“Citizen Wong” is a play inspired by Wong Chin Foo (王清福, 1847–1898), the late 19th-century celebrity speaker-writer known as the first Chinese American. His affair with a rich suffragette whose father runs for president captures the essence of an era when racists supported an “anti-Chinese wall” and passed the Chinese Exclusion Act that Wong fought tirelessly against.
After the U.S. Transcontinental Railroad is completed on May 10, 1869, largely with Chinese labor, the United States plunges into the Long Depression which lasts up to two decades. Starting in the West Coast, unemployed white Americans and European immigrants accuse Chinese men of stealing their jobs and accepting menial wages. Discrimination forces Chinese into ghettos and traditional women's jobs, reinforcing stereotypes of them as unmanly, unassimilable and miserly rat eaters. The xenophobia steadily spreads to the East Coast, promoted by the media and entertainment, until Congress passes the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first U.S. law to ban a race of people from entering the country.
The dying Manchu dynasty is powerless to fight against this violation of the Burlingame Treaty of 1868, which had guaranteed China's citizens the right to travel, work and study in the United States, and vice versa.
As the upper classes indulge in the giddy pleasures of the Gilded Age, mobs harass and attack Chinese to expel them from North America. Entire communities are whitewashed through lynchings in Los Angeles and Rock Springs, Wyoming; murders in Hells Canyon and Deep Creek, Oregon; and riots in Tacoma and Seattle, Washington; and elsewhere.
Wong Chin Foo, the most visible Chinese in America, uses the pen and pulpit to expose Christian hypocrisy and fight against "a measure too cruel, too inhuman, to be practiced by the most barbarous people on earth, (that) was so willingly adopted by the American Congress, and signed by a Christian president in the land of liberty and home of the oppressed of all nations."
WONG CHIN FOO, a naturalized American social rights activist, media darling and ladies' man who is feted by high society until he declares war on Chinese Exclusion through his newspapers, freelance articles and Southern Baptist-style speeches around the country.
ELIZA STANHOPE, the beautiful, educated scion of one of America's richest and most powerful families who rebels against the narrow strictures imposed on women and engages in an affair with Wong.
LEIGH STANHOPE, a railroad tycoon who imports Chinese labor to build the Transcontinental Railroad and serve his household, but supports an "anti-Chinese wall" and travel ban on "Celestials" in his run for president.
VICTORIA STANHOPE, a paradigm of Christian virtues who is highly protective of her family and religiously abides by social mores to maintain their privileged position.
VINCENT WELLS, Eliza's philandering lawyer husband who invests in entertainment that panders to the masses' taste for the exotic.
ALVA VANDERBILT, Eliza’s best friend, who uses her charms and husband's massive inheritance to trump Old Money and turn her daughter into a European aristocrat.
WONG KIM ARK, California-born son of a Stanhope household servant who grows up to be a cook and subject of the U.S. government's landmark lawsuit to restrict citizenship to whites.
TOM LEE, a New York Deputy Sheriff and mob boss of Chinatown who is Wong Chin Foo's buddy and financial supporter.
HELENA PETROVNA BLAVATSKY, the Russian-born New Age guru who launches Wong Chin Foo's career as a celebrity speaker and "Buddhist missionary".
DENIS KEARNEY, an Irish immigrant union leader turned politician whose agenda is to "eradicate Chinese from the continent"