Marjorie Chan’s play China Doll had its beginnings way back in 2001, when she visited the Every Step a Lotus exhibit at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum.
In a glass case, she examined an impossibly tiny, jewelled and embroidered “lotus” shoe once worn by a woman who had suffered foot-binding. And when she moved to look underneath it she saw wear and tear. Foot-binding persisted for a millennium, and Chan now realized that women had to not only walk, but go about their daily lives with a mutilation that started when they were five or six years old.
“It was a practice that happened for 1,000 years—and it’s not like women weren’t cooking or cleaning for those thousand years,” the director-playwright-actor remarks, on a break from rehearsal for China Doll’s West Coast premiere, which the Toronto-based artist is helming at Richmond’s Gateway Theatre.
Even though China outlawed foot-binding in 1912, Chan also saw immediate connections to today. At the Bata exhibit, she talked with another museum visitor about the absurdity of the tradition as they gazed at the tiny lotus shoes. “And then as she walked away I heard ‘Click, click, click, click,’ ” says Chan. “She was wearing stilettos! I don’t think the challenges of how society thinks of a woman’s body and how she’s objectified is much different now.”
Chan set about writing her first play, one that would weave together in-depth research on foot-binding with the parallel history of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which actually circulated in Shanghai teahouses in the early 20th century and fed a feminist revolution amid the rise of republicanism. The script also incorporates the richly embroidered Chinese fairy tales, such as the Cinderella-like Ye Xian, that fed ideals of femininity through the centuries.
China Doll follows the coming-of-age story of a girl named Su-Ling, and is set in Shanghai in the early 20th century, when the practice of foot-binding was at its pre-ban peak in popularity. Her traditional grandmother wants to marry her off, and her worth as a bride will depend on how dainty her feet are. But the rebellious girl secretly learns to read and comes across a Mandarin translation of A Doll’s House, in which the submissive Nora discovers that she’s led a life of metaphorical imprisonment as wife and mother. And it sets her on a dangerous path to independence.
Chan remembers the challenge of distilling her epic themes into a practical length. “At some point it had gotten to three-and-a-half hours long,” she says with a laugh. “I would always joke, ‘Oh, that’s my novel.’ As a young writer I was imagining multiple generations, which normally wouldn’t make it into a play. What was always critical was ‘How do we streamline that?’ ”
The playwright needn’t have worried. Debuting in 2004, China Doll went on to receive Dora Mavor Moore award nominations and a Governor General’s Literary Award nomination. Chan has since written many more plays, and these days she works as artistic director of Toronto’s acclaimed Theatre Passe Muraille.
Still, one of her proudest moments goes back to China Doll, when it received its Cantonese-language debut in spring 2017 in Hong Kong, her parents’ homeland.
“As they were speaking Cantonese, I was really aware of the rhythms that are still inside my language,” she begins. “Also, I was born in Canada and this was my version of what I’ve learned. I’m Chinese from Hong Kong and I don’t know, directly, any family that experienced foot-binding, though obviously there must have been some, to some extent. So to put this in front of an audience with very strong knowledge of Ye Xian, of foot-binding, of the history—it was an affirmation.”
Gateway Theatre presents China Doll from next Thursday (October 17) to October 26.