Gold Mountain depicts a painful history

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Here on the West Coast, we should know the term Gold Mountain well. It’s what the residents of southern China once called our region—not always appropriately, as those who panned for nuggets in the Coast Range or laid railway track through the Rockies found out at such a high cost. But the phrase can also be understood as a larger metaphor. Seeking relief from cruel landlords, brutal rulers, and the crushing poverty of rural Guangzhou, millions of Chinese flooded to other locales, finding their own Gold Mountains around the globe.

One of the most unlikely sites was Liverpool, the hardscrabble port on England’s own west coast. Yet that’s where David Yip’s father wound up, after a timely exit from Hong Kong just before the Japanese invasion of 1941. And it’s where the British actor’s play Gold Mountain is set—in a real-life world of institutionalized racism and endless rain, and an imagined one where a father and son finally come to terms with their shared journey.

There were at least two main reasons for writing the play, says Yip, who also stars in this collaboration between Montreal’s Les Deux Mondes and Liverpool’s unitytheatre. One is that the Chinese community in the U.K. has not yet produced its own Maxine Hong Kingston, Wayson Choy, or Evelyn Lau.

“The ideal for Chinese families was ‘Work hard, get on with things, but don’t make a noise,’ ” Yip explains in a phone call from his home in Oxfordshire. “So the Chinese community in the U.K. was very successful in its own way, academically and business-wise, but it’s had no real voice. What tends to happen is that people have written about us.”

Yip wanted to tell the story of his father’s community in his own words while untangling the threads of his fractious family history. The actor readily admits that growing up, he was much closer to his English mother than to his immigrant father. “I didn’t like my dad,” he says bluntly. “It was my own arrogance, in a sense: I took the high moral ground and said, ‘You’re basically a waste of space. Any wrong choice you were going to make in your life, you made it—apart from having your family.’ ”

It was only after converting to Buddhism 15 years ago that the now-61-year-old Yip discovered he was able to respect his father, whose addiction to opium and parental incompetence seem more understandable given that he was exiled from the family farm at 14.

“What happened was the next-door family, as it were, their daughter married a Kuomintang officer,” Yip explains, referring to China’s ruling party before the Communist revolution. “And my father, in his inimitable way, managed to insult this guy so badly that his family said, ‘My God, you’ve got to get out of here, because not only will he harm you but he’s got the power to kill the whole lot of us.’ That’s why he was sent to Hong Kong, where he spent two years in not the greatest company—but he survived.”

Yip now sees his dad as admirable rather than reprehensible. “I was able to put my anger away,” he says. “So it’s about asking the question ‘Why?’ That’s the most important question in a lot of writing: ‘Why did this happen?’ ”

That Yip has successfully answered the question seems clear: audience response to Gold Mountain, in places as far-flung as Montreal and Stockholm, has been universally positive. That’s telling, both in terms of the play itself and the redemptive power of theatre.

“I had to learn to respect my father—and I do now,” Yip says. “But we have the father and son characters in Gold Mountain have conversations I would never have been able to have with my father. And I love that about any kind of drama: you can make the inarticulate articulate in drama without destroying the reality of what they’re doing.”

Gold Mountain runs at the Cultch from Tuesday (October 23) to November 4.

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