“It’s definitely gotten better now, but growing up, it was… There was just nothing.” - Chye-Ling Huang on the SpinOff

“When people think about dialogue around race, they always think it’s angsty, it’s messy and yuck. Yes, it’s all those things, but it can also be joyful and funny and weird and interesting in other ways.”

- Chye-Ling Huang

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Asian representation in New Zealand in the age of Crazy Rich Asians

River Lin from the Spinoff interviews Alice Canton, JJ Fong and PAT's own Chye-Ling Huang about representation and the media in Aotearoa. 

Check out the full interview here or below.


Crazy Rich Asians has been lauded for its groundbreaking representation of Asian-Americans – but how is Asian representation looking in our own country?

“Why would you actively try and get into a space where no spaces exist for you?” says Alice Canton, an Auckland-based actress and theatre artist. “If I wasn’t creating my own opportunities, those opportunities would just not exist.”

While ‘yellowface’ has long since disappeared from Hollywood, the erasure of Asian stories from our cinema and televisions screen has been far more enduring. Often cast as bespectacled nerds or the exotic “other”, there has been little respite from the dominant narrative of whiteness as the norm, with Asian faces the rare exception – even when the character is explicitly written as Asian.

A recent example of this was the whitewashing controversy surrounding the movie version of the anime series Ghost in the Shell. Screenwriter Max Landis defended the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Kusanagi, arguing that there were no “A-list female Asian celebrities” whose star power could translate into high box office numbers.

This is reflected in UCLA’s 2018 diversity report, which found that minorities made up 13.9% of lead film roles in the 2015-16 season, compared to its peak of 16.7% in 2013.

The report also found that, of the scripted TV shows debuting in 2017-18 across all platforms, only 28% of its leads were minorities, and 24% debuted with a largely minority cast.

That isn’t to say things haven’t improved for Asian representation in recent years, with films and shows such as Killing EveFresh off the BoatMaster of NoneKim’s Convenience, The Big Sick and, most recently, Crazy Rich Asians and Netflix cult hit To All the Boys I Loved Before all gaining both critical and commercial success.

Crazy Rich Asians, in particular, is a rare show of force for Asian-American visibility on screen – not only due to its strong US box office (it opens here in New Zealand on Thursday), but also as the first film since The Joy Luck Club in 1993 to feature an Asian-majority cast. The film, about an Asian-American woman meeting her boyfriend’s wealthy Singapore family for the first time, far from perfectly represents the Asian experience (its erasure of South Asian faces has been noted elsewhere), but it does pave a way forward for more nuanced Asian-American representations on screen. It also proves that minority-led films can translate into success at the box office.

The issue of systematic erasure of East Asian faces and stories within the film and television industry hasn’t just rampant in Hollywood but at home, too.

According to New Zealand’s 2013 census, 11.8% of the population identified themselves as Asian. On screen, however, the numbers tell a different story.

Half-Chinese and half-white, Alice Canton often struggled with coming to terms with her cultural identity growing up in the lily-whiteness of the South Island (she was born on the West Coast and grew up in Canterbury).

While her Hakka mother was obsessed with The Beatles and cricket, Canton’s idols growing up were local stars like Shortland Street‘s formidable Dr Grace Kwan, played by Lynette Forday.

“My sisters and I were obsessed with her as kids because she had danced with the Royal Ballet. I grew up idolising her, right through high school to my early 20s, where I was sure I would be cast as her Eurasian bastard daughter.

“She was the only Asian New Zealander on my screen. Her and Jane Yee, who I also used to fangirl over. When I was in sixth form I wrote her an email, which was a big deal because no one emailed back then, telling her I’d written about her in my school speech.”

Opportunities for people of colour have continued to be in short supply, Canton says – the roles reduced to cardboard cut-outs like that of the bumbling sidekick or the ferocious ‘dragon lady’ popularised by the first Asian-American film star, Anna May Wong, in the 1930s.

JJ Fong, who plays Filipina nurse Ruby Flores on Shortland Street, says growing up with Asian media only helped to heighten her sense of difference from an early age.

“It made me think more deeply [about race] because I was in the thick of it and experiencing it, whether that was at auditions using Asian accents or just growing up as a Chinese-Kiwi among a lot of white kids who made fun of my eyes.

“I wasn’t observing the issue – I was the issue.”

Unlike Canton and Fong, the first time Proudly Asian Theatre co-founder Chye-Ling Huang saw an East Asian face and story reflected on screen was Disney’s animated feature film Mulan (1998).

“[Fa Mulan was] really revolutionary when I first saw her as a kid. I was, like, 10 or something and it just changed my life, which is sad when you think about it. It was a cartoon, but it was pretty much the only thing I saw on screen.”

It was years later, in 2009, when Huang experienced a play featuring real Asian faces and stories: Chinese New Zealand director and playwright Renee Liang’s Lantern. The play, which follows a Chinese family struggling with identity after immigrating to New Zealand, would later become Huang’s first play to be performed under the Proudly Asian Theatre banner.

“It’s definitely gotten better now, but growing up, it was… There was just nothing.”

Canton says the problem lies in the perpetuation of damaging stereotypes on stage and screen – compounded further by an already lacking number of roles to be filled.

“When there is a character or casting for someone who is Asian – it’s always Asian, it’s never specified – sometimes, it’s the most broad-stroke, bullshit characterisations imaginable. There are such limited opportunities that when you are the only person, you have to be all those things.”

Huang says part of the problem lies in Hollywood’s whitewashing of Asian stories – and the white actors who perpetuate it by agreeing to portray them.

“There are enough white actors and enough white stories out there to inspire and motivate white people. We don’t need more white stories – we need more Asian stories, we need more brown stories. Anyone who’s looking to take those opportunities away from us has got to be extremely short-sighted to think that it doesn’t matter.”

However, Canton says the characters on screen are merely a product of what goes on behind the scenes, in the writer’s room.

“You’ve got no one to call out on it when her name is Mei-Ling and she’s a lawyer in her 20s, her parents are strict and she just wants to fit in. No one is there to do that in the writing room, behind the camera, in the crew – let alone the visible, on-screen [characters].”

Nathan Joe, an Auckland-based playwright, says the drive to write nuanced Asian characters and stories is often born out of the recognition of its absence.

