Q&A with Irwin Tang, creator of “Cheese”

By Yvonne Lim Wilson

Local writer and liscensed professional counselor Irwin Tang drew from his own experiences to create “Cheese,” his new play about the generational conflicts within one Chinese American family. The play is based on a short story he wrote of the same name and makes its debut this weekend in a production directed by Leng Wong.

“Cheese” is about a Chinese American father who is extremely thrifty. When he brings home a block of government-issued cheese (something that is foreign to a Chinese diet), it brings out anger from his wife, whose painstakingly crafted Chinese dinner is ruined, as well as embarrassment from his two children, who feel distanced from him.

We learn more about the father’s perspective as he tells of his childhood surviving the war in China, watching all of his siblings die from illness and suffering through near starvation. The children slowly begin to understand and empathize.

YLW: Tell me about the play.
IT: It’s based on a short story I wrote 18 years ago. My original inspiration was to capture the family dynamic in a goofy way. The parents are caught up in a war [told through flashbacks] and the kids, who are Americanized, don’t want to hear about those ghosts. I drew from my parents war stories, certain events and experiences.

The story is kicked off when the frugal father brings home a block of government issued cheese – this is food for poor people, but they are not poor. The parents save everything – sauce packets, containers and 10-year old jello packets. This causes chaos in the family. It’s a mixture of comedy and tragedy.

YLW: It’s been 18 years since you wrote the short story, and you wrote the play within the last year. Have you brought some new experiences or perspectives into the play?
IT: The stage play is greatly different from the short story. The depth of emotion is much greater.

YLW: Do you have a favorite scene in the play?
IT: There’s a scene of the father as a boy during WWII discovering matches for the first time. He finds an escape from the war by lighting matches in the dark. That was a story my father told me. That blows my mind that we have iPads and video-conferencing, but just one generation back someone was discovering matches for the first time.

YLW: The extreme thriftiness parents is hilarious. Why do you think they are like that – is it part of Chinese culture, or was it something that came from having to survive during a war?
IT: Both. Most Chinese are three or four generations removed from being a peasant, tilling the land, so it’s not unusual that they don’t throw anything out, especially food. I think I recently saw a box of Jello leftover from when I was 10, over 30 years ago. We had family members starving in China, and that’s something you can’t shake off. When they say, ‘clean your plate, your uncle and aunt starved to death,’ you think, ‘OK, I can finish this.’

YLW: What do you hope people will get out of the play?
IT: I hope they are entertained and I hope they can feel for the characters and know that there are others who feel for them and the hardships they go through. It’s a funny, funny play, and it’s a sad play. I think most people will engage with this story.

Originally published April 2012

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