One of my final notes, scribbled on the bus home from Jennifer Tang’s Ghost Girl//Gwei Mui, reads:
“I keep looking for the play.”
Reading it back, I’m not totally sure what I mean. The play about British East Asian experience. The play that will make me feel finally, totally represented on a British stage. (And what does that mean? What do I mean when I say represented? I don’t really know anymore) The play which will attack the weaknesses and blind spots of said community – the racism, the colourism. The play which will simultaneously address the banalities and minutiae of British East Asian experience but also lift above it, transcend it, somehow. Maybe. The play, when it comes, will be a group effort, a product of the plays and pieces and discussions that have come before it. It’s no surprise I haven’t found it yet. I’m asking for a lot of things. It’s unfair to ask it of every BEA play I watch. Part of progress is allowing things to fail, and fail upwards. And Gwei Mui is no failure.
Jennifer Tang’s piece, conceived and directed by her, but devised by the company, tries to do a lot. There’s a personal story, the story of Kim, brought up by two women, one Chinese (her birth mother), and one white, whose house she moves into as a child. There are also verbatim segments, asking what it means to be British-Chinese, and segments exploring Britishness and Chinese-ness and the stuff in between. This should be everything I want. And I sat there, willing myself to like it more. To feel more connected to it. I went in, almost expecting to cry. Hoping that it would make me cry.
Part of the reason is that it feels disjointed, a collection of scenes strung together. Gwei Mui jumps from set piece to set piece and you can feel the seams rippling. Sections sort of just – end – before the next one begins. And there’s a lack of depth, particularly to the sections exploring Britishness and Western pop culture understandings of Chinese-ness. A montage of white men with St George’s flag painted on their faces, with a competing soundtrack – Danielle Phillips trying to emphasise the tweeness and faux-politeness of British culture against Bea Holland telling increasingly racist, homophobic and sexist jokes. Another montage, of East Asian women in tiny school skirts and Gwen Stefani in yellowface, and then Siu-See Hung tries to wear eyelid tape to get rid of her monolids and I get it, I really fucking do, and it’s effective on a gut level of making me feel queasy, and the white audience feel queasy and guilty, which is perhaps all that matters. It’s showing me what is, and I know what is. What I want to know is why.
(A side note – I wrote a review of A Small Place at The Gate a few months back, musing on the limits of postcolonial theatre, and I think there’s a continuation of that here. Who is this for? If it’s for a white audience who don’t know about the way East Asian women are objectified, fetishised, etc, then okay, but that feels lacking. If it’s for an East Asian audience – then there’s that little jump in the stomach at seeing your body onstage, yes, but it’s accompanied by bone deep sadness and a desire for something more, a dignity we don’t get)
There’s a Facebook group called subtle asian traits, which has exploded over the last few months. Stay with me. It posts memes of a generalised, whitewashed, acceptable “Asian” experience – lots of stuff about bubble tea, that kinda thing, essentially ignoring the intersections of inequality in Asian communities. It’s well-meaning, and occasionally funny, and a necessary space for solidarity, particularly for teenagers who are Figuring That Shit Out (it was set up by a group of teenagers), but it’s undeniably shallow. A running joke on Twitter is that when subtle asian traits does attempt to discuss Asian trauma, it focuses on the East Asian community and on trivial things like “when I was at school, I was bullied by the white kids because my packed lunch smelled different to theirs”, rather than, yaknow, the way the East Asian community ignores/flat out stamps on the South East Asian community for their own benefit. And there is space for both things to be talked about, but the problem is that all too often, the BEA community like to focus on the former rather than the latter. On being oppressed rather than them doing the oppressing.
Gwei Mui doesn’t necessarily do this, or intend to do this, though it does subscribe to a few moments of triteness – the “where are you from/where are you really from/where are your parents from” question that we do get asked, obviously, but which is something which just feels so, so tired now. There are mentions of food – mac and cheese versus stir fry – but it’s unpacked in more depth, in the context of Kim’s relationship to her Chinese mother, and how food for the Chinese is a symbol of love, and affection. It’s a delicate, bittersweet moment, rooted in the humanity of the situation.
I don’t want to say BEA plays shouldn’t do or talk about certain things, because I am part of that community and do talk about these things too. But I do think this is the benefit of having someone from the community actually critique the work that’s being put out. A white critic might gloss over/might not understand those intricacies. I desperately want the BEA theatre community to succeed. Of course I do. And I don’t want to criticise work that rarely gets any funding. But the problem with talking about food, or simple cultural differences, is that it papers over the important shit, the shit that is far more difficult to talk about. It’s not fair to place all this on Gwei Mui – it’s not trying to be the play, only one play of hopefully many, but it did make me think properly about the issues that keep simmering and never come to boil.
It’s so good to hear Cantonese onstage. So good. It reaches inside me and makes me clench my fists – but to just have that onstage, to just have the bodies onstage that look like my own isn’t really enough anymore. I appreciate Gwei Mui’s refusal to have a neat ending – its refusal at its close to pander to a white audience who want closure, its desire to send its audience out, thinking about identity and culture and ethnicity in greater detail. I think that suits, and that feels real, and honest. I wish more plays in general did that.
Still, there is a reluctance from the BEA community, broadly, not just in theatre, to really unpick the ugliness that sits at the heart of it. And I’m tired of it, and I don’t think we can keep making theatre unless we address it.
Ghost Girl // Gwei Mui is on at Camden People’s Theatre until 9th February. More info here.