“The pin-drop moment usually is when you start asking yourself, ‘Where am I on screen? Nowhere, so do I wait or do I produce something?’ You’re driven by that need and that lack.”

For Canton, the “pin-drop moment” was when she started studying drama at high school. Over the years, the theatre artist has written and starred in shows like White/Other and Orangutan, which explores feelings of difference and belonging through performance art.

As well as performing in her own shows, Alice has collaborated with others who share her desire to change narratives of race, such as the makers of Proudly Asian Theatre’s 2016 show, Call of the Sparrows. The show borrowed heavily from elements of Chinese history, values and superstitions, and featured an all-Asian cast.

Perlina Lau starred in the comedy web series Flat3 and its TVNZ spin-off Friday Night Bites. Written and directed by Roseanne Liang, Flat3 (2013-14) came about after Lau and fellow actresses Ally Xue and JJ Fong created a theatre show, before eventually finding their way to the web.

“The whole Asian thing was kind of just a bonus. We didn’t intentionally set out to do that, but at the same time, it gave us a point of difference. From the get-go, we looked different – you didn’t see many all-female casts doing comedy. It didn’t get much more ‘minority’ than that.”

Like Canton, Lau says the women didn’t “see ourselves out there or in any context”.

“We thought, ‘Let’s be a version of ourselves. Let’s appeal to people like us – all the 20-year-old Kiwis that we see, let’s put them on screen with an Asian face.'”

Indeed, part of Flat3‘s appeal is its authentic portrayal of young adults navigating grown-up life, helped by its diverse array of writers behind the scenes.

“Fair enough that you write what you know – but get diverse writers in, because they’ll be writing what they know and that’ll be diversity. It’s a conscious decision because it’s not a level playing field.”

Chye-Ling Huang and James Roque co-founded Proudly Asian Theatre as a way of levelling the playing field without relying on the strained budgets of film and television.

“We didn’t have anywhere else to go,” says Huang. “We had no path to follow; there was no one we could really attach ourselves to that could help us get that leg up in the industry. In the end, we connected with Renee Liang after we did our first show and she really helped us.

Their more recent projects, Asian Men Talk About Sex, was made after receiving funding from Loading Docs, a platform which helps producers launch short documentaries.

The documentary, which features Yoson An who is set to star in the live-action remake of Disney’s Mulan, came about as a means of self-reclamation for Asian men’s sexuality in a way that wasn’t confrontational but “celebratory and empowering” in its conversations about race.

“There’s a lack of representation in New Zealand for Asian men of any kind,” says Huang. “It’s slim pickings out there and we really wanted to make something that was tipping the scales back in Asian men’s favour.”

Her work – from the Chinese opera-inspired Call of the Sparrows to the melodrama of David Henry Hwang’s FOB – addresses the messiness and dissonance of identity politics without being confrontational.

“When people think about dialogue around race, they always think it’s angsty, it’s messy and yuck. Yes, it’s all those things, but it can also be joyful and funny and weird and interesting in other ways.”

They’re still difficult conversations to have, but the dialogue around race has improved in recent years, says JJ Fong, who co-starred with Lau in Flat3.

“It’s definitely gotten a lot better in the last five years with casting, being open to other ethnicities and seeing them in a different light, rather than ‘That’s just an Asian or Māori role.'”

However, despite her early experience with racism and what may be seen as its continuation through stereotypical casting practices, the actress isn’t quick to lay blame on the writers and producers alone.

“We can write articles about it, we can whine about it on Facebook – but the fact of the matter is, if you’re not in there doing it, creating it for yourself, then things won’t change because people won’t see it”.

“It’s about fostering and mentoring talent as well,” adds Huang. “Often people will say, ‘I just don’t know any people of colour, women writers or Asian writers,’ but you have the responsibility as a person in a position of power to turn the tide. It’s not going to happen on its own and the work will be better for it.”

"At this point, there are no excuses." - Podcast with Saraid De Silva and Chye-Ling Huang

"Who the F*** knows how to get it right?"

Q Theatre brings you a podcast series called Meet the Makers - where interviewers get inside the minds of the Matchbox creatives for 2018. Playwrights, actors and directors get into the gnarly questions about what drives their work.

Have a listen here to Chye-Ling Huang, director and writer of Orientation, chatting to Saraid De Silva about sex, love, and relationships, and how they intrinsically intersect with race and identity.

Photo: Nahyeon Lee

Photo: Nahyeon Lee

"Nobody is the wokefied paragon of sex and race and dating. So, I hope that people don't feel intimidated by the work, because they'll see very clearly and very quickly that the people of colour are super flawed in this discussion as well."

Catch Orientation from September 5th at Q Loft! Tickets available here

Tickets are LIVE for Orientation!

PAT's steamy new show ORIENTATION is on sale NOW!

A hot mess where love and race clash in Aotearoa, Chye-Ling Huang's Adam Award shortlisted play will premiere at Q Loft this September.  

Huang says, "I wanted to explore how sexualized and desexualised tropes of Asian people in western cultures impacts on sex, love and dating. It's an irreverent way of diving into the confronting questions I often encounter in my own dating experience."

Check out the first trailer below!

Tickets here: http://www.qtheatre.co.nz/orientation

Workshops kick off for Orientation

Creating worlds is one way Jahra 'Rager' Wasasala describes her movement practice, and PAT were lucky enough to work with her to get a taste of what our world looks like for Orientation, our latest show.

Our central question for our Asian cast - how do we perform whiteness? What is whiteness? How does living as an Asian person in a western country change you, your voice, your body, your outlook? 

Chye-Ling Huang and Jahra Wasasala.

Chye-Ling Huang and Jahra Wasasala.

Catch Orientation from September 5th at Q Loft. 

http://www.qtheatre.co.nz/orientation

 

 

PAT Chats: Pretty Butch - Interview with Singaporean playwright Tan Liting

Pretty Butch - creating stories that break the binaries

 

"We make expectations based on gender so often that we don’t stop to consider why we think an effeminate man is weak, and why a masculine woman is less attractive. Would we have less sweeping judgements of people if we took time to understand their struggles?"

