Singaporean roots grow in New Zealand

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Amanda Grace Leo is the lead in the upcoming production of Roots, a one-woman show about the search for cultural identity.

Fierce, fiery and fresh off from discovering her own roots in Singapore, she candidly speaks to assistant producer Nahyeon Lee about the relationship to her own ancestry, her connection with her grandmother, and the uniqueness of the bilingual nature of the play.

Catch Amanda Grace in Roots on Fri 23rd - Sat 24th February at Uxbridge and Thurs 1st March - Sat 3 March at Q. Ticket link for Uxbridge here and Q here.

 Three photos of Amanda's paternal grandmother Theresa Lim Mong Lan at different times of her life.

Three photos of Amanda's paternal grandmother Theresa Lim Mong Lan at different times of her life.

So, what are your own ‘roots’ and do you feel connected to them?

I’m Hainanese on my father’s side but my great grandmother was Indonesian Chinese and on my mum side I’m Peranakan - they call them the “straits-born Chinese” - basically an inter-marrying between Malay and Chinese who are their own sub-ethnic group.

I would say when I thought of roots, I used to always see myself as Singaporean-Kiwi, but now I’m starting to really think about what it means to be Hainanese [as well] because Hsu Hsien [the main character in Roots] – is an alter ego of me. Hsu Hsien is my own Chinese name and she has certain aspects of myself that we played up; she’s a bit precious, very adventurous, curious and headstrong, but like Hsu Hsien, I can’t speak the Siyi dialect and that’s an important part of the play.

Roots was originally written as an autobiographical piece [by Oliver Chong] how did you personally connect to it?

I think one of the first things that stuck out to me when we first started was the idea about not being able to speak the mother tongue, there’s a line that’s like “I really hate myself for not being able to speak the Siyi dialect” that really stuck out to me.

Before [PAT’s Fresh Off the Page] reading happened, three years ago, my grandmother passed away and I was very close her even though she lived in Singapore. When I was younger my whole family spoke in Hainanese when we were together and [to my grandmother] I couldn't speak Chinese and she couldn’t speak English; so our relationship was one that was very physical and loving. As I grew older I learnt Mandarin and we communicated, but of course when I heard my grandmother speak towards the end of her life in Hainanese there was a longing that got awakened in me - I really want to be able to speak to my grandmother in her language but I couldn’t. I felt like there’s so much more detail and so many more things I wish I could have gotten a sense of.

Coming from Singapore do you feel a more personal connection to the piece?

Oh yeah, 100%, especially the lingo, the language is so important, even something like Singlish, is a whole different way of expressing myself that I don’t really access here. It brings a very specific cultural part of myself to the people that know me now.

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The show is bilingual, Mandarin and English, how does your relationship with Mandarin inform your performance?

What I was really looking forward to doing for Roots was to let the language inform my physicality and my physical skill as an actor. It had been a challenge because when I read something and tried to remember my lines in Mandarin, I will think about the next line in English and have to translate it back, so Mandarin was always going to be one of the biggest challenges because I struggle with it. My performance of it isn’t going to be perfect, but that’s going to be a statement. I think with the Hsu Hsien character we really wanted to bring out that aspect, that she has this disconnect with the Siyi dialect, but she also has a disconnect with Mandarin. It’s very difficult and interesting, because you’re so saturated in the language and you can communicate well, but there is still a kind of block when you can’t speak Mandarin perfectly.

The play explores feeling connected and disconnected between geographical and generational differences - how do you explore this through a one woman show?

I have to play 21 different characters as it is a one-woman show but one of the joys of the play have been discovering who these people are, where they come from and how they feel. One of [director] Chye-Ling’s notes was to keep an eye out for people you think will be similar to the characters and surprisingly I drew from my own relatives that I’ve known all my life. I feel like that’s why this play is so magical and so relatable because it really makes you go back into your own history and ask yourself about this intergenerational place.

Also I never had a desire to go back to China, in fact, I’d never had any feelings towards China, maybe because I was always more concerned with my NZ-Singapore-ness, but when I was back in Singapore this time around one of my uncles were talking about how there is this place where everyone has this surname “Leo” which is Hainanese, and suddenly, I felt like I should go to China and I want to know what is Hainanese culture is. I knew what Singaporean-Hainanese culture is but what is it all the way back there?

I also think Hsu Hsien’s generation, which is my generation, have more of an interest in finding our roots than our parents’ generation. Maybe that’s because, ironically, we feel more disconnected and disenfranchised because of globalisation and technology.

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Something we do with the physical space in the play is that we craft it with rice grains. Rice, which is what Oliver [Chong] used in his performances, is wonderful because it represents so many things, it’s a staple, rice is numerous and what we want to embed in the play is the idea that there are so many grains of possibility. Rice is also such an earthy thing and lends itself to the imagery of China and what people think China is. There are parts of the play that talk about endless patty fields and grains of rice on the ground and it is quite a literal and metaphorical thing.

Who do you hope watches Roots and what do you want them to take away from it?

I hope the Chinese community turns up and my mum, brother and sister will be in the country, they haven’t seen me perform in 10 years! But I also hope that Maori, Pakeha, Chinese all turn up and it’s important for us to all sit in a room and participate in something that is different, that is diverse, and that's not homogenous. There is such a big stigma attached to language that isn’t English spoken in this country and I hope that people will come to the play and celebrate how that makes them feel - celebrate the way that we can look at difference together. I hope people come in, are confronted with difference, and are able to celebrate being in that same space and enjoy it - it’s a fun experience and we want to be different, because that’s going to create a change.

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What has been the most enjoyable day working on Roots?

It would be one of the first days back from Singapore, because coming back, I didn’t get much sleep, but there was this invigoration that had come from being back home. Then suddenly, in one of the first few days we smashed out a couple of scenes and because I just came back there was so much discussion.

And it sounds like you had quite a cultural experience overseas and you could channel that straight into your work?

Yes, and at that time because it was still fresh, I was also processing so the play was really good for me to reflect on what I had experienced as I travelled.

Finally, how do you calm your nerves before a performance?

I think because I was raised Catholic and my grandma got baptised before she died, I think what calms my nerves is quite ritualistic and that might be something like taking a moment to acknowledge and speak to my grandma in spirit. Something we’re thinking of doing that Oliver Chong had done in his performances, is leaving two seats empty in the theatre for his nai-nai and his ye-ye to sit - for our ancestors. So I imagine every night we will come together and we will do something, whether that is a moment of prayer or lighting a candle for my grandmother before the show. So, yeah the answer is something ritualistic. It changes all the time. And to not drink V.

Check out the rest of the PAT Chat interviews on our blog.

Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.