British East Asian Theatre: “I’m not a graceful lotus flower.”

One of my pet hates is when books/plays written by BAME writers are perceived or labelled as culturally ‘niche’. Why do people say that? It’s a way of othering and distancing works by writers of colour for being ‘different’. It’s alienating for BAME writers and readers/audience members when it’s difficult for minority writers to get a platform and challenge the status quo in the first place. I think that it’s necessary to deconstruct this idea that we are ‘niche’, and with that in mind, here are two products of the British East Asian theatrical community which I have really enjoyed reading recently. Foreign Goods really got me thinking: why is this the first British East Asian collection of theatrical writing? Because it’s SO good. I hope that there’s another!

Foreign Goods (Edited by Jingan Young)

It’s a pleasure to see that Foreign Goods, the first anthology of writing by British East Asian artists, is celebrating these writers, not because they tick a ‘niche’ socio-geographical category, but because they work together so smoothly and effectively as a group of writing pieces. It’s a superb collection and I wish that it had been around when I was younger. As David Henry Hwang writes in his foreword, this paperback marks a significant step in the history and future of the rapidly-expanding British East Asian theatre movement. All of the pieces are excellent, but I’ve picked a few of my favourites to talk about.

Julie Cheung-Inhin’s ‘No More Lotus Flower!’ is a cutting and comic beginning to the collection. The meta-theatrical context of addressing racial issues in theatrical casting (being confused for ‘the other Asian one’, accent issues, etc.) reminded me of Hwang’s brilliant Yellow Face, and it is great to begin reading the collection with commentary on the reality of obstacles still facing Asian actors and theatre practitioners in the industry. ‘Do you speak Chinese?’ a voiceover asks again and again in the opening sequence. In this piece, the protagonist, Julie (‘Julie Cheung-Inhin’; the playwright portrayed a character of the same name at the Camden People’s Theatre at the Camden Fringe in 2015), is worn down by micro-aggressions from voice coaches, drama school teachers, and industry professionals. Pigeon-holed as an Oriental, a geisha, or a Japanese tourist, she speaks out and takes agency over these experiences and memories by challenging the daily struggles which she faces as an actor:

It’s as if there’s no such thing as a British East Asian. I am British. Why do I have to fight so hard to represent the nationality that I was born into?

Cheung-Inhin asks powerful questions and writes in an incredibly vulnerable manner. I love this one-woman play.

I also really enjoyed Amber Hsu’s ‘The Stone’ (or ‘No One Disaster is Total’) for its unsettling narrative. The play was first commissioned by the Royal Court Theatre and presented at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs in 2015. The poetically minimalist style of speech and direction, as well as the style of the text on the page, really brought out the best of the disturbing tragedy of a story spanning across a thousand years. It’s a short but remarkable exploration of pain and the inheritance of trauma.

‘The Swing’ by Tan Suet Lee was heart-pulling. It explores the complications of family, the pressures of diaspora life on Shirley, a second-generation child growing up in England, and her mother Mei Sun, as they visit family in Singapore. Mei Sun also experiences horrendous Orientalism during an audition for a film, which spirals into an abusive and racist monologue from the director, severly undermining Mei Sun’s self-confidence. Heavy topics are countered by other light-hearted moments; I especially loved the scene entitled ‘These are a few of my favourite things’, a reworking of the Julie Andrews classic. Featuring bacon butties and ‘dried chillies sitting in the sun’, it could only have been written by a writer who understood both UK and East Asian cultures!

The story of ‘I’m Just Here to Buy Soy Sauce’ by Jingan Young, who edited the collection, was unexpected, but I truly enjoyed reading it. It was first performed at the Camden People’s Theatre in 2016 as part of the Whose London? festival, and later developed and toured with the Papergang Theatre Company in 2016. Cassandra, a woman who has a new job at a real estate agency in London has a difficult manager to deal with. The play reflects upon capitalism, scapegoating, and the politics of London’s housing market. Young’s dialogue is highly tense, clever, and very engaging.

All of the pieces of writing in this collection are incredibly thought-provoking and really made me reflect on my own identity, and the issues of representation for BAME actors within mainstream theatre. The best thing about the collection for me is being able to read British East Asian writers represent British East Asian characters in an authentic way. The result is tremendously moving – seeing characters who are strong, funny, unique, flawed, and just plain interesting. Julie Cheung-Inhin’s words phrased everything so beautifully:

But of course, the problem is, I don’t wear silk. The closest thing I have are my satin pyjamas. I’m not a graceful lotus flower.

Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok by In-Sook Chappell

When I first looked at Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok, I was immediately intrigued by the idea of a young British Chinese woman, Helen, returning to Hong Kong to explore her identity and family history. The cover, featuring a woman (her grandmother) in the shadows and the protagonist walking towards us in the light, looks strikingly dystopian, and I think that in many ways that suits the play text. The mystery of her family history is captivating and Chappell’s writing is magical. It’s the dreamy combination of a great plot and fantastic dialogue.

Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok tells the tale of Helen who traces her family history of a famous Chinese restaurant in Manchester back to family history in Hong Kong. Helen is a British Chinese lawyer, born and raised in the UK, who has relocated to Hong Kong for work. She is excited to explore her roots but also feels disconcerted finding herself distanced from a culture which she should belong to.

She meets the character of her grandmother, Lily Kwok, and takes her place in scenes of her life, from working in a factory as a child to being a maid for a rich white English family. It’s a tale of misery and joy, and we follow Helen’s emotional journey as she discovers her family’s past at long last.

Not only was the story line completely absorbing, but the sharpness of the dialogue and stage directions constructed the stage world so vividly that I could clearly picture it onstage. Moments of Helen following her grandmother and asking her questions through the streets of Hong Kong were very emotional. I could relate to Helen’s feelings of wanting to learn about her grandmother’s life in a time and world very different from her own. I feel that the stories of my grandparents are a very personal way to connect to my cultural heritage.

Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok was first performed at the Royal Exchange Theatre in March 2018, only a few months ago, and the play text is presented by Yellow Earth Theatre and Royal Exchange Theatre in association with Black Theatre Live. If I was this moved by the play text, I can only imagine how emotional I would feel seeing a performance onstage. I haven’t read Helen Tse’s novel Sweet Mandarin, on which the play is based, but now I really want to!

Thanks to Oberon Books for sending me these copies for review!

またね、

Naomi

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Author: Naomi

Twitter: @Naomified @ThinkingJaplish

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