New Zealand Chinese Performing Arts: A Passing of the Torch

The year thus far has been quite a treat for connoisseurs of stage productions. This output has been notable for the coverage of a much-neglected history. The releases of opera The Bone Feeder, play The Mooncake and the Kumara and “large-scale documentary theatre” piece OTHER [chinese] have given us a compelling trifecta of interpretations of the Chinese experience in Aotearoa. In many ways they are the culmination of our forebears’ long struggle for a foothold in society. We should not delude ourselves that the journey is quite over yet, but the telling of our own stories is a vital part of self-empowerment.

The Bone Feeder has had previous incarnations as a play, beginning as part of Renee Liang’s Postgraduate Diploma of Arts at the University of Auckland back in 2009. Its title derives from the Chinese tradition of providing food offerings to deceased ancestors, which is given extra poignancy by the historical story it is based on. The said bones are those of the miners and migrants whose remains were being returned to China for burial on the SS Ventnor in 1902, but were lost when the ship struck a rock and sank off Hokianga Harbour. A few remains did wash up and were buried by local iwi members. The opera follows the journey of Ben (played by Henry Choo), its young modern-day protagonist as he seeks his ancestor Kwan (Jaewoo Kim), lost during the sinking.

The Mooncake and the Kumara by Mei-Lin Te Puea Hansen is an intensely personal story, being an interpretation of the meeting of her Chinese grandfather and Māori grandmother in their market garden work. With a grand total of one Caucasian character, the Asian and Māori actors take centre stage. OTHER [chinese] is the most structurally unconventional of the lot. Opening with a video montage, it alternates between live and filmed participants, incorporating personal stories, dance and lots of director involvement with Alice Canton throwing impromptu vox pops at the performers. Its rotating cast and semi-spontaneous nature ensured that no two performances were the same.

The most significant common thread running through these three productions is the awareness of interconnection with the indigenous. It is an anonymous Māori Ferryman (Te Oki Rakena) who guides the protagonist of The Bone Feeder on his journey, and the opera features Chinese, Māori and Western instruments as well as trilingual lyrics. It is an aesthetic feast, though this should not blind us to the deeper meanings present. On one level the opera functions as a form of moral instruction – particularly relevant for those like us who live on colonised indigenous land. The Ferryman exhorts Ben to respect tikanga Māori, warning him not to antagonise the kehua (ghosts), nor violate the sanctity of burial sites. But there is another layer of meaning in the reading of the Ventnor sinking as a cipher for the story and struggles of the Chinese in Aotearoa. Ben’s journey is a metaphor for the search for home and identity. The Ventnor was commissioned to transport the remains due to the perception of the Chinese miners and migrants of New Zealand as a “not-home.” The loss of the bones symbolises the trauma of separation from ancestors and family. Ben’s reunion with Kwan throws up a surprising revelation on how the latter wants his remains treated. Ben and Kwan’s odyssey suggests both a reconnection to ancestral roots, and New Zealand finally being important to Chinese as a “home.” 

Leilan (Katlyn Wong) in The Mooncake and the Kumara by Mei-Lin Te Puea Hansen. Photo by Julie Zhu

Leilan (Katlyn Wong) in The Mooncake and the Kumara by Mei-Lin Te Puea Hansen. Photo by Julie Zhu

The Mooncake and the Kumara is more openly referential of historical experiences. Early twentieth-century market gardens were important locations for the intermingling of Chinese and Māori, and were infamously the centre of hysteria over alleged miscegenation between Chinese men and Māori women. The interactions between the play’s Chinese and Māori characters and their white landlord hint at undercurrents of discrimination and dispossession. The character of Leilan (Katlyn Wong), wife of one of the Chinese market gardeners deserves special mention. In her person, the effects of terrestrial injustice intersect with the existential pain of loss and longing. Drawing a parallel between her plight and an old Māori legend, the play delivers a subtle but powerful coda, equal parts devastating and hopeful.   

From Liang’s post-mortem fantasy and Te Puea Hansen’s historical snapshot, Canton’s energetic piece moves the focus to the present. The young (and not so young) performers, largely amateurs, voice an awareness of the challenges and responsibilities of living in a (post?) colonial society. Historically, the Chinese in New Zealand were known for their political passivity and not rocking the boat. It would not be amiss to read OTHER [chinese] as an indicator of the growth of an increasingly bold, assertive and savvy generation of Chinese Kiwis, not afraid to ask, as Canton herself put it “…how do we all feel like we belong without taking it from somebody else.”1

Chinese New Zealanders bringing their history to the performing arts is not entirely without precedent. One example which springs to mind is the Joe Kum Yung Centenary Commemoration of 2005, which featured a piece of street-theatre on the elderly ex-miner’s infamous murder on the very same Wellington street where the incident took place. The Chinese artists of today should not feel reluctant to engage with the dark side of history. We are all familiar with the bluster of loud bigotry, but I would argue that the silence of forgetting is a far deadlier weapon of racism. Today, a plaque on the site mentions Yung as being merely “killed by gunshot” without referring to his murderer. This subtle snub and the commemoration have garnered some space in the public memory for Yung, displacing (if ever so slightly) the notoriety of his lunatic assailant. In different ways, Liang, Te Puea Hansen and Canton have used remembrance as a means of empowerment.