 

Tan Liting's 'Pretty Butch' is a binary-bending new play and the latest work to feature in our Fresh off the Page playreading series, bringing brand new Asian works from around the globe to the Basement Theatre in Auckland. A Singaporean playwright, Liting works full time as a theatre practitioner with an interest in devising performance from personal stories. Liting’s past directorial credits include Pretty Butch (M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2017), The Truth About Lying: Heresy and Common Sense for the Theatre (The Finger Players), Taking The Subs (The Substation Director’s Lab), (When I’m) Sixty Four (Ageless Theatre), Re: Almost Left Behind (Singapore Arts Festival 2011), Almost Left Behind (NUS Thespis). Liting also teaches drama in schools, and has trained her students in both performance and backstage work, in the hopes of providing a more balanced experience in theatre training and performance. Liting likes conversation, hearing and telling a good story. (Liting also likes guitars, sneakers and referring to Liting in third person.) 

Marianne Infante, producer of Fresh Off the Page, interviews Tan Liting on their journey of creating 'Pretty Butch' and the motivations behind their work concentrating on femininity and masculinity rather than the scope of sexuality.

Tan Liting, playwright

Tan Liting, playwright

 

What was the inspiration behind Pretty Butch, or how did the story of Pretty Butch spark up for you?

Initially I wanted to write a documentary play about being butch in Singapore. This was in early 2015, when there was an open call for the M1 Singapore Fringe festival 2016. The theme back then was Art and the Animal, and there was this sense that a masculine presenting woman was looked at as if she was an animal: not nearly man enough, and not feminine enough to be considered beautiful or pretty. But it turned out that the work was more suited for the theme of 2017: Art and Skin, and so the development process began. I found myself with more time to develop the work, which I was very grateful for.

I started writing the play with the intention of interviewing people who identified as butch and using the transcripts as material. However, people were not ready to accept ‘butch’ as a label on themselves, so I only managed to get 4 people who responded. At the same time, I was also keen to deal with some personal demons, and so I began to look inwards. The play began to take its current shape about 9 months into the writing process, and I just rolled with it. This is 28 different drafts later, and I am still finding things to improve. I suppose when you deal with an intensely personal subject matter, you will never be fully satisfied with its expression.

How does the story resonate with you?

All these characters are a part of me, imagined or otherwise. They are a reflection of me, at least at the point of writing. I have grown much since the first time this play was performed, but there is still a lot of the play in me.

(Top row, from far left) Fadhil Daud, Deonn Yang and Henrik Cheng, (bottom, from far left), Farah Ong and Shannen Tan at the premier of Pretty Butch, M1 Singapore Fringe Festival at the Black Box, Centre 42 in 2017   PHOTO: THROBBINGPIXELS

(Top row, from far left) Fadhil Daud, Deonn Yang and Henrik Cheng, (bottom, from far left), Farah Ong and Shannen Tan at the premier of Pretty Butch, M1 Singapore Fringe Festival at the Black Box, Centre 42 in 2017

 PHOTO: THROBBINGPIXELS

You've mentioned in interviews that you didn't want the focus of the play to be on sexuality, but rather on the topic of masculinity and femininity. Why did you choose this as your focus? 

I guess when you write a queer play, there is a lot more focus on coming out, on being different, on having power over your own sexuality (or not). I didn’t feel like that was my fight. I wanted to discuss something that was a lot more universal, and not just a ‘queer’ thing.

In the writing process, I also wanted to discuss ‘masculinity’. It felt like one of those subjects that people were afraid to touch. A lot of people asked me why in a play about being butch, there are 2 straight male characters. Someone even said that they felt that straight men had all the airtime in a lot of artistic work, and that I should have given more space to ‘butch’ characters. My response was this: men find it the hardest to talk about masculinity. This self reflection is often seen as weakness.

Straight men may dominate social discourse, but this is an area they find difficult to talk about: I simply wanted to open those doors and let some light in.

We are living in an age where we have a broader and more diverse understanding of sexuality: but the conversation we are finding difficult to have was more about gender: what standards do we hold biologically male or female persons to? What does it actually mean to be male or female? Gender and sexuality are completely separate, and yet we can’t seem to talk about gender without thinking about sexuality.

What kind of conversation are you hoping to begin through 'Pretty Butch'

I hope the play challenges your preconceived notions of gender and leads you to question what you believe to be male and female. A lot of these things are taken for granted: we make expectations based on gender so often that we don’t stop to consider why we think an effeminate man is weak, and why a masculine woman is less attractive. Would we have less sweeping judgements of people if we took time to understand their struggles?

How has the development process and the journey of creating this play been for you, and what's next for the play?

It’s an ongoing process that is still unfolding right now. I am constantly surprised by how little I still know about the topic. I am learning new things everyday, and challenging my own perceptions the more I work on this play.

I hope it keeps growing, keeps getting translated, and keeps finding spaces in different cultural contexts. We are taking the text to Taipei and we are finding an interesting dynamic between the characters in the play and the cultural context of Taiwan as the LGBTQIA capital of East Asia. I hope Pretty Butch keeps asking questions in different places, and grows together with the conversation about gender and identity we are currently having: until one day, we will read the play and discover how irrelevant it has become. When that day comes, the world would be a lot more accepting, and I hope the play can finally be laid to rest.

 

Check out Pretty Butch as part of our playreading series, Fresh off the Page, Wednesday 27th June at 8.30pm, Basement Theatre Studio!

 

 

 

New Asian Writers screenplays chosen for ongoing mentoring

Asian Writer's take the stage and come out in full force

This month, three New Asian Writers were chosen by PAT and the New Zealand Film Commission to take part in ongoing mentoring for their latest screenplays in development.

As part of Fresh off the Page monthly playreadings, three scripts from almost 30 submissions from Asian writers were announced at the playreading live at The Basement.

We are proud to announce:

Nahyeon Lee, Mayen Mehta and Hweiling Ow

as the recipients for the ongoing mentorship programme!

Nahyeon Lee and Marianne Infante (host/producer)

Nahyeon Lee and Marianne Infante (host/producer)

Mayen Mehta

Mayen Mehta

We were so impressed with the amount of submissions and the diversity in form, style and theme! PAT will be reaching out to the writers who submitted in the coming months for feedback to help further these amazing projects. Stay tuned!

Thanks to the Basement Theatre, NZFC and Albert Eden Community Trust.

