In a recent conversation with the Goodman’s Director of New Play Development Tanya Palmer, Lauren Yee talks about what inspired her play King of the Yees, and what it’s like to write herself into a story that is, as she describes, “only kind of true — just like the stories your father once told you as a child.”
Tanya Palmer: What inspired King of the Yees?
Lauren Yee: Before anything else, I had the title and knew the play would be about my dad, Larry Yee, who is a larger than life character. But there are also many aspects of my childhood outside of San Francisco’s Chinatown—feeling like a part of Chinatown, but also feeling like an outsider—that I think are interesting and have never seen represented on stage. I began my research in 2014, visiting my father in San Francisco and conducting interviews, and pieces of the play started emerging. A few months later, just as I was sitting down to figure out how my dad’s story fit into the play, California State Senator Leland Yee, whom my father knew and had volunteered for—and who had officiated my wedding—was arrested on charges of bribery, along with Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, a Hong Kong-born felon with ties to a San Francisco Chinatown street gang and an organized crime syndicate. I was on the phone with my husband and he said, “You know this is going to become the play.” I replied, “No, obviously not. This is ridiculous; it couldn’t possibly be the play.” But that day became the impetus of what makes this play happen. Then, in the summer of 2014, my father and I traveled to China together.
TP: Was that your first time you visiting the country?
LY: It was my second trip—but it was the first, and probably only, trip I’ll ever take to the place where his parents are from. I couldn’t have possibly done it without him. That trip was successful based on all the things that are explored in the play about family connections, and how the knowledge resting inside one specific person is so hard to pass on or transfer to the next generation. The only way we knew where to find his father’s village—it’s not on a map, you can’t just Google it—was that my father spoke the language. Our taxi driver knew where to go based on my father’s description that it “had a big building and used to grow rats.” There are so many things about the trip that are echoed in the play, about this connection to where you’re from and being part of the next generation. And just how much your parents know.
TP: Can you speak a bit about the Yee Fung Toy and your father’s relationship to that organization, which also plays a central role in the play?
LY: Growing up, I never understood what the Yee Fung Toy was, or why people were a part of it; all I knew was that they threw dinners at Chinese New Year and gave out money at Christmas. But my grandfather was a member, and when he passed away, my father joined as a way to be closer to his father, learn about his life and be around his friends. My grandfather’s death was probably the beginning of my father’s sense of a civic or community life. That’s when he started working on Leland Yee’s political campaigns, engaging in San Francisco’s Chinese community, and his involvement in the Yee Fung Toy was part of that. He picked me up from school once and said, “We’re going to go help a cousin.” We drove to Leland Yee’s campaign office; he was running for City Supervisor for the first time, and that was the beginning of my father’s community political career.
TP: You and your father are characters in the play. Did you feel a responsibility for these characters to closely resemble your actual selves, and is there a separation between the real Lauren and Larry Yee and your fictional creations?
LY: In the beginning of the writing process, I thought that King of the Yees would be loosely inspired by my father, but not an exact mirror reflection. I thought it would be too hard to explain what the Yee Fung Toy is, and what my father does. I thought I’d come up with a much more dramatic version of what’s going on. So in early drafts, everything was heavily fictionalized and there were people who were like us but not us. But the further I got, the more I felt that, in order to portray all the idiosyncratic aspects of Chinatown and my father’s life, there had to be a character named “Larry Yee” and a character named “Lauren Yee.” Even though they have our names, I could separate the characters from real life; while the play starts in a realistic place, as you get deeper into Act I, the play suddenly explodes in all these different directions. I don’t think you can watch the play and think you’ve watched some kind of docudrama; it’s more of a hero’s quest. So that freed me up from having to be incredibly accurate.
TP: You mentioned you felt like an outsider in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Has the process of writing this play had any impact on your relationship to that place now?
LY: Growing up, the biggest thing dividing me from Chinatown was the language barrier. I’m American-born and never went to Chinese school. My parents were born in America, and didn’t really speak the language at home. My experience as an Asian American was not growing up in an all-white neighborhood feeling like I was an outsider because I was Chinese. A lot of my classmates were born in Hong Kong or were the children of immigrants. For me, that was the bigger divide; I kind of represented American culture while my other classmates represented this foreign outsider part of San Francisco. So, for me, Chinatown was this dirty, crowded, noisy place where I didn’t speak the language, where I didn’t—for the most part—eat the food. I never really enjoyed the Yee Fung Toy dinners. I never enjoyed being in Chinatown. I didn’t feel part of it.
With this play, I’ve been able to explore not only my self-consciousness in my own community, but it’s also shed a light on how that is a universal experience. In my research, I traveled to several different Yee Fung Toy branches across the country. In each branch, there was a guy like my dad, around 60 years old and American-born. When I asked why they joined the Yee Fung Toy, each said the same thing: they never intended to join, but somebody from the previous generation told them if they didn’t this organization would die out. So, in a way it’s this club of Yees filled with people who never wanted to be there in the first place, who felt out of place and uncertain but eventually decided, “Ok well, if it’s got to be someone, I guess it’s got be me.” This play explores those feelings of inauthenticity and inadequacy. With every new generation, there is a feeling of being unworthy and being unprepared to take up the cultural mantle.
I can research all I want, I can listen to all my father’s stories and there are still so many things I don’t know: about the family history, his life, his father’s life, his mother’s life. And this play embraces that inadequacy. That I, Lauren Yee, am actually trying to tell the story of Chinatown and the Yees, there is just so much stuff for me, the actors, designers and director to cover. We’re going to mess something up, we’re going to miss something and we’re going to not quite know how to tell it right. But at the same time it’s really lovely to try in spite of all that, you know?