When Only a Visitor singer and pianist Robyn Jacob first approached Nancy Tam about a collaboration, she was only thinking that the acclaimed sound artist and set designer could create a multimedia performance environment to showcase the group’s remarkable Technicolour Education, one of the finest CDs to have emerged from Vancouver in recent years.
The record centres around Jacob’s discovery of her Chinese-born mother’s family history, one of emigration, displacement, and a Canadian connection that dates back to 1920; for Tam, adding archival images and recordings to Only a Visitor’s rich soundscapes would have been a relatively routine assignment. But as the two discussed the project, they realized that they had something bigger in mind, something that would deal with both of their histories—and that something is Double Happiness: Detour This Way, which premieres at the Left of Main performance space this week.
Both artists will contribute songs, and the band will be Only a Visitor’s five musicians, augmented by three more singers to handle the complex web of braided stories Tam and Jacob have designed. But there’s more, all the better to capture the overwhelming strangeness of arriving in a new country from some other, beloved but abandoned locale.
“Anyone who has ever dug into their own history will find that there are a lot of details, and it’s all over the place,” says Tam, interviewed on speakerphone with Jacob from Left of Main. “It’s like too much at once, or even if there’s not the volume of it, there’s a lot of piecing together that needs to happen. So the stage is set up so that it’s much wider than it is deep, so as you’re watching the show, you kind of have to choose where you look, and you can’t really take in all of the visual information at once. And sonically, because it’s so full, you’re also immersed in a world where you can’t always be, like, ‘We’re listening to this song only.’”
It’s all designed to be “a little more theatrical, a little more cinematic” than a typical concert, Tam adds. “There is a band on-stage, there is live foley on-stage, there’s live video-making on-stage. There’s also bodies: eight cast members, who are playing and singing as well as creating these stage images. That’s kind of what the show looks like.”
Tam, who came to Canada with her family in 1997, shortly before China took control of Hong Kong, draws a loose analogy between the experience of watching Double Happiness and learning to live in a new country.
“You kind of know what’s happening and you kind of don’t,” she says. “Coming to Canada and trying to be a kid still and encountering so many new concepts and new things…was a big part of how I pieced together my identity. And certainly I feel like that experience is not unique. It’s a shared communal experience, and not just within the Chinese diaspora, but within diasporic culture.”
As such, her collaborative project with Jacob is a perfect fit for Vancouver, where almost every non-Indigenous family has arrived here from somewhere else, mostly within the past century. And the two seem like a perfect creative fit, as well. In Double Happiness, Jacob explains, they’re also playing with the notion of “twinning”, exploring topics that resonate with both the biracial Canadian and the “third-culture” immigrant.
“There are so many parallels that we’ve found through our research,” she says. “In parts of the show we are weaving our own time lines together, and all of the performers participate in both Nancy’s and my songs.
“It’s really helping me put a new lens on what I was learning from my elders, and my mom also,” Jacob adds. “I’ve also met tons of people in the Chinese community who are fantastic contributors to the project, so I think it’s just been so beneficial on so many levels, personally and artistically.”
Tam agrees, saying that she finds it particularly gratifying to set Double Happiness’s stories, many having to do with the Chinese past, within a contemporary art-pop sound. And she adds that collaborating with Jacob has given her new insight into her own immigrant experience.
“I’ve done this kind of work before in various different projects,” she notes. “But thinking about the word research in the sense of, like, ‘searching again’ has been really alive for me, because all of my grandparents have now passed. There was a sense of loss within the process of re-searching, but I also feel very privileged to be part of this process with Robyn, and having her very personal, intimate stories shared with me, too.”
Music on Main, Neworld Theatre, and plastic orchid factory present Double Happiness: Detour This Way at Left of Main from Thursday (March 12) to March 22.