With the hard-boiled Chinese detective in his new murder mystery, Nine Dragons, you could say Jovanni Sy has created the anti–Charlie Chan.
His film-noir-inspired play, set in atmospheric 1920s Hong Kong, stars John Ng (of TV’s Kim’s Convenience) in the role of a not-so-traditional jaded detective named Tommy Lam.
“The classic Chinese detective is, of course, Charlie Chan,” Sy says over the phone, on the road to rehearsal at Richmond’s Gateway Theatre, where he is also artistic director. Referring to Chan, the popular Chinese-American novel, comic-book, and movie character of the 1920s to ’40s, he adds: “He hits all the stereotypes: inscrutability, passivity, and someone who doesn’t make waves because of his unreadable nature. I wanted someone who was a hothead and wrote his feelings on his sleeve—someone who had a sort of toxic masculinity. I wanted to challenge that Charlie Chan stereotype.”
Tommy, who’s sick of kowtowing to the British superiors who always overlook him, ends up embodying all the racial tension that seethes in Hong Kong under colonial rule. “There’s a murder mystery, but at its heart it’s the mystery of Tommy’s identity,” explains Sy, whose play is being directed by Craig Hall in a coproduction with Calgary’s Vertigo Theatre and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. “It’s about ‘What does it mean to be a Chinese man in a British colony?’ ”
Tommy even narrates some of the story in Cantonese, with subtitles flowing across on-stage screens that are also used to evoke Hong Kong settings. Using Tommy’s mother tongue, Sy says, allows the writer to emphasize this is a character “living his life in translation”.
In contrast to the angry Lam, villain Victor Fung—the prime suspect in the murder of a wealthy white woman—is a slick assimilationist.
“I remember way back seeing a photograph of a Chinese man in a beautiful double-breasted tuxedo looking almost Noel Coward–esque, and that photo just stayed etched in my brain,” says Sy, adding the picture had come from old Hong Kong. “So I had an idea for the archrival, the prime suspect in the murders, to be a Chinese man who tried to erase all traces of his identity and just submerge it in British culture.”
After further research, Sy decided the rich, cartel-tied Victor should live on the Peak—a hillside community in Hong Kong where the British once excluded Chinese residents. “There was a historical precedent for exceptions,” Sy explains. “There was an extremely wealthy family so powerful that they were allowed on the Peak. And my character Victor is loosely based on that.”
The result is a battle of wits between the two male protagonists, each with his own way of surviving in colonial Hong Kong—allowing Sy to explore deeper racial themes. “When I was growing up in Canada, it was an Anglo society and you got ahead by learning clear, unaccented English; you got ahead by assimilating,” explains Sy, who was born in Manila and raised in Toronto. “So these are things I’m pondering. Just because it’s the way to succeed, does that make it right? At what point are you giving up your own identity? That has no easy answers, even today.”
The play ends up reflecting those concerns, as well as Sy’s enduring love for the books and films he grew up with—the detective novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and British movies and shows like Brideshead Revisited. But it also allows him to indulge his long-standing fascination with Hong Kong—especially the old opium-den underworld of colourful Kowloon.
“I’ve been fortunate to work in Hong Kong frequently,” he says. “Since 2006, I’ve been going over there as a guest artist. So I’m Chinese from the Philippines, but I kind of consider Hong Kong my second home.”
Nine Dragons is at the Gateway Theatre from Friday (April 13) to April 21.