David K.S. Tse and his Yellow Earth Theatre company, in New Territories, fall into the trap which, to my mind, has previously ensnared Ivan Heng's Tripitaka company working in the same area of Chinese-British artistic and cultural interface (Heng is in fact Singaporean). To wit, Tse and his collaborators begin from first cultural principles but never move sufficiently beyond them, leaving us with a bald, predictable narrative which gives few if any fresh insights into the Chinese-British experience.
New Territories tells of the Wong family, living in a small village in the mainland area of Hong Kong (hence one level of the title's meaning), and of son Ka-Hing's subsequent experiences as a scholarship boy at an English public school (hence another level). From it we learn that life is hard for many families, especially in villages, and more so when brought up by a single parent; that the betterment-through-work ethic pervades schooling also; that casual sexism remains rife both in Hong Kong and among many Chinese-British, with less value being placed upon the educational potential of a daughter than upon that of a son; that English people can find it difficult to assimilate those of a different culture, especially when the newcomers outdo them; and that homosexuality is not unknown in boarding schools. In other words, not many sizeable revelations on offer. The play is set in the years before the 1997 handover, which is fleetingly alluded to but forms no part of the dramatic skeleton.
Yellow Earth's stated enthusiasm for multi-media work amounts here to the occasional background slide; its commitment to multi-culturalism takes the form of including a European in the performance company, then sidelining him by largely confining him to incidental percussion and voice-overs. Into the Wong family narrative Tse interpolates episodes from Journey To The West (the "Monkey" saga), performed in a burlesque of Beijing Opera style; the terms "monkey" and "pig" also crop up throughout the rest of the dialogue, a tactic which amounts less to subtle patterning than to the naked deployment of verbal guy-ropes.
The three-and-a-half-handed style of presentation is simple and straightforward, doing nothing to add depth to the narrative. The whole 90-minute experience feels like an exercise in cultural Theatre-in-Education; the cause of multi-culturalism is not advanced simply by re-stating liberal (and in some cases not so liberal) cliches. The piece is perfectly pleasant, but sadly it challenges no-one and nothing in its chosen area.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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