Kwan (Jaewoo Kim) and ensemble in The Bonefeeder. Courtesy of Auckland Arts Festival. Photo by Candice Whitmore, GATE Photography

Kwan (Jaewoo Kim) and ensemble in The Bonefeeder. Courtesy of Auckland Arts Festival. Photo by Candice Whitmore, GATE Photography

For a larger perspective though, we would need to step into other genres of the arts. Film in particular shares many commonalities with the stage. In a way, Liang et al are the ideological and spiritual descendants of Leon Narbey’s 1988 flick Illustrious Energy. Criminally under-appreciated, though Pākehā-directed it enjoyed significant involvement from the Chinese community. Drawing on the painstaking research of medical doctor and historian James Ng, and with Helen Wong (author of the 2016 book Being Chinese) as script and casing consultant, many of the actors were actual Chinese market gardeners. Telling the story of Chinese gold miners in late nineteenth century Central Otago, it was the first and only film centred around the early Chinese pioneers in Aotearoa, told with a surprising degree of historical accuracy.

Its protagonist Chan (Shaun Bao) is equal parts human and heroic. Alienated by white society, he is also not entirely at ease with the mores of the older miners. Turning the trope of the emasculated Asian male on its head, he single-handedly fights a group of white bullies, saving his metaphorical face (though not his literal one). He also outwits and humiliates a pair of would-be muggers. At the film’s end he walks courageously into an uncertain future, forging his own path. Though an undeniable milestone, Illustrious Energy is somewhat stylistically dated, such as its having the main Chinese characters speak English to each other rather than Cantonese. But present-day works like The Bone Feeder and others carry on the film’s legacy, communicating the history and experiences of the New Zealand Chinese in ways relevant to a modern audience. Chan poignantly states “I see the sky. I feel the earth. I walk between.” It is up to future artists and storytellers to continue the journey.

Illustrious Energy was released before the infamous wave of 1990s “Inv-Asian” hysteria achieved full force. This decade was a less than auspicious time for on-screen portrayals of Chinese. From opium den exotica in Desperate Remedies (1993) to the “bit dodgy but just ironic enough to maybe not be racist” kung fu and Cantonese bickering in Forgotten Silver (1995), the Chinese experience, was included only marginally and generally in connection to well-worn tropes. Funnily enough, it may be argued that it was precisely this decade of bigotry that kick-started a new era of Chinese political consciousness. A notable example was the 1995 campaign against Epsom Normal Primary School’s proposal to impose a 12-month residency requirement and English test on students, resulting in the school’s dropping of the latter.

The ensemble cast of OTHER [chinese] directed by Alice Canton. Photo by Julie Zhu

The ensemble cast of OTHER [chinese] directed by Alice Canton. Photo by Julie Zhu

This activism continued to make its mark into the twenty-first century, most memorably with the 2002 Poll Tax apology.  Funnily enough, both campaigns meant different things to different groups of Chinese. Resistance to Epsom Normal was spearheaded by newer migrants, with older and local-born settlers frequently complaining about the unwanted attention stirred up by their activism. Conversely, the Poll Tax apology was achieved mostly by the efforts of the older settlers, with newer arrivals often not even aware of the existence of the tax. The wedge between these two groups is still a challenge to be surmounted. However, the presence of members of both the local and overseas-born in artistic productions (OTHER [chinese] being a particularly good example) may very well function as a promoter and indicator of mutual recognition and dovetailing of interests between the old and new blood.

Young Chinese creatives are carrying on the activist spirit, no longer satisfied with grinning and bearing it. This applies equally to the demands of society and the expectations of community arbiters of Chinese identity. Roseanne Liang’s 2005 documentary Banana in a Nutshell, for instance, chronicled her fight to marry the man she loved, against the wishes of her parents. More than a decade on, could it be reasonable to believe we are at the cusp of a Kiwi-Chinese cultural renaissance? The Bone Feeder, The Mooncake and the Kumara and OTHER [chinese] may not have been the first New Zealand Chinese cultural productions, but they may very well be remembered as the ones which bust the door wide open. With Chinese and Asian people constituting an ever-increasing proportion of the country’s population, we can expect to see and hear many, many more stories.    

It’s brave new times we live in. These productions are indicative of Chinese and Asian (and everything in between) New Zealanders exercising the agency to take control of their own narratives. We were spoken about, but now we ourselves speak.

Of course, this poses challenge as well as opportunities. It has been far too common around the world for migrant communities to appropriate indigeneity for their own ends. Hence the importance of adopting a genuinely collaborative approach to tackle how to portray Māori characters, themes and storylines on stage. It would be a tragic irony for minorities to take up the mantle of the coloniser. The New Zealand Chinese, as demonstrated in the works mentioned, have generally been quite considerate in negotiating their relations with indigenous peoples. Hopefully this is a practice that carries on into future generations. 

Positioning the discourse is another issue. It’s trendy of course, to speak about dismantling stereotypes. But no matter how devastatingly we crush them, the fact remains that even in negation, we still attach to and construct ourselves in relation to these images. We’re still dancing to somebody else’s tune. It would be nice to have total intellectual and expressive independence, but existing in a society means to be part and parcel of the power dynamics running through it. The best we can do is to be cognisant of these dynamics, and how they may condition our actions and responses. The stage is a most unsubtle metaphor – we perform, but for which audience?   

2017 has nevertheless been a year to remember. The creative output we have seen which centres the Chinese experience in Aotearoa is deceivingly significant. It reflects a present multicultural reality which gives the lie to official bicultural narratives. Yet it is also indicative of a vision for the future; an articulation of our desires and what we want this country to be. In today’s world, traditional categories and boundaries like the nation state are becoming increasingly vague and permeable. Perhaps future works may exceed national bounds, interpreting the Chinese diaspora as a transglobal phenomenon. Art is politics, and this art is radical. 

1 From ‘Chinese Identity in Aotearoa’ (Māori Television report, 5 September 2017)

This writing was made possible with the support of