In Conversation with Renee Liang and Hweiling Ow

What can a farcical relationship between a man and a woman teach us about language, loss and living? This winter, Eugène Ionesco’s Les Chaises (The Chairs), has been adapted by four Aotearoa theatremakers into Pākeha English, Te Reo Māori, Samoan and Cantonese. Set variously within a wharenui, fale tele, ancestral hall and fortress, these modern day re-stagings explore universal themes of loneliness, loss of connection and the nostalgia of old age, whilst engaging in contemporary discussions about diversity and difference.

With the Pākehā season of The Chairs already complete, and the beginning of He Tūru Māu about to kick off at Te Pou Theatre, editor Amy Weng caught up with the Cantonese season producer Renee Liang, and director Hweiling Ow, to reflect on the importance of language on and off the stage.

等凳 – The Chairs – Cantonese Season runs from Wednesday 1 – Saturday 4 August, 2018. Tickets are available to purchase now through Te Pou

Amy Weng: I wanted start off by acknowledging Te Rēhia Theatre Company for initiating this exciting project because it’s made me think a lot my own relation with language. My family are also Cantonese speaking and for a lot of migrants and descendants of migrants in New Zealand, or perhaps even mana whenua, I think there can be a lot of shame involved with speaking another language. Whether that’s being bullied for speaking a foreign language or being in that space of only half-knowing your ‘mother tongue’. So I wanted to ask, what did it mean to you to be able to present this play in Cantonese?

Hweiling Ow: I don’t think there’s shame in speaking another language, personally. I think it’s exciting because I grew up on Hong Kong and Bollywood movies and I was a big TV consumer. To put on a play like this, you don’t necessarily need to know the words because you can read the intentions and the emotions. Even in caveman language you can see if someone is distraught or angry.

For me the whole process is to go: we are all the same. We just have different interpretations of how to speak life. I’m excited about this in New Zealand because I think it will encourage more people to come and see theatre. I’m not unfamiliar with living in a society with many languages and respecting each other’s spaces in that way. It adds to the colourful perspective of our world.

Renee Liang: Cantonese is one of New Zealand’s first languages because the first Cantonese speakers landed here in the 1850s. I don’t have much shame is speaking my language. I have become increasingly proud of it. I’m pretty rough. It was my first language but then I stopped speaking it when I was three, and I’m illiterate as well so to call myself a native of Cantonese is a bit of a stretch.

HO: I have a story to share. I went to a wonderful restaurant and got the sweet and sour pork and I was trying to order it and it’s been a while since I used my Cantonese. The lady who took my order was in her 60s and a little grumpy. After she took my order she said to me in Cantonese: “A Chinese person who can’t speak Chinese. What kind of person are you?” So if you want to talk about racism and insulting each other – it’s everywhere. I would have left but because their 咕噜肉 was so good, I stayed.

RL: In Hong Kong, if I go there and try to speak Cantonese, people will just pat me on the head and tell me that how good my Cantonese is for a foreigner.

HO: Isn’t that patronising?

RL: No. One of my earliest poems was about how people in New Zealand pat me on the head and tell me how good my English is. It’s really patronising if people tell me how good my English is because then they’re not really listening to me. But it’s actually fair enough if my Cantonese is praised, I’m heavily accented and my tones are different. Cantonese is considered a village language and that’s due to the dominance of Mandarin speaking Chinese in New Zealand. We know about Māori – well Cantonese is a colonised language too. It’s become a political thing for me. That’s why I didn’t want to do this play in Mandarin because Cantonese is my mother tongue.

HO: We’ve talked about this, like ‘Are you colonising me, Renee?’ Because I am not Cantonese. Technically, I am Hainanese. I speak Hokkien and Cantonese – not even Hainanese.

RL: Ironically, I’m Hainanese too – my mother is Hainanese and my father is from the north so technically we’re Mandarin and Hainanese speaking but because my family speak Cantonese to each other, it’s now my mother tongue. These things are pretty complicated!

