Sometime in early June I attended a theatre workshop run by Alice Canton and Julie Zhu called “What is Chinese?”. It featured a series of activities and discussions on what “being Chinese” was in Aotearoa/New Zealand. It was definitely a thought-provoking experience. For the longest time I took the authenticity and identity of “Chinese” as an intrinsic value, not knowing how difficult it was when it came to when translating these ideas on paper. Fast forward to July, I found out this was being made into large-scale documentary theatre show, so here’s me talking to Alice about OTHER [chinese].

Hey Alice! Great to do this with you. So tell me a bit more about yourself and OTHER [chinese].
So I’m a performer and theatre-artist, and I live in Tamaki Makaurau. I make new theatre. Just scraped through a fine arts degree, then trained at Toi Whakaari (NZ Drama School). My work is a mix of processes – I probably align myself more with contemporary choreographic facilitation (thanks Natalie Clark for that phrase) and curatorial practice than traditional, 4th-wall-realism theatre. I’m Chinese-Pakeha, and was born in Aotearoa. OTHER [chinese] is a project that seeks to counter an over-represented social narrative on identity in NZ. It’s a big old metaphor, thinly veiled in a pretty literal premise.

What inspired you to create this production? Did your personal experiences of being Chinese in New Zealand play a significant role?
Yeah, the work is in so many ways a direct response to the political/social climate in Aotearoa here and now. To combat the blatant sinophobic bullshit awash in the media (in news and popular culture). When you’re consistently fed the rhetoric that you’re a problem, you’re different, you’re exotic, you’re other, you’re invisible, it can have irretrievable damage on your psyche. But beyond my psyche, there are serious implications in the wider social context – for example, what kind of impact is this having on education, decision-making, and public-policy? Although my personal experiences form a kind of compass which navigates the work, it’s been about opening it up to include other people’s experiences, and how we share a collective social memory.

Why did you choose personal stories over a choreographed piece? And how do you envision these stories to be depicted in the show?
I’ve been thinking a lot about multiplicity and how to embody that both in content and form. Populating a show about identity with multiple people, voices, and perspectives felt right. But collecting all of that material to then shape into a conventional dramaturgical structure felt wrong, and handing material over to an actor to re-present in a fictional reality felt wrong. So I’m just sort of following my gut with what stories need to be told, and working out how to do that in the moment (it sounds romantic but it’s just sleepless nights).

What is the message surrounding “authenticity” you’re trying to get across? Does OTHER [chinese] aim to open conversation for current issues in New Zealand?
A part of me strongly rejects the idea of ‘authenticity’, mostly because the notion of authentic or ‘truthful’ still sits within a constructed frame. ‘Authentic cultural theatre’ is often full of pastiche ‘cultural’ tropes. If you’re Chinese you’ve got to include chopsticks, dragons, and earnest monologues about Fitting In. I get it. I get why people desire authenticity – we want things to feel real, want things to be connected to a truth. And like we’re all so fucking sick of White doods telling our stories and getting an Oscar for being ‘transformative’. But what I’m insisting is that when we genuinely create space for authenticity then we have to be prepared to let go of what we believe (or desire) the authentic to be – it can be banal, problematic, hypocritical, boring. And that can be quite a profound thing.

Is there a specific message you hope the audience will leave with after the show?
That being Chinese is not one, singular thing. That we may all tick that box, but that sometimes that’s our only commonality. That it is a sprawling identity full of rich and complex diversity. And that we need to practice seeing, hearing, and experiencing difference if we are ever going to evolve as a species.

Catch OTHER [chinese] at Q Theatre from Wednesday the 6th to Saturday the 16th of September 2017. Book tickets here.

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Helen Yeung
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