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Robert Abrams
Performance Reviews
Museum of Chinese in America
United States
New York City
New York
New York, NY

"Sit, Eat and Chew" is a delicious walking tour of the stories of New York City's Chinatown that included a mix of professional and community dancers

by Robert Abrams
October 22, 2017
Museum of Chinese in America
215 Centre Street
New York, NY 10013
More about Ms. Ng's work can be found at MeiBeWhatever.com.
In a city of a million windows, how many doors are open? In "Sit, Eat and Chew", Mei-Yin Ng opened six doors in five locations. The show was a site-specific walking tour and dance buffet of New York City's Chinatown. The audience picked a start time for their tour, which began at the Museum of Chinese in America. The tours were led by one of several tour guides. The tour guide explained some of the context at each site, and left other parts to our imagination.

A small group was led on a walk to a tenement apartment building. We climbed three flights of stairs to find a man sitting on the not-so-brightly-lit landing. He danced in the confined space, at one point leaning over the railing. He then led us up to the 5th floor. In someone's actual apartment, he danced with a spoon. A woman appeared. They danced together. With and without bowls and plates and chopsticks, the common elements of sustenance that are normally just there. Today they were part of the art. Man and woman talked to each other in Chinese as if they were in different spaces.

We then went to a restaurant. A couple at a table talked at length while a waiter kept bringing dishes heaped with food. The food looked delicious, but they didn't touch a bite. Eventually the old man began to sing. His voice was strong and clear, even though I don't understand Chinese. His lady friend and he eventually got up and danced what looked like a Chinese version of a line dance, but with elements of partner dance with an eye contact lead.

Next we were led to a park and up some steps for a raised view of a 12 strong troupe of older female dancers dressed smartly in red, white and silver. They performed an elegant routine. While it was staged for this show, there were other performers in the crowded park too who would start a song as naturally as ribbons woven into a tree. Thus, the "Sit, Eat and Chew" performance in the park was both special and common. That a public love of the arts and performing for the joy of it is common, at least in Chinatown, is a wonderful thing.

When the community dancers finished their routine, we were directed to turn around, and there was another dance ready to start. This one, one of the few spoken in English, featured three professional dancers commenting on Asian stereotypes using repeated word and gesture phrases.

Next stop was a hair salon, where a woman in all white to her long white gloves talked about coming to America with her first Chinese husband, being rescued and remarried and fought over. This was one of the works I had seen in rehearsal. The final product lived up to the rehearsal's promise.

Finally, we were led back to MOCA, where Ms. Ng herself led the audience in an interactive "dance" featuring rapid instruction in how a person can fold a shirt as rapidly as a machine. It didn't take long to appreciate Ms. Ng's intellectual and embodied insights.

Overall, "Sit, Eat and Chew" was an ambitious and artistically daring work that required superior logistics skills to pull off. What other show tries to deliver groups of audience members across and around a roughly 10 block radius with precision timing down to the minute? Ms. Ng pulled it off. FedEx, UPS and USPS could learn a thing or two from her.

The dancing, by both the professionals and the community members, was strong. The text set a time that was open to interpretation, especially if you weren't fluent in Chinese, which was fine. I would see "Sit, Eat and Chew" again, and I would bring a friend with me to have someone to discuss the show with afterwards.

There were only two flaws that I saw. One was that the tours sounded like they were about 45 minutes when I signed up. In actuality they were more like 1.5 hours because tours overlapped. Making this clear in the show's advance materials would fix this. The actual tour length, if you were up for all the walking, was fine. The second was that, from talking with Ms. Ng after the show, it turned out that the hair salon dance is based on a real story from the 1880s, but the clothing and contemporary dance vocabulary suggested modern day. This was not a problem in terms of the dance itself, but if the intent is to have it read 1880s, it needs some adjustment, even if just a program note before or after the dance is performed. The hair salon dance, like some of the other dances in the tour, was also open to interpretation. The hair salon dance could have been literally about a story set in the 1880s, or it could have been a modern commentary on an 1880s story. The danced hair salon story all but demanded conversation afterwards.

The good thing is that "Sit, Eat and Chew" whets your appetite for more stories and more dance. Maybe next time with food from the restaurant. And why stop at just one or two shows? "Sit, Eat and Chew" works as a walking tour, but it might also work if adapted for, for example, just the restaurant at a kid and family friendly time with some adjustments to the stories presented. Ms. Ng's "Sit, Eat and Chew" is already a full menu of dance, but, when the dishes are this good, there is always room for another page in the menu.
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