Theatre as a means of reconnecting with cultural roots


We chat with Helen Wu, powerhouse filmmaker, stage manager, operator and the bilingual connection between the Chinese Community and Roots - PAT's fringe show for 2018 at Uxbridge Arts Centre and Q Theatre.

We ask Helen about the relationship with her own cultural roots and the ways that theatre can bring communities of people together.

What are your own roots and do you feel connected to them?

My roots are quite tangled in itself actually. I was originally born in a city called Tianjin in Northern China and the relatives I have on my Mother's side all live in that city. But when I was a few months old, I moved with my parents to Shenzhen (a city in the South, opposite Hong Kong) where I grew up with very minimal contact with my relatives in the north. I was very much cultured there until coming to New Zealand at the age of 10. On my Father's side, when I asked he had told me I apparently share the heritage of one of the minority races of China, which may or may not trace back to the emperor's bloodlines during the dynasty periods.

So, I think it’s safe to say, I feel pretty disconnected to all this. Especially since none of it seems relevant after I've come to New Zealand. I think for a good number of kids who've migrated here at a young age, after using all that energy to deal with the initial struggle of identifying as neither completely Kiwi or completely (in my case) Chinese, you tend to become neglectful about your roots; I know I'm certainly guilty of that. Which is why, when I initially read the play 'Roots', I found it to be such a refreshing reminder for myself to be more interested in my heritage.

Helen operates the surtitles in 'Roots'

Helen operates the surtitles in 'Roots'


Can you explain to us about your role in this production?

Officially my role is as the stage manager and assistant producer but a lot of my role involves putting my experiences and use my bilingual ability to help support Roots to better reach an audience.

In what ways are you trying to get Chinese people to feel Roots is important, and go to see the show?

I think it goes without saying we have different groups of Chinese audiences in Auckland. You have the younger generation of Chinese kids pursuing work and studies in order to build a life here, you have the elderly generation of Chinese grandparents coming to live with their sons and daughters, you also have the migrant Chinese families who've been here for many generations and more. But within all these differences there is one commonality they share, and that is, they all have roots from a place that's now very far away.

So I think "Roots" will be a very special show for these Chinese audiences. Because for that hour or so, they'll find themselves captivated; they could be in tears or laughter, be intrigued or be confused, there is no telling of what each might feel relevant to their own experience, but ultimately they will resonate with strong emotions, because "Roots" will give them a space where that universal inner longing for the search of your heritage can be fulfilled.

On the set of 'The Han Chronicles'

On the set of 'The Han Chronicles'

What do you think is currently lacking in Auckland, so that Chinese people don’t go to the theatre?

I think language barrier and the lack of content that interests Chinese audiences are major factors. And from there, a lack of high quality, authentic content that's produced for Chinese audiences is another issue.

How important is it to branch out to Chinese people who might not regularly go to the theatre?

I think with every show, the creators won't be choosing audiences, rather audiences will be choosing us. In that sense, believing that it’s a good production, we should absolutely be branching out with open arms to all audiences; whether they are regular theatre-goers or not. I mean really, it just takes one good show to convert one into a theatre-enthusiast!

The story is culturally specific, despite that, do you feel that there will be broader
appeal for Roots?

Of course, even though Roots is originally a Singaporean story, it's themes of finding-home is universal. Audiences across different ages can relate, and it certainly has the potential to be developed into plays for different cultures.

Helen Wu and Jen Huang on the set of "The Han Chronicles"

Helen Wu and Jen Huang on the set of "The Han Chronicles"

How do you think that Roots appeals to Asian people in New Zealand?

I think Roots will be especially appealing to all of the migrant Asian community in NZ. As its a story very close to the hearts of those who's had to leave a part of themselves behind to go to a new country. And because ROOTS is quite a unique play that'll be performed in Mandarin Chinese and English, with subtitles in both languages, not just Chinese audiences will be able enjoy this. It'd be a great opportunity for those that are interested in the Singaporean-Chinese culture to come in touch with more of it as well. My wish is that Roots will be able to reach out to not just Asian audiences, but Caucasian audiences as well. Because be it Theatre or Film, I think it’s important for society to step out of their filter-circles through Art, and enrich themselves with unfamiliar stories across different cultures.

What have been some challenges that you’ve had to overcome in your role?

Time. Balancing my jobs for Roots with my other jobs. But I'm sure that's everyone (laughs).

Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.