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Gird your loins - Orientation, PAT's new show is coming in September

Pat is proud to announce our latest show:

Orientation

Presented by Q Theatre and Proudly Asian Theatre as part of MATCHBOX 2018

Orientation q banner.png

What do Jackie Chan, Steven Yuen, and Raybon Kan have in common? 

They’re all on Mei’s list of eligible men to tap, gap, or tie down.

A hot mess of sexual stereotypes, no Asian man is left un-turned in Mei’s quest to root herself back to her roots. When a shock event leaves her questioning everything about love, Chinese-Pakeha Mei dives ferociously back into the dating game. A film star from Singapore, an Indian Taika Waititi and the Asian answer to Channing Tatum lift the sheets on how sex and race collide in little old New Zealand, where Asianess is both fetishized and feared.

Written as a response to dating, love and sex as a Chinese Kiwi, Chye-Ling Huang's script was nominated for the Adam play award (Playmarket) in 2018 and won the Asian Ink workshop for 2017. 

Huang on the set of the promo trailer for Orientation

Huang on the set of the promo trailer for Orientation

"As a Kiwi-Asian I've experienced a lot of racial bias in the dating world - from the inside and out," says Huang. "I'm excited to be writing flawed characters who are trying to find love in the messy, human way we all do, making mistakes and pushing things way too far. Race cannot be separated from any experience I've had, and dating and love and sex is something that can be heavily influenced by race in ways we don't realize."

Tickets are on sale next month.

Thanks to Creative New ZealandFoundation NorthUnitec and the Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust Fund.

 

 

 

PAT partners with NZFC!

Proudly Asian Theatre has partnered with the New Zealand Film Commission for an exciting new initiative as part of their 'Fresh off the Page' monthly playreadings. 

The initiative sees three emerging Asian playwrights chosen for a year of mentoring with NZFC writers on projects for screen. This incredible opportunity is to encourage the growth of Asian playwrights with the freedom to write any story, any style outside any restrictions.

New Asian Writer's Night encouraged new writers to come forward with their development scripts in one epic night of readings.

New Asian Writer's Night encouraged new writers to come forward with their development scripts in one epic night of readings.

"We wanted Asian playwrights to shake the idea of what an 'Asian' story is," says creative director Chye-Ling Huang, "Often our works get chosen and fostered with an added pressure, an unspoken bias, which favours stereotyped stories about what it means to be Asian. It is my hope that Asian writers can just be writers, and also have the chance to hone their craft and make their script as strong as possible for future funding rounds. We need more of our stories out there to come from us, and there are so many perspectives that we rarely see."

The NZFC hosted an Asian film night at The Basement in 2017.

The NZFC hosted an Asian film night at The Basement in 2017.

"The film commission have been wonderfully supportive - we are a theatre based company but we have branched out in 2017 to film projects and scripts. We realize there is a lot of crossover for talent in the theatre and film industries and this is our way of connecting our resources to give those artists an opportunity for growth in an area they may not have considered. We both want more Asian talent to have their voices heard which is an awesome goal."

The first event featuring screen based scripts will be at The Basement, May 30th. More info here!

Adam play awards - 'Orientation' makes the shortlist

Writer of 'Orientation' Chye-Ling Huang 

Writer of 'Orientation' Chye-Ling Huang 

Playmarket presents the Adam play award annually for the best new New Zealand play. Formerly the Playmarket New Play Award, has been offered since 2008 and is the only one of its kind for new writing and encourages writers to banish all self censoring, all worries about what theatres want, what is affordable and what they think audiences want to see.

We are so excited that Orientation, co-founder Chye-Ling Huang's newest play, was shortlisted for the award for 2018.

A bombastic hot mess exploring race and sex and the sexual stereotypes as an Asian person living in New Zealand, Orientation will premiere in September 2018 at Q Loft after winning the Asian Ink workshop in 2017. Keep your eyes peeled for more info on this exciting new show and check out the winners below:

 

2018 - Shane Bosher for Everything After

Best Play by a Māori Playwright: Albert Belz for Cradle Song and Jason Te Mete for Little Black Bitch

Best Play by a Pasifika Playwright: Suli Moa for Tales of A Princess

Best Play by a Woman Playwright: Angie Farrow for Before the Birds

Also on the shortlist were: Claire Ahuriri-DunningDraculaAroha AwarauProvocationSam BrooksTurn Off the Lights and Twenty Eight MillimetresJames CainMoversEmily DuncanIn Our Shoes; Chye-Ling HuangOrientationJustin Lewis and Jacob RajanWelcome to the Murder HouseVela ManusauteTropical LovebirdsArthur MeekLand of the MoaJoe MusaphiaChutzpahDean ParkerTutankhamunBruce Clyde ThomsonStuck Pigs; James van DykThe Lazarus Lottery and Roy WardThe Bright Side of my Condition.

The winners were announced at a function at Circa Theatre on 7 April 2018.

 

 

 

Tearaway Interview: Chye-Ling Huang on finding our roots

"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

Chye-Ling Huang

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.

Photo: Andi Crown Photography

Photo: Andi Crown Photography

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.

Times Online: Roots presented by Oliver Chong

Thanks for the shoutout Times Online! Read on below or here

Find your Roots at Uxbridge

 Kelly Teed, January 31, 2018

It’s not often you see a play subtitled in Auckland — much less one that’s subtitled in Mandarin but Proudly Asian Theatre is leading the way.

In its first show of the year, Proudly Asian Theatre is bringing Roots to Howick — the first time its brought a show outside of central city suburbs.

In association with the Auckland Lantern Festival and the Auckland Fringe Festival, Roots is written by Oliver Chong is directed by Chye-Ling Huang and stars Amanda Grace-Leo.

The performance, at Uxbridge Arts & Culture will be the first time the solo play has been performed by someone other than writer Oliver Chong. It’s also the first time Chong has given permission for the play to be performed by someone other than himself – and for the gender of the main character to be changed to reflect Singaporean-Kiwi actress Amanda Grace-Leo.

It follows the journey of one woman’s quest to find her familial identity in the cultural confusion of Singapore. She arrives in China to reclaim her past, but ends up stumbling upon more questions than answers.

Huang says the high Chinese population of Howick made it a good choice to branch out to with the hope of giving them an opportunity to relate.

“Parents and kids who may have different first languages can come together and experience the same show, and have their different life experiences acknowledged,” she says.

