40 at 40: Jean Yoon on Yoko Ono and anti-Asian racism

In our series of 40 memorable covers from 40 years, writer/actor Jean Yoon looks back at her play about art, sex and Asian identity


Few NOW covers have caused as much controversy as Jean Yoon’s nude cover for her play The Yoko Ono Project in January 6, 2000. Debra Friedman’s photo of Yoon looking back was an homage to the infamous image of a naked Ono and John Lennon on one of the latter’s albums.

“I was told that the issue was the most highly circulated issue at the time, though I wonder if some shops, like the convenience store near where I lived in Little Italy [at the time], didn’t just stash them away, even as others were hoarding [their copies] for reasons I don’t want to think about,” says Yoon today.

The Yoko Ono Project was Yoon’s attempt to explore Ono both as a way-ahead-of-her-time artist/musician and as an often demonized figure in pop culture mythology. It was also a personal piece that, as Yoon puts it, “allowed Asian women who were often attacked through comparisons to Ono to reclaim her and their own dignity.”

In a sidebar to the main story, Yoon told me Ono “provided an intersection for racism and sexism… if she had been white and asserted herself as an artistic equal with Lennon, it wouldn’t have been as bad. The fact that she was Asian made it more acceptable to demonize her.”

Prophetic and powerful words, especially in light of the murders last week of six Asian-American women in Atlanta, which opened up a discussion of the anti-Asian racism spiking throughout the world.

“The murders were disturbing, of course, but they were utterly predictable,” says Yoon. “I knew something like this was coming. You just had to listen to Trump’s rhetoric, the way he pronounced ‘China’ and said ‘Kung Flu’ and blamed COVID-19 on China – all of it.

“And anti-Asian racism here and in the U.S. has always been dependant on U.S. foreign policy. When the U.S. was in a trade war with Japan in the 80s, there was a rise of anti-Asian racism. Every wave of it is linked to how the U.S. relates to Asia.”

Yoon admits that Ono’s status as an artist is more secure now than it was 21 years ago. She used Ono’s conceptual art work Part Painting, in which audience members, each holding one piece of a work, come together to reassemble it, as a structural device for the play.

“The notion of coming together and meeting in a time when we can’t meet or be together is really profound,” says Yoon. “Ono saw the idea of coming together as its own art event.”

A lot has changed for Asian-Canadian artists, as well. Certainly the success of In’s Choi’s Kim’s Convenience – both as a 2011 play and the spinoff CBC series – has had a lot to do with that. Yoon originated the part of family matriarch Umma, and when the news broke a couple of weeks ago that the series was going to end, she recalled on Twitter that it was almost exactly 10 years ago that Choi asked her to play the role at the Fringe.

Yoon says it was Choi’s idea to end the series, “and if your showrunner leaves – if the Korean writer in the room steps out – that’s a time to say goodbye, however sad or disappointing it is.”

She’s proud of “all of my Kim’s children” who played Umma and Appa’s children onstage and in the series – she names them all – and of the fact that so many Asian-Canadian artists are moving forward and making breakthroughs in film and TV.

“What [the success of Kim’s] means is that if younger artists have a project they’re building and creating, it makes it much more likely for those projects to succeed.”

Yoon says Choi’s original script was fabulous, but points out that if she and actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee (who played Appa from the start) hadn’t survived as actors long enough to play those roles, it wouldn’t have gone anywhere.

(In the original article, I point out that Yoon phoned me up at NOW in 1999 and complained there wasn’t a single Asian actor on a professional Toronto stage that season.)

“I turned down playing a 400-year-old vampire queen in a TV show to do this role,” she laughs. “It would have been a lot more money. But it was necessary. There was no one else in Toronto who could have played Umma as a Korean woman. It would have been me or Jane [Luk, who ended up playing the role in some performances on tour] or Brenda [Kamino], and Jane and Brenda are lovely, but they’re not Korean.”

