Ong, Han 1968-
ONG, Han 1968-
PERSONAL: Born 1968, in Manila, Philippines; immigrated to the United States in 1984.
ADDRESSES: Agent—Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 19 Union Square West, New York, NY 10003.
CAREER: Playwright and novelist.
AWARDS, HONORS: Kesselring Prize, 1993; MacArthur fellowship, 1997; grants from National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, Rockefeller Foundation, and ART/NY.
Symposium in Manila, produced at Joseph Papp Public Theater/NYSF, New York, NY, 1991.
Reasons to Live, produced at Magic Theater, San Francisco, CA, 1992.
Bachelor Rat, produced at Thick Description Playhouse, San Francisco, CA, 1992.
Corner Store Geography, produced at Joseph Papp Public Theater/NYSF, New York, NY, 1992.
The L.A. Plays, produced at American Repertory Theatre, Boston, MA, 1993.
(With Jessica Hagedorn) Airport Music, produced at Joseph Papp Public Theater/NYSF, New York, NY, 1994.
Play of Father and Junior, produced at Solo Mio Festival, San Francisco, CA, 1995.
The Chang Fragments, produced at Joseph Papp Public Theater/NYSF, New York, NY, 1996.
Middle Finger, produced at Joseph Papp Public Theater/NYSF, New York, NY, 1997.
Watcher, produced at Mark Taper Forum New Works Festival, Los Angeles, CA, 1998.
Mysteries, produced by Ma-Yi Theatre Company, New York, NY, 2001.
Swoony Planet, produced by Ma-Yi Theatre Company, New York, NY, 2001.
Fixer Chao, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux (New York, NY), 2001.
SIDELIGHTS: Having a dozen plays produced and a well-reviewed novel published before turning thirty, Han Ong bega n his career at a full run. The L.A. Plays, staged in 1993, brought Ong to national attention. In an interview with John Lahr in the New Yorker, Ong explained that the Asian Americans he creates in his plays are far from the stereotypical portrait of Asian Americans he sees in the media. "Most Asian life is neutered by the unspoken critical mandate to portray Asians as good, hardworking people....I'm looking for characters like Greg and Broos, who neither seek to be identified with blacks or Asians nor aspire to enter the white world. That inbetweenness is what interests me."
Ong, who calls himself "the perpetual immigrant," came to the United States from the Philippines in 1984 and claims that he has been thinking in English for only five years. (He dropped out of high school and earned an equivalency degree). In 1994, Ong collaborated with Jessica Hagedorn to present Airport Music at the Public Theater in New York. "It's about immigration," Ong explained to Lahr, "Jessica and I are both from the Philippines. So it's about coming to the States when the Philippines was considered home, and what home means. It's about recreating the idea of home recreating itself in a new country."
Ong wrote Middle Finger as a commission for New York's Public Theater in 1997; after artistic differences with the Public Theater Ong put the project away and swore off theater altogether. New York's Ma-Yi theater company resuscitated the project and it finally went into production. In an interview with Lenora Inez Brown in American Theater, Ong talked about the project and his views on contemporary theater. "In the fall of 1996, the Public had a concept of connecting classics to modern theater. I personally have no interest in adaptation—to me it is not as rewarding as original work....butIwas really broke."
Ong applied to the Public Theater for a position as playwright-in-residence. They responded instead with a commission for the adaptation series. Ong wanted to explore Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening. "The more I read, the more engrossed I became," he told Brown. "But two things were against it. Number one, it wasn't my first choice. Number two, it was a very, very good play. But as I reread I saw one flaw, the boys in Spring Awakening speak as if they're on a podium, mouthing essayic defenses against authoritarianism. One way to approach this is to find a language suitable to boys—you know, gross and adolescent—and see if the audience is still able to get on their side."
The result was Middle Finger, where the author sets Filipino Catholic schoolboys on the brink of manhood, discovering who they are as society enforces who they should be. Jakob knows the secret of life: play life hard and fast; there are no big secrets to waste time pondering. His best friend Lunga, on the other hand, isn't sure if life's mysteries have an answer. But their parochial teachers and upstanding parents are determined to hold their feet to the fire.
Ong made his debut as a novelist with the highly acclaimed Fixer Chao. It is a satire of the shallow and over-privileged New York wealthy. The protagonist is William Narcisco Paulinha, a Filipino male prostitute who is offered the opportunity to escape his wretched existence by Shem C, a writer bent on revenge owing to his lack of success. At Shem's insistence, William assumes the role of Master Chao, a feng shui expert, and the two begin to rob New York's super wealthy of both their money and their well-being by "fixing" their homes. As William moves through the class spectrum of Manhattan, he offers sardonic and keen observations about social, racial, and cultural distinctions and privileges. Heath Madom, writing in Library Journal, noted "Ong's strong writing keeps the plot moving at a good pace, and his abilities as a playwright serve him well in rendering excellent dialog." Janet Maslin of the New York Times, desribed Fixer Chao as "an inventively malevolent debut novel . . . vivid.... Ong has a gift for quick acerbic caricatures and piercing observations about contemporary culture." Amy Benfer, writing in Salon.com called Fixer Chao "Extremely satisfying and even moving....An unrelenting aria of high bitchiness and scathing satire." One thing puzzled Han Ong about the glowing reception of his debut novel. As he told an Advocate interviewer, "Reviewers persist in labeling it a satire. For me, it's just the way people behave."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Asian-American Almanac, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1995.
Advocate, August 14, 2001, article on Han Ong, p. 89.
American Theatre, February, 2001, Lenora Inez Brown, interview with Han Ong, p. 29.
Back Stage, May 17, 1996, David Sheward, review of The Chang Fragments, p. 23.
Lambda Book Report, September, 2001, Jim Gladstone, review of Fixer Chao, p. 20.
Library Journal, February 15, 2001, Heath Madom, review of Fixer Chao, p. 61.
Los Angeles Times, April 29, 2001, Mark Rozzo, review of Fixer Chao, p. 22.
Nation, September 26, 1994, Hal Gelb, review of Airport Music, p. 321.
New Statesman & Society, November 19, 1993, Sheridan Morley, review of The L.A. Plays, p. 41.
New York Times Book Review, April 29, 2001, Kera Bolonik, review of Fixer Chao, p. 20.
New York Times, October 20, 1993, p. B3; May 9, 1994, Stephen Holden, review of Airport Music, p. B3; May 13, 1996, Vincent Canby, review of The Chang Fragments, p. B4; April 5, 2001, Janet Maslin, review of Fixer Chao, p. B9.
New Yorker, April 26, 1993, John Lahr, review of The L.A. Plays, p. 112.
Publishers Weekly, January 15, 2001, W. S. Gilbert, review of Fixer Chao, p. 37; March 12, 2001, review of Fixer Chao, p. 61.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, fall, 2001, Paul Maliszewski, review of Fixer Chao, p. 204.
Spectator (London, England), Aleks Sierz, review of The L.A. Plays, p. 58.
Variety, May 17, 1993, Markland Taylor, review of The L.A. Plays, p. 109; May 16, 1994, Matt Wolf, review of The L.A. Plays, p. 34.
Washington Post, April 26, 2001, Jonathan Yardley, review of Fixer Chao, p. C02.
Salon.com,http//www.salon.com/ (April 19, 2001), Amy Benfer, review of Fixer Chao.*