It’s an odd thing to try and reintroduce yourself to the city you live in. Two shows currently playing in London encourage their audiences to get out, to look up and look around, to engage with the city as a site of possibility and change. Augmented Chinatown 2.0, initially commissioned for the Chinese Arts Now festival, consists of a guided tour around Chinatown — it’s all conducted through your headphones, and it’s a solo experience, first and foremost. c-o-n-t-a-c-t, translated from a French production by Eric Chantelauze is more of a socially-distanced promenade production — the type where a motley crew audience wander the streets behind the performers, like some sort of disorganised, silent cult. Both were conceived of and created before the pandemic, and both take on new resonances now, though those resonances are rarely (thankfully) hammered home.
The main difference is that in Augmented Chinatown 2.0, the location is the main character. The app’s map points you towards places of interest — side streets, alleyways, shop fronts — where mini audio plays can be triggered. They’re lush and evocative snippets, but difficult to focus on when trying to navigate through Chinatown’s lunchtime rush (which I found hopeful and distressing in equal measure.) I found myself drifting whilst listening to them, more drawn to the windows of various dessert shops. Joel Tan’s walking tour proves much more engrossing, in the end, because it demands your attention and properly utilises the area around you. “Chinatown wants you to know it’s Chinese,” Tan murmurs in your ear as you pass under a ceiling of garishly coloured paper lanterns. “It’s camp, but it’s comforting.” What I like most about Augmented Chinatown is the way in which which Tan combines genuine affection for the area with emphasis on the way in which immigrant-owned, family-run restaurants have been priced out of the area, replaced by chains and internationally-owned businesses, using the iconic Wong Kei restaurant (once known as the “rudest restaurant in London,” before becoming more sanitised) as a case study. “When does nostalgia become fantasy?” Tan muses towards the end of the tour. It is both sentimental and self-aware, in a way which can be tricky to harmonise, and yet it’s a balancing act which he pulls off with grace. Over the years, Chinatown has become more of an institution than the true, beating heart of the diaspora, but it is a place that has always felt familiar and comforting to me, even though my family have always preferred the less emphatically “Oriental” stylings of Queensway for our siu yuk and char siu cravings. Tan continually points out those iconic maroon gates (the ones tourists crowd under to take pictures) — they’re there, he suggests, as a cosmetic flourish, to make London seem more charmingly diverse without bothering to adjust draconian anti-immigration measures. At its worst, Chinatown can feel like a sanitised, exotic theme park (indeed, there are development plans to transform it into “Asiatown”) and yet so many in the diaspora still gravitate towards it. It has sat empty for months, and yet here it still is — a flawed symbol, but a beacon nonetheless.
In contrast, the version of c-o-n-t-a-c-t I experience takes place in Monument, an area I am deeply unfamiliar with (other versions take place near St Paul’s and the Cutty Sark) and have rarely felt the inclination to explore. c-o-n-t-a-c-t is a show about a girl, Sarah, who is depressed and anxious after the death of her father and who is contacted by her guardian angel. It’s a bit of a schlocky premise, and one which isn’t helped by Quentin Bruno’s occasionally po-faced translation. The location of c-o-n-t-a-c-t is much less integral to the functioning of the plot — it’s scenery and not a third character, which is to its detriment, I think. It works pretty well — Monument is an area populated mainly by tall, anonymous office buildings (all of which currently stand empty), and c-o-n-t-a-c-t is a show about a girl lost and unmoored in a big city — but it doesn’t feel absolutely essential, like the piece would collapse if it wasn’t set in this exact location. But the sheer concrete and glass facades add a sense of anonymity to proceedings, and the direction the performance takes — down towards the Thames, overlooking the Shard and Tower Bridge — reveals unexpected beauty in an area I had always written off as uninspiringly corporate. Fittingly for a play about grief and depression, Chantelauze’s text tends towards the static — as a mood piece, that is effective, but as a piece of theatre, it becomes problematic that the main thrust of the piece comes from the audience and the performers quite literally moving around, rather than the internal workings of the play itself. There is also something oddly mimetic about c-o-n-t-a-c-t — partially it’s because the performers are distanced from each other and never touch (in a manner which works quite well when much of the play is about seeking out actual, tangible human contact, but which doesn’t really translate when actually watching it), but it’s also because the experience takes place entirely on headphones, on an pre-recorded and downloaded audio file. This works fairly well when introducing us to Sarah’s internal stream of consciousness, which hops from a musical earworm to musings about her digestive system, but it is less successful when the performers begin to mime along to and act out their lines. The binaural effect is intended to make us feel like we are submerged in these characters’ thoughts, but I began to follow the performers with less interest, drifting along at the back of the pack, feeling increasingly, ironically, distanced from the whole thing.
I felt lonely doing both these shows, and yet with Augmented Chinatown 2.0, I became more comfortable with that feeling. Perhaps that is because of my own personal history with and attachment to Chinatown as a place, but it all felt more live to me, and I felt more connected to my surroundings in comparison to c-o-n-t-a-c-t — more inclined to look around, to take it all in, to properly take notice of the world around me. c-o-n-t-a-c-t also suggests that you do that, but the beauty in Augmented Chinatown is smaller, more localised — it’s in the mosaic floor tilings outside certain restaurants that you’ve never noticed, it’s in the neon shop front signs and the blue plaques above certain buildings. The sudden beauty when you see the Shard looming above the Thames in c-o-n-t-a-c-t is unexpected and awesome, yes, but it’s a huge and obvious beauty — one that’s presented to you on a platter, rather than pushing you to seek out those moments yourself.