Chinese Parents Angered Over Student Musical on LI

Huntington High School protest

Dozens protested in front of Huntington High School on April 6 over its production of “Throughly Modern Millie.” (Photo by Lan Mu via World Journal)

A recent student production of the musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie” at Huntington High School on Long Island was met with rage from Chinese parents and the local Chinese community. More than 60 protesters, critical of the stereotypical portrayal of Chinese people in the show, demonstrated in front of the school on the night of April 6 before one of the performances. Some parents said that when their children complained, they were ignored by the superintendent. (…)

The musical, which was produced by the school’s drama club, was staged over three days starting April 5 in the school auditorium, as well as at Division Avenue High School in Levittown for four days starting April 4. In the show, three white students portrayed the Chinese characters using broken English and exaggerated mannerisms that enraged many Chinese students and parents. A video clip of the show circulating on the internet further mobilized the local Chinese community and led to protests at both of the schools on April 6.

Xuemei Ye, a parent whose 12-year-old daughter is a student at Huntington, said she was angry after she saw the dress rehearsal on April 4 during which three white students played the Chinese characters. “A female student who played the role of the boss put chopsticks in her hair. The two male students who played the employees walked like ducks. And they used ‘ching chong’ to mimic Chinese speaking,” said Ye.

Ye said her daughter asked Jim Polansky, the Huntington superintendent, for his thoughts on the show and she was disappointed by his answer. “He gave my daughter a big smile and said the show was very good, and the actors playing the Chinese characters were especially outstanding,” said Ye. “My daughter cried out of anger.”

Ye said she and three other Chinese parents sent a letter to Polansky asking for an apology. But there was none given. “The school said the shows that the public schools choose to perform are all carefully vetted every year. It brushed off the questions we raised,” Ye said.

She said that on April 5, she watched the entire show and the plot also made her uncomfortable. “The story was about a white girl in 1920s America who was sold in Hong Kong to be a prostitute,” said Ye. “It made me mad.” [Editor’s note: In the play a character kidnaps orphan girls and sends them to Hong Kong as slaves.]

Ye shared her experience and thoughts online and support poured in from Chinese and non-Chinese residents alike. They made posters and went to protest at both schools on April 6. More than 60 people showed up at Huntington alone.

Tianlu Lu, a teacher in a dual language program at a Long Island elementary school, was one of the protesters. She said that to exaggerate one or two characteristics of a racial group in order to make fun of them is racism. And Asians are particularly sensitive to such racism because they have been bullied a lot in this country. “We are not fighting against the school or the student actors but the negative influence of the show,” Lu said.

Quanhai Wang, a Huntington resident, brought his 9-year-old son Zhengming Wang to the protest. He said “Thoroughly Modern Millie” itself is a controversial show. The portrayal of the Asian characters in the show had drawn complaints before. To stage the show at Huntington, where there is not a large Asian population, can reinforce the general public’s stereotypes about Asians.

Guodong Zhang, a protester, said he only learned about the demonstration right before it started. He made a poster at 5 p.m. and rushed to the scene. “If a white actor performed in blackface on stage, he would be stopped immediately,” said Zhang who added that Asians should not stay silent.

Staff members of Huntington High School barred the reporter from doing interviews on campus over lack of a pre-approved permission. Neither the superintendent nor the school responded to inquiries by press time.


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