No Foreigners is Hong Kong Exile's second major production to open in Vancouver in the past two weeks (I previously reviewed Foxconn Frequency [No. 3] here). The busy and artistically adventurous company continues its multidisciplinary exploration of diasporic Chineseness, this time in collaboration with Toronto-based fu-Gen Theatre's David Yee, who wrote the text. Originally commissioned by Theatre Conspiracy as part of its Migration Path Project, No Foreigners runs under the direction of HKE project lead Milton Lim at The Cultch's Culture Lab until February 17, before traveling to Toronto for a run at the Theatre Centre.
The story concerns an unnamed Asian-Canadian millennial (voiced by Derek Chan) who is neither fully assimilated into mainstream white culture nor conversant with the traditions of his Cantonese mother and grandfather. He discovers just how estranged he is from both parts of himself when he visits that quintessential global export: the Chinese mall. Wishing to browse among the Hermes bags at an upscale boutique called Milan Station, he is denied entry by the ancient storeowner (April Leung), who insists that "No foreigners are allowed!" Affronted by this attack on his cultural identity, and additionally spurred by the news that his grandfather has left him his estate, but only on the condition that he can supply the probate officer the correct codeword, our hero embarks on a three-year occupation of the mall in an effort to become authentically Chinese. His guide and mentor on this journey is the wise-beyond-her-years Sodapop Mah, the fugitive daughter of a bickering couple whose electronics business is all but bust.
All of this provides HKE and writer Yee with ample opportunity to open up the surreal space of the Chinese mall to theatrical exploitation and critical analysis, giving us a portrait of a place where fantasy and superstition intersect--sometimes sweetly, at other times more violently--with commerce and the geopolitics of fashion and pop culture. The anthropologist Marc Augé has described the shopping mall as a "non-place," a transient space of "supermodernity" that holds little cultural or architectural significance for its users, who consequently remain anonymous and indistinguishable within it. What is most compelling about No Foreigners is the suggestion that this is far from the case for Chinese malls of the sort one finds in Richmond or Markham. Instead, we learn that they are vital community gathering places, rich in drama, haunted by history, and deeply connected to the idea of a home away from home.
My problem has to do with how all of this is presented. Performers Derek Chan and April Leung function as a cross between voice actors and Bunraku puppet masters, moving miniature human figures and set pieces in front of a bank of computer screens, the projected images of which we then see transposed via live camera feeds to a larger movie screen (the miniatures are by Natalie Tin Yin Gan, the projections by Lim, working with Remy Siu, who also designed the sound). Our perspective as spectators is at once multiplied and telescoped all at once, and the seamless integration of the technology is on one level a marvel to behold--as, for example, with the fluttering of an eclipse of moths that begins on the smaller bank of computer screens and then migrates to overtake the whole of the larger movie screen. And yet while I appreciate how dispersed and multi-focal viewing in No Foreigners mimics the ways in which seeing has become split and distracted in today's media-saturated environments--of which the shopping mall is paradigmatic--as live theatre this production feels strangely static and emotionally inert. Despite all of the illuminated screens and the images and the translated surtitles being thrown at me, I found myself continuously looking to Chan and Leung, crouched below the computers and platforms of miniatures, speaking almost surreptitiously into their head mics. And it's surely no coincidence that the moment in the production that connects the most with the audience is when Chan--his character having graduated to the ultimate test of his Chineseness--breaks out into a rousing karaoke number, a single spot following him as he makes his way into the audience.
Yee's text is filled with beautiful poetry, and there are so many smart and interesting things going on in No Foreigners. I just wish they could break free a bit more often from the apparatus of their mediatic scaffolding.