Hong Kong Exile's theatre piece No Foreigners mines mall culture and Chinese identity

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      If you’re guessing that No Foreigners, an interdisciplinary theatre adventure from Vancouver’s Hong Kong Exile collective, has to do with discrimination, you’re guessing right. But it’s not quite as simple as that.

      The new piece began as a consideration of signage issues, particularly the ire raised by Chinese-only signs in the city of Richmond. But a bizarre incident in the Aberdeen Centre mall soon shifted the discussion.

      “One of the main through lines, if not the main through line, involves a character who goes to an expensive bag store, and the shop owner tells him, ‘Sorry, you can’t come in. No Foreigners,’ ” explains project leader Milton Lim. “Which is actually something that happened.”

      Apparently, David Yee, who wrote the script for No Foreigners, was researching the signage issue when he was, quite literally, locked out of a promising locale. “He went to a store in Aberdeen Centre, an expensive bag store,” Lim says. “It said ‘Members only’ and he wanted to see what was inside, so he kind of dressed up a little bit and said, ‘Hey, I’m just moving here. I’d like to spend some money. Can I come in?’ He’s half Chinese, half Scottish, and the owner said, ‘Sorry, no foreigners,’ and closed the door in his face.”

      The incident sent Yee, and one of the two characters in the play, on a quest to find out what it means to be a member of the Chinese diaspora in the 21st century, a quest enacted by tiny figures on miniature movie sets, filmed by a pair of HD cameras that feed the action to multiple on-stage screens. Apart from a sequence set in a jade mine, the play takes place in a simulacrum of the kind of Asian mall one might find in Richmond or Markham, Ontario, but there are some twists.

      “For example,” Lim says, “there’s not usually a moth museum inside a Chinese mall. But in Chinese culture, moths are said to be ancestors. So we’ve taken that one idea and created a moth museum to which one of the characters brings a briefcase of ‘hell money’, so that he can burn it to honour his grandfather—who owned the jade jewellery store [in the same mall]. So there are themes of inheritance, or intergenerational misunderstandings and the reconciling of those things.”

      The miniature movie sets of No Foreigners are filmed by a pair of HD cameras that feed the action to multiple on-stage screens.

      Also in play are considerations of demographic change, alongside the economic earthquakes that have been unleashed by online shopping. Lim notes that the flat, one-storey structures erected by the first generation of Hong Kong–born immigrants to Canada are being replaced by glitzy, multistorey plazas that cater to more recent arrivals from mainland China. And while Chinese malls have always been cultural centres, with the rise of Amazon and other Internet retailers that role is becoming increasingly important.

      “A lot of Chinese malls have a stage in the centre, or a big pond area, and they’ve always been meant for social spaces or spaces for entertainment,” Lim explains. “That’s even more true now. People don’t really go to shopping malls for shopping as much anymore.”

      In No Foreigners, the mall’s koi pond becomes a metaphor for difference and class: some koi are gorgeous and glittering, while others are drably utilitarian, even though they’re all really just carp. And the signage debate also appears, in altered form: more than half the production is in Cantonese, with surtitles projected above the five HD screens where the action plays out. Technically brilliant and philosophically provocative, the work promises to be an enlightening look at what Lim calls “the multiplicity of how many Chinesenesses there can be”, as well as a welcome exploration of an urban environment that has only rarely been examined as art.

      Hong Kong Exile, fu-GEN Theatre, Theatre Conspiracy, and the Theatre Centre present No Foreigners at the Cultch’s Vancity Culture Lab from next Wednesday (February 7) to February 17.