A couple of years after the Passe Muraille run, Yoon presented a solo version of The Yoko Ono Project at the AGO, and says that solo version stands the test of time better than the full-length version. She occasionally hears from actors who use monologues from the play as audition pieces.

And while the cover image was controversial – and adversely affected her dating life, for a time, she laughs – she wasn’t prepared for its reappearance a few months later when NOW’s marketing department blew it up and used it as a poster for their display booth at the Sex Show at the CNE. Or the fact that it was reproduced as a fridge magnet for another promotion.

“Nobody asked me for permission, they never checked with me, I never signed a release for that,” she says. “I’m proud of that cover image, but it was never intended to be used without the context of The Yoko Ono Project.”

The fridge magnet did, however, provide her with one lovely story.

“When my son was about 14 months old, I caught him staring at the fridge magnet for what seemed like forever. He could do baby sign language and signed, ‘Mama?’ I said yes, that’s mama. There were times when he wondered if images of Yoko Ono around the house were me and I had mostly said ‘No, that’s mama’s friend.’ This time it was yes. He looked harder at it, for longer and with greater intensity than you would expect from a kid still in diapers. Then all of a sudden his face lit up and he circled his hands over his chest, making the sign for ‘bath.’ That’s right, that’s mama having a bath.”

Below is my cover story, The Yoko Ono Project: Playwright Jean Yoon Lays Bare Asian Enigma, republished from NOW’s January 6, 2000 issue.


New play connects one loud mouth Asian babe with another

Once upon a time, Jean Yoon had big hair. It was the mid-80s. Lots of people had big hair. It was sunny outside. She was walking along the street. She put on sunglasses. And that’s when the insults began.

Cars stopped. Men – they were always men – began hollering. Everything from angry curses to stupid nudge-nudge, wink-winks.

“Hey, Yoko! Yoko Ono!”

Yoon, an articulate, emerging theatre artist quietly pursuing an English degree, found herself screaming back at those cursing cars. Fuck you, you assholes. To no avail.

She was angry. And Confused. What the hell did she have in common with Yoko Ono, anyway?

It’s a scene, more or less complete, that comes early on in The Yoko Ono Project, Yoon’s ground-breaking look at what it means to be an Asian woman in contemporary North America, which begins previews next Tuesday (January 11) at Theatre Passe Muraille.

As anyone who knows her will tell you, Yoon’s been working on the play on and off for more than five years. But the seeds were planted during those traumatic summer confrontations.

“At the time, I didn’t know anything about Yoko except that her name was a pejorative and that she was connected to John Lennon,” says Yoon, enthusiastically settling into post-rehearsal mode backstage at Passe Muraille. The hair is short.

“Then I suddenly thought, ‘Why do I hate this woman when I don’t know anything about her?'”

Today, thanks to more than a decade of research, all that’s changed. Yoon probably knows too much about Ono – her visual art, her music, her philosophy.

Show her a photograph or a piece of archival videotape and she can tell you the time and place it was taken. Show her a piece of Ono art and Yoon will explain it to you, giggling over its mischievousness. Play a piece of early Ono music and she’ll join you in bopping to the raw, emotive sounds.

Like Ono, the play itself – a co-production with Passe Muraille and Yoon’s own company, Loud Mouth Asian Babes – is wildly eclectic, proudly multi-this and multi-that.

Audience interaction

There’s a dance element, a moving story about three different Asian women and the men in their lives, plus a mysterious character named Singer Yoko.

With video footage, stills and quotations from Ono’s own poetry, the show uses Ono’s conceptual art piece, Part Paintings, as a structural metaphor. Every audience member is given a piece of the Part Painting before entering the theatre, joining the performers in what Ono herself might call “a happening.”

Oh, yeah. There’s also audience interaction, of the stand-up-if-you’re-an-Asian-woman-and-have-never-dated-an-Asian-guy variety. Neat, eh?

“That’s very Yoko,” is a phrase that Yoon, who’s directing the piece with Marion de Vries, uses quite a lot these days.

