No For­eign­ers mines mall cul­ture

> BY ALEXAN­DER VARTY

The Georgia Straight - - Arts -

Iyou’re guess­ing that No For­eign­ers,

an in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary theatre ad­ven­ture from Van­cou­ver’s Hong Kong Ex­ile col­lec­tive, has to do with dis­crim­i­na­tion, you’re guess­ing right. But it’s not quite as sim­ple as that.

The new piece be­gan as a con­sid­er­a­tion of sig­nage is­sues, par­tic­u­larly the ire raised by Chi­nese-only signs in the city of Rich­mond. But a bizarre in­ci­dent in the Aberdeen Cen­tre mall soon shifted the dis­cus­sion.

“One of the main through lines, if not the main through line, in­volves a char­ac­ter who goes to an ex­pen­sive bag store, and the shop owner tells him, ‘Sorry, you can’t come in. No for­eign­ers,’” ex­plains project leader Mil­ton Lim. “Which is ac­tu­ally some­thing that hap­pened.”

Ap­par­ently, David Yee, who wrote the script for No For­eign­ers, was re­search­ing the sig­nage is­sue when he was, quite lit­er­ally, locked out of a promis­ing lo­cale. “He went to a store in Aberdeen Cen­tre, an ex­pen­sive bag store,” Lim says. “It said ‘Mem­bers only’ and he wanted to see what was inside, so he kind of dressed up a lit­tle bit and said, ‘Hey, I’m just mov­ing here. I’d like to spend some money. Can I come in?’ He’s half Chi­nese, half Scot­tish, and the owner said, ‘Sorry, no for­eign­ers,’ and closed the door in his face.”

The in­ci­dent sent Yee, and one of the two char­ac­ters in the play, on a quest to find out what it means to be a mem­ber of the Chi­nese diaspora in the 21st cen­tury, a quest en­acted by tiny fig­ures on minia­ture movie sets, filmed by a pair of HD cam­eras that feed the ac­tion to mul­ti­ple on-stage screens. Apart from a se­quence set in a jade mine, the play takes place in a sim­u­lacrum of the kind of Asian mall one might find in Rich­mond or Markham, On­tario, but there are some twists.

“For ex­am­ple,” Lim says, “there’s not usu­ally a moth mu­seum inside a Chi­nese mall. But in Chi­nese cul­ture, moths are said to be an­ces­tors. So we’ve taken that one idea and created a moth mu­seum to which one of the char­ac­ters brings a brief­case of ‘hell money’, so that he can burn it to hon­our his grand­fa­ther—who owned the jade jew­ellery store [in the same mall]. So there are themes of in­her­i­tance, or in­ter­gen­er­a­tional mis­un­der­stand­ings and the rec­on­cil­ing of those things.”

Also in play are con­sid­er­a­tions of de­mo­graphic change, along­side the eco­nomic earth­quakes that have been un­leashed by on­line shop­ping. Lim notes that the flat, one-storey struc­tures erected by the first gen­er­a­tion of Hong Kong–born im­mi­grants to Canada are be­ing re­placed by glitzy, mul­ti­storey plazas that cater to more re­cent ar­rivals from main­land China. And while Chi­nese malls have al­ways been cul­tural cen­tres, with the rise of Ama­zon and other In­ter­net re­tail­ers that role is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly im­por­tant.

“A lot of Chi­nese malls have a stage in the cen­tre, or a big pond area, and they’ve al­ways been meant for so­cial spa­ces or spa­ces for en­ter­tain­ment,” Lim ex­plains. “That’s even more true now. Peo­ple don’t re­ally go to shop­ping malls for shop­ping as much any­more.”

In No For­eign­ers, the mall’s koi pond be­comes a metaphor for dif­fer­ence and class: some koi are gor­geous and glit­ter­ing, while oth­ers are drably util­i­tar­ian, even though they’re all re­ally just carp. And the sig­nage de­bate also ap­pears, in al­tered form: more than half the pro­duc­tion is in Can­tonese, with sur­titles pro­jected above the five HD screens where the ac­tion plays out. Tech­ni­cally bril­liant and philo­soph­i­cally provoca­tive, the work prom­ises to be an en­light­en­ing look at what Lim calls “the mul­ti­plic­ity of how many Chi­ne­se­nesses there can be”, as well as a wel­come ex­plo­ration of an ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment that has only rarely been ex­am­ined as art.

No For­eign­ers,

In Hong Kong Ex­ile’s tiny fig­ures en­act the quest to find out what it means to be a mem­ber of the Chi­nese diaspora, amid an Asian mall.

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