“I think that New Zealand and Singapore both share a lot in terms of identity crisis journeys. We’re both young countries with a lot of diasporic communities and this story is likely to resonate with a lot of different communities.”

Asia Media Centre: Interview with Chye-Ling Huang, director of Roots

The Asia Media Centre's Francine Chen caught up with Chye-Ling Huang, director of Singaporean play Roots, about PAT's first bilingual show, and the future of Asian storytelling in New Zealand. Read on here or below!

Building bridges with bilingual play

Francine Chen

01 FEBRUARY 2018

Chye-Ling Huang, director of Roots

Chye-Ling Huang, director of Roots

Roots [根] – a bilingual play premiering at the Auckland Fringe festival on 23 February – offers diverse communities an opportunity to appreciate the beauty of Mandarin together in a safe space, says Chinese-Pākeha director, actor and writer Chye-Ling Huang.
 

When Chye-Ling Huang first read the script for Roots, she knew she had to bring the story to New Zealand.

The play, an autobiographical tale that traces Singaporean playwright and actor Oliver Chong’s search for his ancestral roots, hit uncannily close to home for Huang. 

The Chinese-Pākeha director, writer and actor had been investigating her own family history after years of curiosity about her heritage – a quest that led her to China.

“My dad is Chinese-Malaysian, so when we visited his home, it’d be Malaysia,” she says. “But as I got older I started getting confused. Were we Malaysian, or were we Chinese?

“After some digging I found out where my ancestral village was – Xiamen, China. On the way I read Oliver’s play, and the themes were exactly the same as what I was experiencing at that time in my life. 

“I was so struck by it I thought, ‘I've got to put this on one day’.”

Chye-Ling Huang's quest to understand her heritage took her to southeast China. 

More questions than answers

While being a Chinese-New Zealander came with some cultural nuances, Huang learnt there were universal questions of identity shared by diasporic Chinese communities. 

“Why do we want to find our roots? What constitutes our roots? When do we know when we've found it? Why is it important to our everyday life and how much of that shapes who we are?

“Those are questions that have recurred throughout my life.”

Having a Chinese name was one of the reasons she repeatedly faced such questions, Huang says.

“I don’t have the sort of name that blends in with New Zealand-Pākeha.

“I’ve continually been questioned about where I’m from, whether I can speak Mandarin, what being Chinese means to me. And up until last year or the year before, I didn’t really know any of the answers. I had never been to China and investigated for myself what it all means.

“Does it even change anything that I went back? Or am I still the same person?

“It’s a complicated way to look at heritage, and I think the play definitely opens up a lot of questions.”

Amanda Grace Leo plays Hsu Hsien, a Chinese-Singaporean woman who embarks on a trip to China to learn the truth about her family’s history. 

Roots performing at the Uxbridge Arts Centre in Howick. Photo: Julie Zhu Photography

Roots performing at the Uxbridge Arts Centre in Howick. Photo: Julie Zhu Photography

Bringing diverse communities together

Roots reunites Huang with Singaporean-Kiwi actor Amanda Grace Leo, whom she last worked with on Call of the Sparrows.

It’s the first time the play will be performed by an actor other than Oliver Chong. Subtle tweaks were made to the script to reflect the change in performer, but none were as significant as the decision to stage the production in English and Mandarin. 

Huang hopes the bilingual element will bring diverse communities together in mutual appreciation of the language and story.

“The original script is in Mandarin but we’ve made it bilingual,” she says. 

“I hope Roots helps to unite people who can’t speak Mandarin and those who can in one room together, to show that it’s not so scary to co-exist, and to hear Chinese as a really beautiful, interesting, funny language in a safe space.”

The play also offers Chinese diasporic families an opportunity to reflect on issues of heritage in a tongue familiar to each generation.

“I know many Chinese diasporic families where the parents don’t speak English very well, and they don’t speak to their kids in their native language because they don’t want to disadvantage them by having accents or being teased. 

“So there are lots of families who just can’t communicate or be on the same page. They’ve done it out of love, but it’s a massive disconnect. It’s my hope a family of those people will come along, and both understand everything that’s happened.”

 

Asian talent in New Zealand

The launch of a bilingual play with an Asian female lead is among the latest in a list of encouraging developments in the Asian-Kiwi arts scene since Huang graduated from acting school in 2013.

An anxiety then over the lack of prospects for Asian-New Zealand performers compelled Huang and the only other Asian student in her class, James Roque, to start their own company, Proudly Asian Theatre.

“We started getting jobs, but along the way we met lots of up-and-coming Asian-New Zealand talent who were doing their own work; some successful, some struggling.

“Although we’re not hugely resourced, we decided to make PAT more about engaging with, and discovering, and supporting Asian artists.

“The underlying kaupapa behind everything we do at PAT is inclusivity, and to support people in whatever way we can, with whatever resources we can.”

Huang believes the outlook for Asian-Kiwi stories is a promising one.

“I think we’re becoming braver to put ourselves on stage, and push the boundaries politically, and be a bit more contentious, a bit more outspoken. 

“It’s my belief we’ll get to a point where there’s lots of practitioners doing all levels of [things]. I really want to do Shakespeare with an all-Asian cast one day. Or Chekov, or anything mainstream, but casted inclusive. 

“It’s going to take time, but it’s exciting.”

Eastern Courier write-up: Roots presented by PAT

Thanks Eastern Courier for the great write-up! Read on here or continue below!

Inspiring Solo Show Explores who she is

LIU CHEN

February 14 2018

Amanda Grace Leo stars in Oliver Chong's epic autobiographical play. Photo: Andi Crown Photography

Amanda Grace Leo stars in Oliver Chong's epic autobiographical play. Photo: Andi Crown Photography

Singaporean-Kiwi actress Amanda Grace-Leo will perform the solo show Roots at Uxbridge Theatre in Howick on February 23-24.

One of Singapore's favourite solo shows Roots is coming to the stage of Howick's Uxbridge Theatre for its New Zealand premiere on February 23-24.

The play, presented by Proudly Asian Theatre (PAT) as part of this year's Auckland Lantern Festival programme, follows a woman's quest to find her family identity in the cultural confusion of the country in South-East Asia.

While setting out on a journey to China to reclaim her past, Hsu Hsien, the main character, ends up stumbling upon more questions.