If Ono’s life and art have taken many twists and turns on a long and winding road – one year lauded by the art community, the next vilified as an Asian dragon lady who brainwashed Lennon – so has Yoon’s.

She grew up in North York, caught the theatre bug in high school – where classmates included Mark Brownell and Nan Shepherd – but soon realized it would be difficult to succeed as an Asian artist.

“I remember talking to my drama teacher about my future and saying, ‘M*A*S*H is over, and there weren’t great roles in that show anyway. What am I going to do?'”

Participating in playwright David Young’s high-school Dream Class project for gifted kids proved a pivotal moment, introducing her to writers like Burroughs, Kerouac and Acker and making her believe that, yes, she could be an artist.

Convincing others, however, proved more of a challenge.

Bad Asian

“I think a lot of artists of colour have had this problem,” she says, puffing confidently on a cigarette, a habit that immediately brands her in society’s eyes as a bad Asian woman. It’s a cliche she sends up, along with many others, in the script.

“It got to the point where I’d phone up directors and say, ‘Look, I’m Asian. If that’s a problem, tell me now. Don’t waste my time or yours.'”

Even her Korean mom, who’s her biggest supporter now, once quietly tried to sabotage her career by telling a casting director, “Jeannie’s not doing that any more” after getting a callback.

So, completely frustrated, Yoon quit theatre in the mid-80s, claiming the profession had broken her heart. It was competitive, unfair, with no sense of community. She packed her bags, spent a couple of years teaching English in China – which inspired her plays Sliding For Home & Borders and actually improved her acting skills, she claims – and then arrived back to a changing theatrical climate.

“There was multiculti money around in the early 90s, and pretty much every organization had a cultural equity person,” she says. “At times it got a bit silly, but there was work being done, and because of that a lot of artists gained experience.”

At one point, she compared cultural equity notes with the black artist Sandi Ross. Yoon was on nine active committees, Ross 11. Neither had a life, they joked, but at least they got to see each other regularly.

“I got burnt out,” she says without self-pity. “I’d go to Arts Council meetings, sit down and say, ‘The problem is…’ again and again. Or I’d get a call, whip out a database and say, ‘Talk to this person and this person.’ That stuff takes time.”

She pauses, looks around.

“But it’s been worth it.”

Still, there are ups and downs, even today. Last year Yoon called me up to point out the total absence of Asians on the professional stage that season.

“That’s me,” she smiles. “Jean Yoon: Yellow Monitor.”

Kick-ass title

In 95, at a Nightwood Theatre round table, she came up with the kickass Loud Mouth Asian Babes title, declaring herself Seoul Babe.

And just last year she organized Toronto Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (T.A.P.E.), a cool social group for Asians involved in the arts to network and share experiences.

“You can’t take sharing information for granted,” she says. “It’s something I always tell younger artists. If you hoard information and don’t tell other actors that someone’s casting an Asian role, say, that’s bullshit. If they don’t like you, they don’t like you. They’ll cast it as something else. Black, white, in the States. You have to build up a community. That’s what theatre’s about – collaboration, creating a collective vision, something that goes beyond one performance.

“A single tree in the wind can get knocked down in a very small storm. You need other trees to keep on standing.”

And what about the inspiration for the play, a woman who for a very long, pre-Connie Chung moment was one of those single trees swaying in the public imagination? Will this original Loud Mouth Asian Babe be coming to the show?

Maybe, maybe not. After granting her permission from the mysterious depths of the Dakota to use material, Ono politely declined a modest not-for-profit-theatre-budget invitation. But Yoon still has hope. Recently, she had a dream that Ono arrived, snuck backstage and sang Yes, I’m Your Angel.

“If she comes, I think it’ll be unannounced. She could arrive at any moment. I hope she does. After all, this is a total gesture of respect and love. She’d be cool with that.”

Check back every Monday for a new 40 at 40 cover story marking NOW’s 40th anniversary year.

@glennsumi

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