'No Foreigners' makes the Chinese mall a multimedia cultural experience

Silhouette of human figure. Image courtesy of "No Foreigners" by Hong Kong Exile & fu-GEN Theatre

A mysterious door at a Chinese mall in Vancouver became the gateway into a project for Toronto playwright David Yee, whose latest production examines the racialized spaces of those malls and the Chinese diaspora.

No Foreigners is a collaboration between Vancouver interdisciplinary group Hong Kong Exile and Yee's Toronto-based company fu-GEN Theatre. No Foreigners launches in Vancouver February 7 - 17 (the Cultch) and then moves to Toronto Feb. 21 - 25 (Theatre Centre).

"We decided to investigate the Chinese mall […] these malls were created for the community, they have been a hub for the diaspora coming to Canada. It's where culture and commerce collide," Yee told rabble.ca in a Skype interview from Vancouver.

It began with Yee and the collective seeking to explore the debate around signage. In Richmond, B.C., there were protests about the number of Chinese signs popping up and pressure to impose bylaws to require English as well. A similar controversy occurred in Markham, Ont., north of Toronto, about a decade prior.

The group visited the Aberdeen Mall in Richmond to soak in the flavour of the place. They spotted store frontage, "Rome Station," with MTR insignia (which stands for "mass transit railway" and refers to Hong Kong's subway system) and luxury handbags in the display window. The sign read: "Members Only."

Yee decided he would pretend to be a rich business guy.

"I rang the bell and a woman answered. I told her I had just moved to Vancouver after getting a job in finance and I wanted to buy a bag for my girlfriend and I wanted to become a member," Yee says.  "She said, 'Sorry, no foreigners,' and closed the door!"

Yee had the start of the play, which doesn't follow a traditional narrative.

"The play starts exactly like that but our guy stays in the mall for three years and learns to be Chinese," Yee explains. "He goes to a DVD store and the girl there says, 'I will train you to be Chinese' and gives him Chinese dramas to watch and then all the way to karaoke videos. He also watches Bruce Lee movies and others, like Jet Li. Learns Kung fu and there's even a fight in the food court."

At the end, the main character goes back to the Members Only door and goes through a series of tests to prove he is Chinese. Throughout the play other characters are given the limelight. And, half the play is in Cantonese and translated into English onto screens onstage.

"We have an older Chinese couple operating an electronics store but with [more people buying through] the internet, they've seen all the stores around them close," says Yee. "They are trying to survive and it's also affecting their marriage. These stores are so interwoven into the fabric of all the relationships of the [store owners]."

There's also an elderly man by the koi pond who talks about how the fish are culled and sent to Chinese malls -- a metaphorical story. Here's a line from one of the man's musings:

"[S]ome young koi fish who do not live up to their parents' expectations and are not good enough for rich men in Kowloon are sent to shopping malls…"

Since it is an interdisciplinary performance, the play utilizes miniatures which are projected onto five screens in addition to the one main screen throughout the play. The miniatures are mostly projected as shadows.

Governor-General's Award

Yee, who is used to sitting at a computer and punching out script, says he appreciates having projects that push his artistic abilities.

Not one to shy away from challenges, Yee has been the artistic director of fu-Gen since 2010 and is currently playwright-in-residence at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre. He is an accomplished actor and his plays include Lady in the Red Dress (2008), Paper Series (2011) and the Governor General's Award-winner Carried Away on the Crest of a Wave (2013), based on survivor interviews about the catastrophic 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia. In October 2016, fu-GEN and Factory Theatre mounted his new play, Acquiesce.

Fu-GEN and Yee -- who is of Chinese-Scottish background and graduated from the University of Toronto's drama and theatre program in 2000 -- have come a long way.

"When we started [back in 2002] we didn't know how it would 'play' to the white and the Asian communities. We wanted to tell stories differently and not just the identity story," recalls Yee.

"In the Lady in the Red Dress, I use a lot of Yeats' poetry and people were asking ' Why Yeats?  This is a Chinese play.' But it's f**king poetry!" exclaims Yee, a lover of poetry. "People will always find something to criticize… but they also find something to love. We've created a rich, artistic community that engages with narrative and performance in a myriad of different ways, we just want to keep embracing that."

Looking at the current landscape of entertainment and media, I ask Yee if he thinks there's been a sea change in how Asians are portrayed. He shakes his head.

"The changes are subtle, not big. I see them checking some quota box but the Asian character is still always the cleaning lady, doctor or best friend," says Yee. "What I'm seeing now at least, is more Asian creators in Canada and the U.S., so writers and directors."

Although Yee won the Governor-General's Award for his play in 2015, he hasn't seen it mounted as much as the works of other GG winners and that is somewhat disturbing.

"Carried Away on the Crest of a Wave involves eight countries and people speaking different languages and I believe, it's because these companies just don't have the possibilities within their organizations to stage it," says Yee, referring to the fact many theatre companies still aren't diverse enough.

As for the future of seeing more fully realized Asian characters in the mainstream?

"I remain cautiously optimistic."

No Foreigners in Vancouver

No Foreigners in Toronto

fu-GEN Theatre Company

June Chua is a Berlin-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for rabble.ca.

Images courtesy of "No Foreigners" by Hong Kong Exile & fu-GEN Theatre

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