Watsonville-born playwright Spike Wong explores his identity through his work — and makes up for lost time

Watsonville-born playwright Spike Wong
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Spike Wong’s latest play, “White Sky, Falling Dragon,” is just weeks away from its COVID-delayed premiere Aug. 26. Very possibly his most personal work thus far, the production is the culmination of a long quest to further ground himself in his identity — and regain what he and his family lost by living and growing up Asian in America.

A Q&A with Watsonville-born playwright Spike Wong

“Eat bitter,” or roughly, “endure hardship.”

It’s a long-taught concept passed to Chinese children by older generations, and Steve “Spike” Wong knows the sentiment well. His grandfather almost never spoke about his painful time at San Francisco Bay’s Angel Island, then the prisonlike major immigration station for Asian immigrants, after coming to America from southern China, but by calling it an “imprisonment,” he made his suffering clear. Wong’s father approached turmoil similarly.

“My dad could eat bitter like nobody’s business,” said Wong. “You could see the expression come over his face and you just knew not to ask him about it.”

Wong, 70, doesn’t quite approach it the same way, though.

Born and raised in Watsonville, Wong was surrounded by immigrant families of Latin American, Filipino, Japanese and European descent. While working at his father’s grocery store, he learned how to interact with people from many different walks of life, finding far more similarities than differences.

“That was really super helpful for me growing up, realizing that I can get along with these people by just trying to understand them and accept them as a person,” he said. His experience at Chico State University, among a largely white student body, made him question what he had to do to prove himself.

As it turns out, something he picked up during those years guided his examination of culture, identity and acceptance later in his life — playwriting.

He wrote his first short play in a college writing class, and went on to teach English for 38 years, with 23 of those spent at his alma mater, Watsonville High School. Due in large part to the community that he grew up in, Wong says he was able to connect with all of his students, no matter their personal story.

In the 1990s, he started writing more plays, and he has built up a prolific body of work that includes the autobiographical “Dragon Skin,” which covers the desire to be a part of white America; “Countess Befits Her,” a comedy inspired by peers tracing their heritage through genealogy sites; and even a stage production of the legendary 1950 Akira Kurosawa film “Rashomon.”

Watsonville-born playwright Spike Wong
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Over the years, Wong has written and directed over 25 plays, with many exploring themes of culture, identity, family, the immigrant experience and more.

Now retired from teaching, Wong’s latest play, “White Sky, Falling Dragon,” is arguably his most personal work yet. It will have its long-awaited premiere (thanks to more than three years of COVID delays) Aug. 26 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.

The play deals with a Chinese American man returning home from World War II, in which he served as an air force bombardier. Based on Wong’s father, the character struggles with being an American in a traditional Chinese family and learning to accept one culture in order to move forward with the other. Wong will assume the role of his grandfather.

Locally, his plays have been featured in Santa Cruz County Actors’ Theatre’s “8 Tens @ 8" festival, at which he has also acted in numerous other productions for different directors. His work has also been produced off Broadway in New York and even down under in Sydney, Australia. His work has garnered attention from the local arts community, with Philip Pearce of Performing Arts Monterey Bay referring to “Dragon Skin” as “the most dramatic and visually beautiful of the 2018 festival.”

Wong says he approached these plays the same way he approached his students, constantly exploring the question of identity that pervades the human experience.

“It’s not as much about refining who I am necessarily, but trying to expand my understanding of the human path and influences that got me here,” he said. “That’s why being a playwright is important, you can create these people to try to understand their situations as well.”

All of his work tells us that Wong does not “eat bitter.” Rather, he has found a way to explore the disparate parts of his identity, better understand his family’s struggles, and come to terms with aspects of Chinese culture that he missed out on while growing up in America — things he saw his grandparents actively reject in hopes of assimilating.

Wong spoke with Lookout, his emotion and passion palpable, about just that.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Spike
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: When did the idea for this play come to you? Has this been a long time coming?

Spike Wong: As a kid, we knew that my dad was discharged as a captain from the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II, so every now and then we’d say that he must have done something for a Chinese guy to reach the rank of captain during the war, but he always said it was no big deal. In the back of my mind, there’s always been that question as well as a lot of respect, because he had to put up with a lot of crap.

But in early 2018, I was walking the streets of Barcelona, and I don’t know how it happened, but I just had this thought about seeing my dad walk in the front door of the family home in Watsonville in full uniform, carrying his luggage. I just asked myself, “What must that have been like?”

So I spent probably two weeks in Spain just writing down lines. I don’t know what this story was yet, but I would hear things and write them up. I found this feeling kept bubbling up, and it was one of loss and suffering. That’s when this dichotomy between my traditional Chinese peasant grandparents and my dad coming home, realizing he had to become even more American to succeed, and how that must have created tension in this family. My grandfather was the No. 1 son in a large family in China, and my dad was the No. 1 son of a No. 1 son. That pressure is huge.

Lookout: How do you think your family’s experience in America is similar to and different from your own?

Wong: It’s fascinating. First thing, is that there was a real conscious decision by my parents to let their three sons be themselves, whatever that might be. They never squashed my imagination in favor of, say, more intensive school. I related that directly to the fact that my parents had this vision that in order to become Americans and get the advantages of being in America in the 1950s and ‘60s, they had to let us break from some Chinese traditions.

But I do see distinct lines going straight back to my grandfather, and probably my great-grandfather as well, and that is “eat bitter” is such an ingrained part of my cultural, cellular makeup. Other people say, “Well, yeah, lots of people take bad stuff in and go through it.” I agree, but it’s slightly different in Chinese culture because you’ll never talk about it.

