There’s a lot going on in Tale of the Eastside Lantern, Chinese-Canadian guitarist and bandleader Shon Wong’s first venture into theatre: a haunting, a breakup, a revelation… and Koi Otter.
Remember the 2018 news story about the voracious predator that had slithered up from False Creek to wreak devastation on the koi population at Chinatown’s Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden? Wong sure does, and when he heard about the wily weasel’s urban adventures he knew he had the perfect subplot for his innovative musical.
“When this thing happened, I was like, ‘You can’t even make this up!’ Know what I mean?’” he tells the Straight in a telephone interview from his Chinatown home. “I couldn’t make that up, but it’s so symbolic in so many ways.”
For Wong, the hungry otter represents the outside forces of gentrification that are threatening the cultural values and architectural heritage of his neighbourhood. Meanwhile, the koi—brightly patterned fish that Asian aesthetes have bred for colour and size over centuries—symbolize beauty and tradition. The battle between otter and koi is also an oddly apt analogue for the twin streams that make up Wong’s sonic heritage: the rough-edged, Springsteen-esque rock music he delivers with his band Son of James, and the strains of Beijing opera that were handed down to him on his mother’s side.
Wong’s dad, James, was a thoroughly acculturated second-generation Chinese Canadian. Although he worked in Chinatown for much of his life, he was born in Cranbrook, the son of a railway labourer, and preferred to speak English rather than Cantonese. His mother, though, was an artist, trained in one of the world’s most highly refined theatrical traditions.
“My father met my mom in Taiwan,” Wong says. “And on her side, my grandfather and his whole family, they were a Chinese opera troupe who’d escaped China during the Cultural Revolution and went to Taiwan. And my grandfather was really instrumental for me, in terms of keeping the Chinese heritage in me alive. He’d show me videos of Chinese opera and tell me what makes this good, what makes Chinese opera cool.
“There are all these little nuances in Chinese opera that take years and years to develop—the way they hold a pose, the way they walk, the pitch of the singing—just the rhythm of the whole production,” he adds. “So those are things that I learned that kind of stuck with me for a while.”
Tale of the Eastside Lantern, which gets a workshop production as part of the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival this week, is in no way a traditional Chinese opera. In fact, Wong’s happy to mock some of the genre’s conventions; he’s a rocker, after all, and notes that what he’s doing isn’t trying to take Chinese classical music and electrify it. “It doesn’t work like that,” he says. “That would be like someone took a Beethoven song and tried to rock it up. You know, it’s still Beethoven!”
The supernatural element in the piece, however, is typical of Chinese-opera plot lines. “It’s a story about a man named Jimmy,” Wong says. “He’s living in a run-down SRO in Chinatown, and he’s battling his own personal demons. One night he gets visited by a ghost—this ghost named Mei, who appears in Chinese-opera form. And she says, ‘You’re living in the same apartment that I was burned alive in, and you need to help me find the people responsible for this.’ So this sends Jimmy on a wild-goose chase through Chinatown, and through that I’m using that story to give people a kind of history of Chinatown.”
Aiding Wong and Son of James will be director Andy Toth, erhu virtuoso Lan Tung, members of Vancouver Cantonese Opera, and veteran guitarist Henry Young, a Chinatown-raised musician who spent 25 years on the road with the legendary singer Nina Simone. Wong’s especially happy about this relatively recent addition to the creative team: he’s trying to tell the story of Chinatown, but Young’s lived it.
“He’s given me this really great lesson on how Chinatown was one of the only places in Vancouver that would bring up all these black R&B acts from the States,” Wong says. “They’d stop in Vancouver on their way to Alaska, and Chinatown was the only place that would let them play. So there were a lot of useful things that I had no idea about.”
Some of these have made their way into the plot, he adds, bringing even more real-life drama to a story that promises to be a fascinating blend of the supernatural and the streetwise.
The Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival presents Tale of the Eastside Lantern at CBC Studio 700 on Thursday (October 31).