There’s a political movement in Hong Kong at the moment about how Cantonese is being taken out of public schools and out of public discourse. So there’s a bit of a push back to produce cultural items in Cantonese, and I’m like, well, no one is doing it here so I may as well. ‘Chinese Language Week’ here is actually Mandarin Language Week. There is no recognition of Cantonese and I’m like, what is wrong with that? Because your first Chinese immigrants who have been here for six generations speak Cantonese.

AW: That’s all driven by economics and trade relations.

HO: Absolutely everything is driven by economics. English was very popular growing up and my grandad was one of the very first to learn to read and write it in Malaysia as the result of economic pressures of finding work and being colonised by England. He was very celebrated in his time, and now there is a turn around – “oh, shit we need to learn Mandarin now.”

RL: There’s a massive irony there because we went to search for a Cantonese speaker for The Chairs and we had to find a female lead and a male lead. There weren’t many trained Cantonese speaking male actors available so we cast a Mandarin speaker instead who was willing to put in the hard work and had previously done a role with phrases in Cantonese (Sam Wang, who has been cast as the male lead).

But the pool for Cantonese speaking actresses is very tiny, like one or two people. So we started auditioning Mandarin speakers. And to be completely honest I was like, this is a completely different language and to have spent all this time going on about colonisation and then to turn around and go, ‘Oh, I think we’ll just turn it into a Mandarin play,’ was gutting. Looking at the bigger picture we are still questioning the concept of diversity and delivering the play in a home language to a key community so either way it’s a win, it’s just not going to be a personal win.

In the end we did find someone who speaks Cantonese. Her name is Audrey Chan. She’s not a trained actress but she’s fantastic. Audrey is a mover and a shaker in the Cantonese community. She started the Cantonese Opera Society of New Zealand. She’s also a producer and she helped start the Lantern Festival and all the Chinese New Year foundations out west. She’s been doing it for twenty years, and this is the next milestone in her career. She has always wanted to do acting so when this gig came along it was the right moment.

AW: This is an original translation of The Chairs. I was interested in the Cantonese translation 等凳 – which I took to mean ‘to wait on chairs’. I thought this might have been an attempt to draw parallels with another French tragicomedy of the same period – Waiting for Godot.

RL: Waiting for Godot was the play we originally considered, but we ended up going for a two person play. For me it was clever word play because is solo – there’s no plurals in the Cantonese language – so phonetically, dang dang could imply chairs but also waiting for something. And also when you carry something – that’s the double meaning – the old couple of carrying the weight of the world and their stories on their shoulders. They are hoping to pass on that load. Throughout the whole play they are trying to tell their story but they can’t. So there’s a lot of hidden meaning about what the play is about. But it took us about two weeks to come up with that title because it was so hard to translate.

AW: So you both might have read Austin Tseng’s piece on Hainamana last year where he talked about this being brave new times we live in especially for Asian and Chinese New Zealand theatre. Asian New Zealanders are finally taking control of our own narrative, and now, instead of being spoken about, we are speaking for ourselves. What projects excites you at this moment? And what can we expect to see in the near future?

HO: What kind of stories do I want to tell? Basically I want to tell stories about how hard it is be a woman. The things you have to go through, like birthing and breast cancer and IVF and perception and the complicated world that we live in and the changing tones that our kids are going to have to go through. It’s psychological warfare.

RL: What Austin was talking about was that this is an awakening and we are finally taking control of our voice on stage and that is definitely continuing.

HO: There’s definitely a movement. There’s definitely a wave. A lot of proactive creatives coming out.

RL: And in all different fields.

HO: But am I responsible for making Asian content because I am Asian?

RL: No, no, not at all. The really interesting thing is that just because you are Asian doesn’t mean you have to make Asian content, whatever the fuck ‘Asian content’ is meant to be. Whatever you make is going to reflect your upbringing whatever that is. The Chairs– because of Hweiling there’s going be be a bit of Bollywood in there as well as Hong Kong and American film because that is what you love and you grew up with. That influenced you as a person and all of us will speak from that voice.

The time has passed for people (funders and so on) to tell us what to write. Because I’ve written those grandmother stories and those stories that make white people comfortable watching that, but they’re not expecting this super sexy love story – which is what Chye-Ling is doing – and they’re not expecting the really confrontational stuff. Orientation is just one of this year’s mainstage works – last year there was only one – Tea – and the year before that was The Bonefeeder Opera. Now there’s more happening. And that’s super exciting.