The only thing we ever heard from my grandfather about Angel Island is that he suffered. He told me that when I was 7 or 8 years old, and that’s all he ever said about it. My dad could eat bitter like nobody’s business. You could see the expression come over his face, and you just knew not to ask him about it.

That’s when this dichotomy between my traditional Chinese peasant grandparents and my dad coming home, realizing he had to become even more American to succeed, and how that must have created tension in this family. My grandfather was the No. 1 son in a large family in China, and my dad was the No. 1 son of a No. 1 son. That pressure is huge.

Other things like valuing education and working hard are big, too, but the most important thing of all is recognition of ancestors. It’s not like worship in the traditional sense, but for me, it’s understanding that I am my ancestors’ dream. All of my family that stayed in China chipped in a couple of coins so that my grandfather could buy a one-way ticket and hopefully make it. When my grandfather came, he suffered, and my dad worked extremely hard.

So all of that gives me this sense that what I’m doing is so important. It needs to be done, seen, and heard. I’m funding this whole production on a retired teacher’s pension for the sole reason of honoring my ancestors and our culture. I mean, a Cantonese Chinese American stage play? When was the last time that’s been seen?

Lookout: This play is strongly inspired by your family, and you even play your grandfather in it. How do you get yourself into those shoes and see the story through the eyes of these personal characters?

Wong: Directing these actors is interesting, because they know full well my connection. I see them mostly on Zoom, but I remind them that a lot of the character is in the lines. How they develop the character is not dependent on what I want them to do, and I have to make it clear that I’m working with them using the talent and personality they bring and develop a relationship together.

Watsonville-born playwright Spike Wong during a rehearsal
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Again, a lot of the characterization is in the writing. I’m playing the role of my grandfather, but I don’t necessarily try to adopt his habits. I look at the lines and try to understand the feeling or emotion that I drew from my grandfather in order to write the lines. Some of the things that my grandfather says in the play he actually said in real life. A lot of the storyline is fictional, but much of what’s going on actually happened in my family. So when I play my grandfather, I try to think of his character traits and how they relate to me. I want his pain to be present, but not one-dimensional. I have to make sure I keep looking for his humanity, not his sorrow.

Lookout: To shift to your other profession, how did your experience shape the way you taught and connected with students?

Wong: I started teaching at Watsonville in 1976, I think. Watching Watsonville grow into a more Hispanic population through immigration really meant that I understand the immigrant story. Similar to many of those families, many of my family members were migrant farmworkers, and I could really relate to my students whose families came from Mexico.

When I switched to Los Gatos High, it was super predominantly white. It had literally five Hispanic students and maybe three or four Asian students back then. We would have these discussions about what it means to be from an immigrant family trying to make it in America, and we’d find a lot of similarities.

Sometimes I wonder why there should even be a question about identity. There’s this really deep-rooted human need to know either who you are or why you are who you are, and I don’t know why that is. I think some of the question of identity comes from the reaction of the people around you, towards you. If you’re treated as somewhat different, you’re naturally going to start having questions about what you have to do to be accepted. Acceptance is like a safety zone where you can feel like you’re a whole person, because you don’t have to worry about trying to be something you’re not.

Lookout: As someone of Chinese descent, what do you feel like you missed growing up in America? Personally, when I was in high school here, realizing that I could probably count the Asian students on both hands was certainly an eye-opener.

Wong: Absolutely. I think language is the No. 1 thing. Other languages have different ways of perceiving things and they’re not wrong or right. It’s just that that other perspective deepens the whole experience of being in a society and being in a culture, being with other people, and just being in the world. That’s what I feel is the most crucial thing to have missed.

When I was 55, I went to China for the first time and knew I had to learn some Chinese, and I might as well learn Mandarin since that’s what’s going on in China now. It’s extremely difficult, but I knew I had to pursue it for the rest of my life. Learning some Mandarin and even recalling the few remnants of Cantonese that I have helped me interact and understand the world in a different way, and I feel so much richer for that.

Lookout: So given all of this life experience, how has all of this led you to this play?

Wong: In my opinion, this is one of the least egotistical things I’ve ever done in theater. This story is coming from a long line, that I’m starting to try to pay more attention to and better understand. Obviously, I don’t know all the details, but I can assume the certain situations that led to this. I feel like everything I’ve ever learned about playwriting is somehow making an appearance here.

We all have this energy of passion, that necessity and importance about something. It could be about making the right kind of coffee, or whatever else it may be. But, I’ve never felt this driven before. It’s as if I’m standing in an ocean and a big wave sweeps me up and I get used to the tumbling until it’s no longer tumbling, it’s now a play with specific requirements. That wave is still moving through me.

I’m pouring all of my personal resources into it, which nobody in their right mind would do unless you were able to drop your ego and say that this needs to live. This relationship, this story, this type of understanding really needs to live.

I remember back when I did “Dragon Skin,” I’m standing in the lobby after the show, and a guy walked out of the theater and saw me standing there. He’s the first audience member out, and he walked right up to me and shakes my hand and says, “Let me tell you something — I am Greek, and that was my story.”

So it’s not about refining who I am, necessarily, but trying to expand my understanding of the human path and influence that got me here, and how I can connect to other people with their stories. I guess that’s why being a playwright is important, too. You can create these people to try to understand their situations.

Lookout: Would you say that what you’re doing is the antithesis of “eating bitter,” then? Is this how you express what others won’t let themselves?

Wong: Well, I do feel that yes, this question of identity is important, especially as it relates to our culture. I definitely feel that I’m going to be doing more of this kind of work, but for good or for bad, it has to come from my cultural upbringing and experience simply because I haven’t been examining it for so. Damn. Long. Like I said, it wasn’t until I was 55 when I faced the reality of what I needed to do.

Part of me said, “I’m 55, what am I going to do with it?” The other part of me, though, said, “at least you got there.”