The story follows a woman's quest to find her family identity in the cultural melting pot of Singapore.

The Roots show was originally written and performed by Singaporean actor-director Oliver Chong, and it's the first time he has given permission for another performer to take on the role.

The NZ version has also changed the gender of the character to suit Singaporean-Kiwi actress Amanda Grace-Leo.

Chye-Ling Huang, director of the new version, says parents and children can come together and have their different lived experiences acknowledged.

"I think that New Zealand and Singapore both share a lot in terms of identity crisis journeys," Huang says.

"We're both young countries with a lot of diasporic communities and this story is likely to resonate with a lot of different communities."

Photo: Andi Crown Photography

Photo: Andi Crown Photography

PAT has adapted the script to make it bilingual for Kiwi audiences, with surtitles in both English and Chinese languages, meaning the show is also accessible for the hearing impaired.

It's also the first time the theatre company is branching out into Auckland's suburbs, which has up until now only showed works in the city.

After the Uxbridge Theatre performances, it will take Roots to play at the Q Theatre in Auckland city.

PAT and The Finger Players take out Best Set Design at Fringe Awards!

Roots written by Oliver Chong was presented by PAT in the 2018 Auckland Fringe at Uxbridge Arts Centre in Howick and Q Theatre in central city.

Starring Amanda Grace Leo, directed by Chye-Ling Huang and original design by The Finger Players, Chye-Ling Huang, Tom Dennison (sound) and TFP's set design took out Best Set Design in the fringe Awards.

125 kgs of rice raked perfectly into a square across the stage, a cymbal with a mic and loop pedal and a humble broom created shapes taking us through the journey of one woman finding her roots in China from Singaporean diaspora. 

Roots-1.JPG
Photos: Julie Zhu Photography

Photos: Julie Zhu Photography

Congrats to all the winners and happy fringe! Read Scoop's roundup below:

 

Auckland Fringe Closes with the Fringe Awards

Monday, 5 March 2018, 4:06 pm

Photo: Andi Crown Photography

Photo: Andi Crown Photography

After a jam-packed two-week showcase of the weird and wonderful, Auckland Fringeare delighted to announce the winners of the Auckland Fringe Awards. A celebration of the unique experiences on offer as part of the avant-garde festival, Auckland Fringe officially went annual in 2018, and the Fringe Awards have also become a staple part of the festival calendar.


Twenty-one industry experts were tasked with the challenge of wrangling the immense programme, taking them across the region for journeys into the womb, on dates in gutters, back in time to a Roman amphitheatre, and grappling with the big ideas and hard questions. Awarded on Sunday night in the original home of Auckland Fringe, Basement Theatre, the winners are…

Overall Awards:
Unfuck the World (Social Impact Award): Drowning in Milk by Saraid Cameron
Spirit of the Fringe: The Plastic Orgasm by Julia Croft & Virginia Frankovich
Best in Auckland Fringe: Fuck Rant by Nisha Madhan

Industry Opportunity Awards:
Auckland Live ‘Free Your Mind’ Award
The winning Artist/Company of the ‘Free Your Mind’ Award will be given $1500 of cold hard cash to fuel a pitch for a project that they would like to put on at one of Auckland Live’s venues.
This award will also entitle its bearer to at least one complimentary flat white at the Box café, and a philosophical discussion about a topic of your choosing with our contemporary programmer, Anders Falstie-Jensen.
Winner: Meg Rollandi (Performance Designer for Force Field)

Basement Theatre Migration Award
The Basement Theatre Migration Award goes to a show that took place in any venue other than Basement Theatre during this year’s Auckland Fringe. The winning show receives an automatic spot in a future Basement Theatre season, with free venue hire, as well as $500 cash.
Winner: The Contours of Heaven

Auckland Arts Festival Fringe Award
The Auckland Arts Festival Fringe Award recognises a truly excellent production in the 2018 Auckland Fringe, and awards the recipient $2,000 cash, as well as access to Auckland Arts Festival producing staff for mentorship and advice.
Winner: The Contours of Heaven

Best in Category Awards:
Best Circus: Krīdati by Ariel Cronin & Jay Clement
Best Music: Rattle Showcase One - The Gristle of Knuckles by Eve de Castro-Robinson
Best Storytelling: Humourism by Brendon Green
Best Visual Arts: Liminal: Motion as Manifest by Joshua Lewis
Best Cabaret: TRIAGE! A Nursing Cabaret by Zulieka Khan
Best Dance: Dance Danced Dancing by Josie Archer & Kosta Bogoievski
Best Comedy: Chef Masters by Johanna Cosgrove, Freya Finch & Vida Gibson
Best Theatre: The Contours of Heaven by Puti Lancaster & Ana Chaya Scotney
Best Live Art: Fuck Rant by Nisha Madhan

Best Performance Awards:
Best Performance (Comedy): Brynley Stent (Wigging Out)
Best Performance Ensemble (Comedy): Mackenzie’s Daughters
Best Performance (Music): Amalia Hall (Amalia Hall Plays Ysaye)
Best Performance (Theatre): Ana Chaya Scotney (The Contours of Heaven) & Duncan Armstrong(Force Field)

Production Element Awards:
Best Set Design: Roots by Proudly Asian Theatre
Best Lighting Design: Sean Lynch (Watching Paint Dry)
Best Sound Design: Jazmine Rose Phillips (Blood, Innocence & The Void)
Best Director: Isobel MacKinnon (Force Field)
Best Overall Production Design: Meg Rollandi, Jason Wright & Marcus McShane(Force Field)

Best Newcomer Awards:
Best Newcomer (Company): Dance Plant Collective for The Cost of Arms & Legs
Best Newcomer (Individual): Vida Gibson (Women & Water)

Auckland Fringe Community Awards:
Best “Off-Broadway” Venue: Federal Delicatessen
Outstanding Community Engagement: An Oldie But A Goodie by Active Arts
Judges Special Commendation for the One-on-One programme: To Basement Theatre for initiating it, and to the artists who took it on!
Lifetime Fringe Hero: Helen Sheehan

'Stuff' covers Roots presented by Proudly Asian Theatre

Roots was presented in the Auckland Fringe Festival - check out our write up and video on stuff here or read on below!