HO: I mean, that’s where the money is. They know there is a huge Chinese community and opera is dying. I know someone who teaches it and his job is to reinvigorate it because the people that come to watch it are much older-

RL: No, no, no, no, no, no-

HO: How many under 30s came to watch your opera?

RL: So The Bonefeeder was a massively expensive opera where everyone was properly paid and there were international stars involved. But just like in theatre, and dance, and all the other art forms, there is an indie opera scene where people don’t do it to get paid, they do it for the love of it. It is an incredibly powerful form, I hope more people get to try it and that more NZ work gets made. And yes I have met so many young people who are passionate about opera.

My new project, The Butterfly Lovers Musical is written for opera singers but in a musical format so that we can include opera singers, and musical theatre singers, in it. We workshopped that earlier this year with lots of people of different ethnicities and we are hoping to take that forward to production at some stage. It’s an adaptation of a Chinese tale, perhaps one of the most famous folktales ever. It’s adapted by me, who is Chinese but who is also exploring her mother’s culture, but translated for the New Zealand cultural context.

HO: There is a movement with funders to help diverse people. It is happening and that’s why there is a movement – how far it will go I don’t know, but they are recognising it.

RL: My feeling is that a lot of the funding is controlled and as long as the people who are sitting on the panel are writing the policy and dictating what boxes to tick – because there are boxes – let’s be completely honest here. That’s still dictated by the white culture so you are not going to get real diversity.

One of the things that I’ve come to realise in this process of making The Chairs is if you are being invited into a space with Maori, with a Maori world view, their approach is completely different. They’re not going ‘Be more Asian’ – which is the Pākehā response – their approach is ‘Hey cool, we are really stoked to see your story.’

HO: Their sensibilities are completely different.

RL: It’s just, come into our culture, come into our food, come into our come into our space and play with your ideas.

HO: It’s cultural.

RL: When you work with white producers, they’re like, ‘You need to make it so that our audience is entertained or moved.’ Whereas working with Maori, they’re like, ‘We know that our community might not get it but they’ll be so excited to see it anyway.’

HO: But maybe it’s because we are a minority that we have to do it that way. Because if you go to Singapore, the reverse happens there.

RL: When the trailer for Crazy Rich Asians came out, do you remember the backlash? The people who were not of Chinese descent were like, ‘Hey what about those brown people who were not portrayed in this movie – that’s not good enough.’  So it’s a win that you are portraying Asian characters that are played by Asians but maybe it’s not a win in other ways.

AW: Do we have time for one more bonus questions? How good is your Cantonese?

RL: 啊,小小。 淨係識小小。 聽到多過識講。

HO: 唔錯!

RL: 多謝,多謝

HO: 好似白鬼講啊。。。

AW: 呢個畫劇  可知你想要人去睇呢個畫劇有麼吸引?

HO: What is ‘wah kek’?  唔識, 啊。

RL: 唔識’吸引. 係唔係識講, 唔識聽,咁啊?

AW: 唔係. It’s like ‘appeal, or attraction, gravity’. We can just do this in English…

RL: We failed…

AW: Why should people come see this play? What’s compelling about this play?

RL: When Eugene Ionesco wrote this play, he wrote it just after World War II, and he wrote about two old people holed up in a fortress on an isolated island. They were very clearly isolated and it was like a post-apocalyptic imaginary world. And we were thinking, what is the modern equivalent?

Most Chinese migrants here, except for perhaps the last couple of decades, they’ve literally lived through revolutions. A lot of them have intergenerational trauma and some of us are going through that now. The old people in this play have already been through war and revolution but their biggest challenge is actually coming to New Zealand and being abandoned. We wanted to give a voice to this.

HO: We have Sam who is much younger and Audrey who is much older and it’s a dysfunctional relationship. There’s going to be lots of Cantonese style humour, lots of 1990s Hong Kong movie references –  think Jackie Chan, Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle. That’s the goal. People should come because it’s in Cantonese and it’s not very often that there’s a full play in Cantonese.  And it’s funny, and understandable even if you speak no Cantonese language at all.

This writing was made possible with the support of