Playwright Henry Ong Weaves Fabric of Immigrant Lives

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Fabric presented by Company of Angels in association with the Thai Community Development Center, opened July 10; plays Fri.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 4:30; through Aug. 8. Tickets: $20.Black Box at The Alexandria, 501 S. Spring St., Los Angeles213.489.3703 or

Raised in Singapore, Malaysian-born playwright Henry Ong remembers exactly when he knew he wanted to be a writer. “I was seven. I told my mother and she cried. I thought I had said something bad so I suppressed it and never brought it up again. I graduated with a degree in biology from the University of Singapore even though I had no aptitude for it. I didn’t begin my creative writing until I moved to the U.S. in my late 20s to go to graduate school at Iowa State University.”

<br />Henry Ong
Henry Ong

Although the path to playwriting has been circuitous, Ong has joined forces with LA’s oldest professional non-profit theater, the venerable downtown- based Company of Angels to premiere his Fabric, a stage work that focuses on human trafficking and modern-day slavery, memorializing the 15th anniversary of the landmark 1995 Thai garment workers slavery case.

Ong’s previous works include his much acclaimed debut, Madam Mao’s Memories, a one-person play based on the life of infamous Jiang Quing, widow of Chairman Mao; Sweet Karma (2009), about the immigrant Cambodian doctor who survived the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, only to be gunned down in the streets of Los Angeles a decade later; People Like Me (Drama-Logue Award for writing), The Old Lady Who Popped Out of the Sidewalk and Became a Christmas Tree and The Legend of the White Snake.

He recalls, “Fabric is based on the August 2, 1995 incident where law enforcement officials raided an apartment building in the Los Angeles community of El Monte and found 72 Thai nationals being held captive and forced to work in the garment district. Some of the captives had been held for as long as seven years by a ring leader, the notorious Auntie Suni.

“I read about it the next day in the Los Angeles Times and I was shocked that this could be happening in California today, practically in my own backyard.  I knew right then I wanted to do a play about this.”

In retrospect, Ong has come to learn that, unfortunate as it is, the illegal transportation of foreign nationals for the purpose of indentured servitude has become an increasingly common practice in the United States. This story resonated with Ong, and he immediately contacted the Thai Community Development Center and its executive director Chancee Martorell.

“Chancee was very helpful,” says Ong. “She put me in touch with some of the garment workers and some of the law enforcement officials who were working on the case. I had no problem getting background information from the law officials but interviewing the actual Thai nationals proved problematic because most of them spoke no English.

<p>Jolene Kim and Dian Kobayashi.  Photo by Kila Kitu.</p>
Jolene Kim and Dian Kobayashi. Photo by Kila Kitu.

“I finally did get a translator, but on the day of my scheduled interview with about half a dozen of the workers, the translator got ill. I didn’t know how I was going to proceed. Finally, I approached the workers to see if any of them could speak any English at all. A rather shy young woman said she spoke English a little and would try.

“I turned on my tape recorder, and she started to talk in her broken English. I was really fascinated because the way she spoke gave me a rhythm for how a garment worker would speak. That became the basis for the dialogue I created to tell the stories of these workers. That young lady, Rotchana Chenchujit, became the inspiration for the play’s central female character.”

The history of Fabric didn’t flow immediately from page to stage. Over the years, Ong has attempted to interest a number of theater companies to produce it. In 2000, he successfully applied to the Cultural Affairs Department for a grant to do a workshop production, but that did not proceed any further. One director was interested in staging it in an actual sweatshop, but the owner of the facility changed his mind, fearing immigration scrutiny. “Mostly the play has sat on my shelf,” says Ong. “And then the Company of Angels became interested and here we are.”

Directed by Angels co-artistic director Marlene Forte, the production features Jennifer Chang, Feodor Chin, Jolene Kim, Dian Kobayashi, Jully Lee, Rudy Marquez, PJ Marshall, Eddie Mui, Diana Toshiko, Jeff Watson, Ben Wang, Joyce F. Liu, Andrew Hamrick and Joon Lee.

“Looking back at my earlier life in Singapore, which has a somewhat repressive society,” Ong says, “I know it is my coming to the US that gradually freed my mind and spirit to venture into playwriting. Up until my first successful work, Madame Mao’s Memories, which premiered at Theater/Theatre in Hollywood in 1989, I was a somewhat closeted writer. The play got great reviews and has subsequently been produced at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, in London, at the Edinburgh Arts Festival, in Singapore and most recently in Canada. I think it was the success of that play that gave me the courage to actually proclaim myself to be a playwright.

Aside from his stage work, Ong has busied himself over the last four years with various oral history projects, the latest being one with the blind and visually impaired which resulted in a public presentation at the Braille Institute last year. Other oral history projects given public presentations are Korean American Stories (2009), Chinese American Stories (2008), and Pinoy Stories (2006).

“I feel like the history projects are my volunteer community service,” Ong chuckles. “Basically, I go to the different communities and help people tell their stories. This year, I’ve gotten a grant to do one with the Thai community which I will begin fairly soon.

“I’ve also stayed in touch with Rotchana who stayed in the US, married and had a child. “When I last talked to her, she said she was now a woman of leisure, a stay-at-home mom and housewife. She does continue to be a spokesperson for anti-foreign worker trafficking. As for me, I am always thinking about my next playwriting project.”

Feature image of Jennifer Chang and Jully Lee by Kila Kitu.


Julio Martinez

Julio Martinez

Julio pens the weekly LA STAGE Insider column for @ This Stage Magazine, as well as the monthly LA STAGE History column. He is a recurring contributor to Written By (the monthly publication of the Writer’s Guild of America) and is the TeleVision columnist for Latin Heat Entertainment. On air, he hosts the weekly Arts in Review program for KPFK 90.7 FM. An active journalist for over 30 years, Julio’s articles and reviews have appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, Daily Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, L.A. Weekly, Stage Raw, Backstage West, Westways Magazine, and Drama-Logue Magazine, among others.