"Asian identities in NZ are so diverse, as are our stories and origins. This is just one version, and New Zealanders and their roots are vastly varied too. I hope this works to build a curiosity of other’s stories as opposed to othering, which can often happen when you don’t look ‘kiwi’ (white)." - Chye-Ling Huang
Nidha Khan from Tearaway Mag interviews Chye-Ling Huang, director of Roots by Oliver Chong, on identity and her quest to bridge the gaps of understanding in our multicultural Aotearoa. Read on here or below!
DIRECTOR CHYE-LING HUANG: ON FINDING OUR ROOTS 根
FEBRUARY 18, 2018
BY NIDHA KHAN
Identity, who we are at our very core, is a feature that is so central to our existence. Yet, we live in a society that doesn’t always accept us, with some identities seemingly more acceptable than others. People are often denied their identities, being told they’re “too this or too that”, or they truly “belong there and not here”.
Trying to figure out our place in the world, where our roots lie and where we are growing, can be a painful, beautiful, and funny experience, sometimes all at the same time. It’s a journey that many people have gone, and are still going through, everywhere including right here in Aotearoa.
This year, director Chye-Ling Huang is bringing the award-winning Singaporean solo play, Roots [根] by Oliver Chong, to the Auckland Lantern Festival and Auckland Fringe Festival.
Roots [根] traces the journey of “one woman’s quest to find her familial identity in the cultural confusion of Singapore. Digging up forgotten ghosts, Hush Hsien arrives in China to reclaim her past, but ends up stumbling upon more questions than answers”.
This is the first time Chong has allowed another actor to play his role and for the gender of the main character to be changed, with Singaporean-Kiwi actress Amanda Grace-Leo taking the stage. I caught up with Huang to gain some further insight into the production.
When did you first come across Roots [根] and what was that experience like?
In Singapore, I was helping The Finger Players, a theatre company over there, on a collaborative show. I met the playwright through them and ended up reading his play after Singapore – landing in China to find my own ancestral roots. It was a surreal read, as his journey mirrored mine so closely.
The play is centred on a character who is “determined to shake her status as a cultural orphan”. For those who haven’t experienced something along these lines, can you explain what it means in the context of everyday life?
Cultural Orphan is something I heard in Singapore but I think it relates to the feeling of anyone who feels out of place culturally, or doesn’t have a ‘cultural home’. Young countries like Singapore and NZ grapple with this, as our histories are short and loaded with colonisation and immigration. It’s hard to get a grasp on how you identify and where your influences are from. Multiracial people deal with this a lot – being from two cultures but not really fitting in with either, for me it’s often that I’m perceived as too white to be Chinese and too Chinese to be white, where in reality the two exist alongside.
What kind of cultural dialogue are you hoping to create with Roots [根] here in NZ?
A curiosity of one’s own roots, and how they perceive others. Asian identities in NZ are so diverse, as are our stories and origins. This is just one version, and New Zealanders and their roots are vastly varied too. I hope this works to build a curiosity of other’s stories as opposed to othering, which can often happen when you don’t look ‘kiwi’ (white).
What in particular do you think makes Roots [根] so successful in emotionally connecting with audiences?
It’s written as if talking to a friend, something Oliver mentioned in an interview. It’s everyday, and so reflective of messy family dynamics, that you find it so relatable to watch. It’s an autobiography and it wears its heart on its sleeve, and doesn’t wrap things up in a nice bow.
How much discussion have you had with Oliver Chong about reproducing his play here in NZ? What was that discussion like?
We’ve been in email contact since Oliver allowed us to stage a reading of it in our playreading series ‘Fresh off the Page” (starting up again in March at The Basement Theatre). I mentioned to him how similar it was to my own experience, and when I asked to stage it for real he was stoked. He’s been really relaxed about the whole thing, which is surprising as it’s never been performed by anyone but himself, and it now being played by a Singaporean-Kiwi woman in New Zealand!
You’ve mentioned that many shows in Singapore are surtitled (translated and displayed above the stage) and have made the decision for Roots to be performed and surtitled in English and Mandarin in order to make the show more inclusive and accessible. Why do you think NZ is not as inclusive and accessible in this regard?
Multiculturalism is fine as long as people think, speak and act like ‘Kiwis’. We are not as accepting of difference as we like to think, and celebrating or even normalising other languages, even our own Te Reo, is a step that accepts difference and welcomes it.
To celebrate language is to celebrate an identity, so although there are TV channels in Mandarin, (away from the general public), bilingual shows are definitely an anomaly. New Zealand’s education system isn’t encouraging of languages from an early age compared to places like Europe for example, so it’s not culturally ingrained that we might need to broaden our thinking to include or even simply tolerate languages that aren’t ours.
It would be exciting to see more surtitled shows being made the norm, for hearing impaired as well as non-English language speakers. It would open up a whole raft of overseas media to the theatre scene, which is an exciting possibility if Roots goes well.