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A father hidden as a 'paper son'

Byron Yee's tale of his immigrant dad began with a botched Chinese accent.

September 21, 2003|Irene Lacher | Special to The Times

It's an odd fact of L.A. life that Chinese press conferences for Asian entertainers are held in the back room of a Japanese restaurant. The owner of Wonderful Restaurant in San Gabriel used to be in show business back in Taiwan, so his sushi-teria has become the place where Jackie Chan and his ilk promote their projects before the Chinese-language media.

But that didn't begin to account for Byron Yee's disorientation during his recent press conference there to publicize his one-man show, "Paper Son," which opens Sept. 23 at the Gascon Center Theatre in Culver City.

In the show, which has been warmly received by critics in San Francisco and Canada, the Oklahoma City-born comedian traces his emotional journey from super-assimilated American to self-acceptance as the son of a Chinese immigrant. So a press conference at Wonderful would seem an obvious stop. After all, there was the bond of shared cultural heritage, right?

But once the conference got underway, it quickly became clear that not everyone there was speaking the same language. Yee doesn't speak Chinese, and several of the reporters didn't speak English, so an interpreter was called in to help Yee field their questions. Yes, he is married. No, she's not Chinese. No, he doesn't have kids.

Then someone asked a question that seemed pretty basic to the reporter, but Yee needed more help than even the interpreter could provide: Where in China did his family come from?

Yee, 42, was stumped. He pulled out his cellphone and started dialing. "Hi, Mom," he said. "It's Byron ...."

You're more likely to find Yee chowing down at the best barbecue spots in Oklahoma City than at the dim sum place a block from his home in Santa Monica. Indeed, when Yee sits down there to talk about "Paper Son" a week after the press conference, he mentions that it's his first visit, even though he's lived within walking distance for a year.

"In Oklahoma City, I have chicken-fried steak," he says, washing down his shrimp dumplings with a Diet Coke. "I didn't have dim sum until I was 25 or 26."

America has been gathering in its wretched masses for many decades now, and the melting pot is boiling over. Like many assimilated Americans from immigrant families, Yee is grappling with the distance he's come from his cultural origins, which has sent him searching for a new hyphenated identity.

It wasn't always so. Yee grew up among only a handful of Chinese families living in Oklahoma City, where his immigrant father worked in the oil industry. When he broke into stand-up comedy, the fish-out-of-water jokes spilled out of him. As he says in "Paper Son," "Back in Oklahoma, my apartment was Chinatown."

Yee considered himself quintessentially American and he wanted to act, but parts for Chinese American guys who didn't practice martial arts were virtually nonexistent.

"I went into stand-up comedy so I wouldn't have to go up for the wacky Chinese restaurant owner or the guy with the accent," he said. "In stand-up, I wrote my own material, I was who I was, I could tell my jokes, I could go to the bar afterward and drink beer and meet women."

Yee moved to San Francisco in 1990 to work on his act, and by 1996 he'd tired of shooting off a string of one-liners at bars. He decided to write a one-man show. The Chinese-guy-in-Oklahoma shtick seemed an obvious subject, but as Yee began writing he found himself confronting experiences that weren't, in the end, particularly funny. One was his audition for the Chinese restaurant owner in "Grumpier Old Men."

"I couldn't do a Chinese accent," he said. "I'd never attempted one in my life, so I went to Chinatown and I tried to pick it up. I do the audition, and I'm doing a stereotype of Charlie Chan on TV. And I got back to San Francisco, and I realized this was so wrong. It was so incredibly wrong, and I couldn't figure out why."

Questions about Dad

When Yee began to delve deeper into his background, he quickly discovered how little he knew about his father. (His mother, the daughter of a Chinese diplomat, had grown up in the States.)

As a kid, he didn't care. "At the time my father passed away, I probably knew more about Barry Switzer, who was the University of Oklahoma football coach at the time, than I did about my father," Yee said with obvious dismay.

His father had never talked about his life before settling in the U.S. in 1938 at age 15. Yee discovered that his father had barely squeaked by the extremely restrictive Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The ordinance severely limited Chinese immigration to diplomats, merchants, students and children of citizens. Yee's father was none of those.

He fell into a shadowy category created by young Chinese immigrant men who would go back to China for a few years and return with a wife and several children. Not all were really their own; they'd sell slots to other families trying to send their sons and daughters to the States.

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