Joy ChenYu Lewis and Melissa Lewis Wong
Joy ChenYu Lewis and Melissa Lewis Wong | Credit: RJ Muna

Not all mother-child relationships are the same. When Melissa Lewis Wong (who uses they/them pronouns) and their mother Joy ChenYu Lewis join artistic forces in Flowers and Fog, the results will be far from anything you could easily imagine. The preview on May 17 and subsequent Saturday and Sunday performances through May 26 will be at the Gateway Theatre in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Artists across the globe discovered during the COVID pandemic that they had time to work on personal projects, especially given all the topics that had unexpectedly become important. Wong shares that they and their mother “were just talking a lot more on Zoom and on the phone. Totally truthfully, I think I was met with this fear because my parents are older. I was just worried that they were going to contract COVID and have complications based on their health situation. It forced me to grapple with this feeling of ‘I have so many questions; there are a lot of things that I just don’t know.’

Melissa Lewis Wong
Melissa Lewis Wong | Credit: RJ Muna

“Hearing more stories about when I was little, getting to dive back into these memories together, I was seeing how that could live in film,” Wong recounts. “So we ended up making a short film together. We had hours and hours of audio conversations. I edited it down, and we made a shot list and just captured things together.

“There was a moment with Joy’s storytelling and some of our conversations ending with a song. I somehow convinced Joy to get in drag — sort of Chinese opera-inspired, and I lip-synced to her singing this Chinese song, and that was the very first chapter of this collaboration.”

Wong explains that “combining Joy’s singing and musical contributions with my drag and movement practices was like weaving through different stories, narratives, timelines, and histories to build something new together and create a play space for us to reimagine our connection and meet each other in these new ways. That feels like really meaningful life work for me.”

Even though Lewis, who was born in Beijing, had parents who were Chinese, she says, “I consider I’m mixed because my father is from Guangdong and my mother is from Zhejiang. They are very far away and could be two different countries. They went to school in the south during [World War II] and went to Beijing to work.”

Wong adds, “A big part of my mom’s story is growing up in the Cultural Revolution. Her parents, both teachers, were targeted by the Communist Party. [She chose] to go to Inner Mongolia.”

Lewis moved to the United States in 1980, landing in New York City, where she completed a college degree. She and her American husband moved to Massachusetts, where Wong was born.

“My [maternal] grandma came to live with us for the first almost 10 years of my life,” continues Wong. “I would not claim that I’m a fluent Mandarin speaker, but so much of what I absorbed was because of her. So I feel fortunate that we were very close. Joy was really dedicated to keeping that [Chinese culture] in my life. We went to Chinese school, and I found Chinese dance. It was challenging to be in a space where not many people were like me. It was hard to find language for that.”

Moving to San Francisco has helped Wong better understand her experiences. “Since I’ve lived here, I have been trying to integrate this cultural form that I grew up with [into] my contemporary training. I also found drag performance, and my drag persona is Deuce Lee. Another influence for me is this high theatricality and queer expression where I am exploring mixedness, gender, and being Chinese American.”

Layering all of that into a dance-film project may not be what is expected, but it’s a rich and complex field for artistic exploration.