Photo: Julie Zhu Photography

Photo: Julie Zhu Photography

 

Singaporean play searches for roots in New Zealand for the first time 

MANDY TE

A one-woman bilingual show will be exploring identity and heritage on stage. 

Roots will be performed for the first time in New Zealand as part of the Auckland Fringe Festival and the Auckland Lantern Festival by Proudly Asian Theatre (PAT).

Formed in 2013 by Chye-Ling Huang and James Roque, PAT aims to support Asian New Zealanders who want to tell their stories through theatre and film.

Roots was first staged in 2012 by Oliver Chong. The show won awards in Singapore for its production and script. 

The main role has been changed to reflect Singaporean Kiwi actress Amanda Grace Leo and PAT co-founder Chye-Ling Huang would be directing the show. 

Huang said the play was about one woman's journey to find her roots.

"She's from Singapore and goes back to China to uncover some meaning and answers to the questions of 'what are my roots?' and 'where do I come from?'," Huang said.

"Roots is very translatable and the themes of identity and ancestry relate well, especially for Chinese diaspora in particular."

uang spent eight weeks in Singapore with theatre company The Finger Players which was where she met Chong and found an affinity with his work, she said. 

"I went to China to discover my familial identity and what happened to Oliver happened to me," Huang said. 

Huang hoped that those who felt connected to Roots would feel "less alone" and got a sense of "affirmation," she said.

"We're in the same diaspora tribe. 

"We live in between worlds which is really grounding and we can share in that."

The play would also be performed in Howick as it opened opportunities to connect with the Chinese community in East Auckland on their "home turf," Huang said. 

"Parents and kids who may have different first languages can come together and experience the same show, and have their different lived experiences acknowledged."

In Chong's original version the play is primarily in Mandarin. The New Zealand version will be bilingual, and Mandarin and English supertitles would be projected throughout the performance.

A native Hainanese speaker, Leo would be performing in Mandarin as a non-native speaker which was challenging, she said.

However, Leo enjoyed the bilingualism as both Mandarin and English were equally acknowledged, and it was also accessible for deaf and hard of hearing audiences, she said. 

Hainamana Review: Roots written by Oliver Chong

"There’s a peculiar joy at seeing pākehā faces comprehend and enjoy something that is an intrinsic part of your identity, and have it be a realistic representation rather than a parody." - Amy Weng, Hainamana

Another great write up for Roots, presented in the Auckland Fringe Festival by PAT. Read the full article below!

 

A review of Roots [根] presented by Proudly Asian Theatre

by AMY WENG

As part of the Auckland Fringe FestivalProudly Asian Theatre presents the New Zealand premier of Roots [根], in association with Auckland Lantern Festival. Amy Weng caught the show at Uxbridge in Howick. Roots [根] will also play at Q Theatre from 1 – 3 March 2018.

Photo: Julie Zhu Photography

Photo: Julie Zhu Photography

Howick is strange place, for someone who grew up on the North Shore. The highway heading out east stretches so long and continuously that you would be mistaken for thinking that you were no longer in Auckland, but another city with its colonial sentiments and polite picket fences. But Howick is also a area in flux, and has been for the better part of three decades. As of 2013, a Council reportshowed that 39% of Howick’s population identified as Asian, with 49% of all residents born overseas. This should make Howick one of the most cosmopolitan neighbourhoods in Auckland, yet it remains a sleepy enclave of predominantly conservative temperaments and stratified interests.

It is here that Proudly Asian Theatre have alighted to open their latest production, Roots [根], by critically acclaimed Singaporean playwright Oliver Chong. The original play is an ambitious, one man act telling the tale of the protagonist’s search for his roots. Proudly Asian Theatre have chosen to adapt this story, casting the charismatic Amanda Grace Leo as the now-female lead, Hsu Hsien. The team have also decided to translate the work into a bilingual English/Mandarin play, surtitled in English and, surprisingly, traditional Chinese.

Roots [根] presents the intensely personal journey of Hsu Hsien, who decides to travel to Taishan (Toishan) in search of her ye-ye’s long lost daughter and the potential to reconnect with her heritage. Armed only with a few vague clues and implausible tales from her nai-nai, and no understanding of the local Siyi dialect, Hsu Hsien embarks on what should be a calamitous endeavour. Instead she lands in Guangdong, guided by her ancestors spirits and a motley cast of familiar characters.

Photo: Julie Zhu Photography

Photo: Julie Zhu Photography

Along her journey Hsu Hsien paints a beautifully vivid picture of the Chinese landscape with the assistance of an ingeniously elegant set. The floor of the stage is laid with a carpet of rice, crunching underfoot like the dry mountain road, and hissing like the sway of crops or the premonition of heavy rainfall. It also serves as a powerful insight into Hsu Hsieh’s state of mind as she carves a path into her family’s history.

Leo is a larger than life character, and she breathes into Hsu Hsien a fiery tenacity that is at once immensely likeable and achingly earnest. Leo also embodies 21 different characters, from the gracious hotel receptionist to the friendly Uncle Li, the hostile landlord to the austere and monosyllabic patriarch. These characters are at once intimately relatable and absurd, conjured by the actor from our collective memories. Leo, a Singaporean-New Zealander of Hainanese descent, has more than her work cut out for herself delivering these roles in Mandarin and English. In fact, it is the Mandarin passages where Leo’s physicality as an actor really shines through, in the expressive dialogue and punchlines delivered with verve.

I can’t testify to the veracity of Leo’s pronunciation, not being a Mandarin speaker myself, but it is also the script’s linguistic duality that stops the play from really hitting its mark. When the actor switches between English and Mandarin, it’s not so much jarring as it becomes evident that the Chinese carries a fuller meaning, more poetic and rhythmically suited the emotional intensity of the play than the English translation, which lags with its wooden-ness and literal-ness. I was also left wondering why the scenes in Guangdong were not spoken in native Cantonese as intended, as this disrupts the logic of the show, and the authenticity that the play strives towards. New Zealand has a not insignificant Cantonese, as well as Toishanese, community so I don’t think it would be beyond audiences to grasp this.

At times, this mental shift between languages becomes a visible effort for Leo – kudos to her for this ambitious undertaking. As anyone who is bilingual can sympathise with, it can be difficult to maintain fluency in two or more languages, especially in a nation that is systematically monolingual, and in this sense Roots [根] is a bold and necessary addition to New Zealand’s mainstream theatre. When the protagonist laments her inability to speak in the Siyi dialect, she hits on one of the most sensitive and visible markers of cultural identity.

