very poor. Only one main street, which was weird for me, seeing as I grew up in such a big city,” says Wong. “I was half expecting to find a villager who looked just like me, smoking a cigar with their vagina hanging out.”
“I think almost all of my blood relatives have been displaced, at least my close blood relatives,” she added. “But it was still emotional and amazing to see where my grandparents were from.”
In good company
Back in Hong Kong, Fannie Wong—cigar and all—joined other artists challenging racial and gender stereotypes as they examined the history of the Miss Chinatown pageants.
“Miss Chinatown is something I grew up with in San Francisco, and it happens in diasporic communities all over the world, whether it’s London, New York, or LA,” says Wong. “To me, it represents an archetypal ideal of what a Chinese-American should be, which doesn’t really exist.”
From experimental documentaries to plays, installations, workshops and archival materials, each artist offers a different take on the cultural phenomenon. Some touch on gender norms, others on political pageantry, more still on beauty standards.
A veteran pageant competitor, Fannie Wong was an obvious fit.
“For years, I’ve been performing this character, where I’m dressed like a Miss Chinatown competitor, but I’m smoking a cigar and wearing glasses and sneakers and giving lap dances,” says Wong. “It doesn’t go over well in some communities, but I was glad that it went fine in Hong Kong.”
A new kind of pageantry
At the exhibition, a corner dedicated to Fannie Wong’s character features videos, photographs of events like the LA Chinese New Year parade she got kicked out of, and a cabinet full of letters—a mix of fan mail and hate mail.
“We were interested in Wong’s performing arts approach, and her subversion of that format, taking something that’s often been overtly anti-feminist and oppressive [beauty pageants] and finding ways to use that for more contemporary purposes,” says Borgonjon.
“It’s about highlighting bodies that don’t conform to traditional beauty standards, or having a more open idea as to what defines belonging to a particular group, rather than closing the doors.”
In the same bright white room, Hong Kong-based Jes Fan’s work echoes a similar message, from a different perspective. The transgender creative has assembled a row of creepy-looking dumbbells made of soap, glitter, and testosterone.
What you’d expect to be hard feels flaccid, and what should be soft is rigid.
“We want to encourage that kind of thinking,” says Borgonjon. “To point out the ways in which societies we live in aren’t always structured to make that self-expression and exploration possible.”
Redefining Chinese womanhood
In China, there’s a whole community centered on the kind of self-expression the exhibit celebrated: Nühanzi.
“Nühanzi is part of a broader phenomenon of exploring gender identities that don’t fit into the usual male and female binary. Miss Ruthless is reflective of this development,” Borgonjon explains.
The term was originally used to describe tomboys, or “masculine women,” but Nühanzi has since evolved to describe a generation of young Chinese women who defy stereotypes of Asian femininity—embracing strength, independence, and confidence.
“I just learned about the term recently, but I am totally falling into the Nühanzi territory,” says Wong. “I feel like my life has been doing things that no one has done before. It’s about being brave and going for it—about being yourself and not getting wrapped up in other people’s expectations.”