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A new documentary follows Asian-American students in Manhattan’s Chinatown who dream of becoming actors.

Asian-American children battle cultural obstacles to pursue acting dreams in new documentary

  • Curtain Up follows the lives of young children in an after-school theatre programme in Manhattan’s Chinatown and goes into the homes of the performers
  • The film shows how they deal with being pulled in different directions by family and society, and how acting helps them overcome a certain cultural mindset
Joseph Lam

In a particularly sobering scene from a new documentary, a 12-year-old Chinese-American girl weighs up her chances of ever having a future in theatre.

“I know that I won’t get a lot of jobs as an Asian-American because you have to be the best of the best,” says Charlotte Wang, who played lead character Elsa in a 30-minute adaptation of Frozen , which was staged in New York last December.

“No, it’s just ’cause Asians aren’t good at acting,” adds Charlotte’s 15-year-old brother, Aaron. “I never liked the Chinese dramas my mum watched. They’re always boring.”

The siblings’ views are unsurprising, influenced by stereotypes and cultural barriers they face growing up as Asians in the United States – including from members of their families.

Charlotte Wong (left), one of the main characters in the film, at rehearsal.
Curtain Up, set to premiere at a number of film festivals later this year, follows the lives of Charlotte and other primary schoolchildren taking part in a two-year, after-school theatre programme in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
Shot over a period of six months, the documentary goes behind the scenes and into the homes of the performers from Yung Wing Elementary School’s PS 124 Theatre Club as they prepare to perform their end-of-year production, commissioned by Disney.

When Curtain Up filmmaker Hui Tong, 24, arrived in the US from Beijing for university in 2014, “the biggest culture shock [was] not from Americans, but Chinese-Americans”, he says.

Their family’s influence is strong because they’re young and their families try hard to protect their Chinese-ness
Hui Tong, Curtain Up filmmaker

“They look similar to us, they talk similar, but they’re not. Their perspective is in America,” he adds.

The differences were obvious in student associations, Tong explains, which divide American-born Chinese from Chinese international students. “I’ve always been trying to grapple with this gap,” he says.

When Tong was studying for a master’s degree in journalism he had to film a documentary for his project. “It got me thinking: if those university kids are different from us, are those smaller kids still different, too?”

A few months later, classmate and Singaporean journalist Kelly Ng, who has written for the South China Morning Post, joined him in the project. Together, they have produced a documentary showing that measuring representation in an industry is often best gauged through children.
The PS 124 Theatre Club celebrates another successful run.

“These kids spend most of their lives in the States, but their parents were Chinese, so there’s this cultural tension. I identify with that in my family,” Ng says.

Dialling in on Zoom with Tong and Ng, Charlotte tells the Post: “I think the main thing my mum told me – she watches a lot of Chinese dramas – is if you would want to be an Asian-American actor, you have to be the best of the best. “

Charlotte, who recently started middle school, adds: “You can obviously be an actor, or be one of the background people, but I’m talking about the bigger roles – multiple lines in multiple scenes. She also wants me to focus on Chinese.”

Tong says it’s interesting to see how the students deal with being pulled in different directions by their families and society. “Their family’s influence is strong because they’re young and their families try hard to protect their Chinese-ness,” he says.

Baayork Lee, an actress, singer, choreographer and founder of the PS 124 Theatre Club, says there are still barriers in place for Asian actors in the theatre, and writers are still not writing for them.

Kelly Ng helped Hui Tong produce the documentary.

An American of Chinese and Indian heritage, Lee began her career in the early 1950s at the age of five, when casting producers visited Chinatown looking for children to play in the Broadway musical production of The King and I and she got the role of a princess.

“As I started growing up and getting into my shows, I realised I was the only Asian-American getting into Broadway shows. It was a big responsibility on my back. I’ve always been aware that I was representing the community because I was the only one,” Lee says.

“It has always been maybe one Asian at the back in the chorus, but now we’re proving we’re capable of being up front and being the lead,” adds Lee, who also founded the National Asian Arts Project. “I formed [NAAP] so we’re able to do the shows they would not be cast in.”

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In another eye-opening scene from Curtain Up, Charlotte’s co-star, 11-year-old William Cui, talks about his experience.

“I like being Asian because it’s where I come from, but it’s pretty weird, the curriculum in Chinatown, because … why don’t they teach about Chinese people? All they teach about is Christopher Columbus, but they don’t show what kind of people we were back then,” he says of his Chinese-majority public school.

“You know what my mum told me? She says the principal [at] my Chinese school says Chinese people are horrible at acting.”

His mother, Jenny Liao, corrects him: “Not ‘horrible’. ‘Cannot be’.” Initially, Liao had forbidden William from joining the school theatre club, but later backed down after a number of phone calls from one of its choreographers.

“After going to theatre club, this is where I am now. I like theatre and my mum can’t do anything about it,” William says.

In a later scene, Liao explains that Chinese people expect their children to study hard and get good grades. It’s fine to have dreams, but you have to be realistic, she says.

“I don’t disagree. She’s right,” William says. “Mums know best.” Asked what he’d like to be when he grows up, he responds with a grin: “Eye doctor. Or, if my mum lets me, actor.”

William Cui and his mum, Jenny Liao, after his solo performance.

Tong says he noticed that the students’ parents are very transnational. “When we visited their homes, they watched Chinese dramas and they were talking about topics that are popular in China,” he explains.

Reflecting on her own childhood, Lee says Chinatown was very small when she was growing up in the 1950s. “At that time, a lot of families did not want their children to speak Chinese because they had moved from all their different countries to become American.”

Despite the fact that her students still face a number of the same cultural setbacks as she did, she notes that times have changed.

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“It’s very different now because the kids want to know about their history, they want to speak their language and to identify with their country,” she says.

When Lee first began working with the school, named after America’s first Chinese student Yung Wing, who graduated in 1854, chess plaques were hung along the walls and it was known for competing against high school students.

“I came in saying, ‘I want you to sing and act.’ They did give me a chance,” she says.

William, one of the main characters in the film, at rehearsal.

On the benefits of children learning to perform, Lee says it helps them overcome a cultural mindset.

“In the Asian community, at least my generation, you never spoke. God forbid you would answer anybody back.” The students are still like this, she adds, noting that “from the first day they come in, they’re Asian, you know, with the whole ‘I don’t speak until I’m spoken to’ [attitude]”.

“For some, they’ve been studying all day and their parents have them going to maths class after school, but we allow them to just open up and to scream and yell and to jump around, to improvise and be kids.

“The first group was very small, and the parents were sceptical. I now have 34 children and the parents are pounding at the door. They say, ‘Listen, my kid is singing in the shower, singing while he’s eating. I don’t know this kid any more.’”

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The benefits aren’t limited to theatre, Lee says. “Also, in their learning, they can raise their hands in class now because they have an opinion. Look at William, he has an opinion out there.”

Charlotte, now a student of New York City Lab School for Collaborative Studies in Chelsea, still enjoys acting, but is eyeing a different career.

“That’s changed since fifth grade. A lot,” she says, explaining that she’s now decided to become a research scientist.

“I think it’s just because I know I’m probably not going to become an actor when I grow up. I just feel like it’s not the path for me. I’ve tried it and I like it, but it could be more as a hobby.”