Photo: Julie Zhu Photography

Photo: Julie Zhu Photography

But audiences need not worry that the play will be lost in translation. There’s a peculiar joy at seeing pākehā faces comprehend and enjoy something that is an intrinsic part of your identity, and have it be a realistic representation rather than a parody.

You can also understand the appeal of wanting to present a story like this in Howick. Beyond tapping into a large Chinese population, there’s a real potential to bring together audiences that might not necessarily do so otherwise, in an area where anything outside of the mainstream is rarely heard of.

While Roots [根] is a quintessentially Singaporean narrative, there are enough similarities that the story finds resonance in Aotearoa New Zealand. Chong’s play has been described as a continuation of one pivotal idea within Singaporean playwriting and culture at large – namely that Singaporeans are ‘cultural orphans’ – a society composed of displaced and dispossessed immigrant with no homeland to return to, the figurative heirs to a fragmented culture. This anxiety still plagues many tauiwi and so we find ourselves drawn into Hsu Hsien’s journey, as she cast herself adrift in her hopes for reconciliation.

Ultimately, Roots [根] acts as a salve to these anxieties about cultural belonging without being dogmatic. It also promises greater things to come from Proudly Asian Theatre, a company that isn’t afraid to make work that can affect real social change.

Theatrescenes Review: Roots by Oliver Chong

"As with all great theatre, the play doesn’t provide a theatrical (or even literal) answer, but raises questions, because in the end it’s not about the truth, or even what you know, it’s about what you are willing to accept, and, once again, PAT have provided Auckland audiences with a show that accepts everyone." - James Wenley

Check out Theatrescenes review of Roots, presented by PAT, in the Auckland fringe Festival.

 

REVIEW: Roots (Auckland Fringe)

March 4, 2018 James Wenley Auckland Fringe FestivalTheatre Reviews

Photo: Julie Zhu Photography

Photo: Julie Zhu Photography

Journey to the Past and Future

New Zealand is a country with a strong migratory history, but too rarely are the stories of our Asian roots given room to breathe and grow on stage, which is one of the reasons why Proudly Asian Theatre represents an integral component to both our theatrical and cultural landscape. With only four stage productions since 2013, PAT is in many ways a boutique theatre company, presenting infrequent yet sophisticated works to what would once be considered a niche market to the now wider public. Roots, written by Oliver Chong, directed by Chye-Ling Huang, and performed by Amanda Grace Leo, examines the ancestral journey on which many people find themselves at some point in their lives, and, while presenting a protagonist, Hsu Hsien, who is both from and begins said journey in Singapore, it is one to which many can relate.

Huang’s direction is incredibly well-measured. It’s detailed yet subtle, allowing Leo to focus on the story being told while maintaining a natural strong and consistent theatrical flow – a vital necessity for Chong’s script, which reads more as a short story than an inherently theatrical piece. Presented in English and Mandarin, with surtitles in both, both the script and Leo’s performance flow seamlessly between the two languages. It’s an excellent example of interculturalism and our ability to accept bicultural narratives in New Zealand theatre.

Photo: Julie Zhu Photography

Photo: Julie Zhu Photography

Sound, an often misused if not altogether disregarded component to theatre, sets the tone of the show well, with Tom Dennison’s design evoking a mystery and nostalgia evocative of a time passed, but not forgotten. Add to this a lighting design by Ruby Reihana-Wilson which utilises the colour of the performance space as well as the contrast between its vastness and the performer, and Roots provides a successful theatrical trinity of story, creatives, and cast.

This cohesion means that’s Chong’s story makes the successful transition from page to stage, with audiences being taken on the journey with Hsien in a compelling yet comfortable way. As with all great theatre, the play doesn’t provide a theatrical (or even literal) answer, but raises questions, because in the end it’s not about the truth, or even what you know, it’s about what you are willing to accept, and, once again, PAT have provided Auckland audiences with a show that accepts everyone.

Roots is presented by Proudly Asian Theatre and played at Uxbridge and Q as part of Auckland Fringe. 

PAT Chats - Interview with Helen Wu

Theatre as a means of reconnecting with cultural roots

28640756_10155635854399317_1813391351_o.jpg

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'

IMG_3289.jpg

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.

PAT Chats - Interview with Lindsay Yee

The Roots of Design

LY-images-1440x720.jpg

Lindsay Yee is a graphic designer who works closely with Proudly Asian Theatre including creating the poster for the upcoming production of Roots. We pick his brain about his own heritage and design approaches.

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

My family comes from Aotearoa, Mainland China, and Hong Kong. My mother was born in Hunan but grew up in Guangzhou like many immigrants to New Zealand. My father was born in Oamaru, his parents, and grandparents (my great grandparents) also lived in New Zealand, but moved between China (They are Taishanese 台山话 hence the Yee not Yu, 余), Hong Kong, and New Zealand. My grandfather had a Laundromat on Colombo street in Christchurch at one time.

Could you tell us about your previous work for PAT and your larger body of work?

I worked with Chye-Ling and James when they shifted from 'Pretty' to 'Proudly' working on developing their brand and designing a mark and some collateral that reflected this new name and tone.

Does your heritage inform your work in any way? How?

It's a tough one to think of, but obviously, it does without me thinking about it too much. Graphic Design has a relatively short history — as we know it — and dealing with roman characters means the conventions set are mainly from European high modernist, and probably more specifically the Bauhaus, Swiss Modernism, and the continuation of these ideas in the United States of America. I did Calligraphy and rice paper painting as a child, which probably also has an influence on what I do.

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What was your approach designing the poster for Roots?

Having a strong image supplied by Andi Crown, I really tried to utilise and build around the image of Amanda Grace.

Other than the Chinese character within the 'O' showing it inside, we used Averta for everything PAT (at the moment) as it worked well with the tone of Proudly Asian Theatre.

What are your design influences at the moment?

I'm very lucky to have so many friends doing great creative work, who are all so inspiring. My wider creative community is also so great. But also visiting galleries, going to concerts, travelling, going on walks and general wandering.

Lindsay works at Category

PAT Chats - Interview with Amanda Grace Leo

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.