Toronto artist Minh Ly wrote a play called Ga Ting, which means “family” in Cantonese. Two of the characters are the Chinese-Canadian parents of a gay man, and the script is about the importance of communicating with your kids—including your queer kids. When Ga Ting was first produced at the Richmond Arts Centre two years ago, Ly had a little more communication with his immigrant parents than he was bargaining for: his sister outed him to their mom.
Chatting with the Straight in the rehearsal hall above Pacific Theatre, Ly remembers the day that his mother, his sister, and his sister’s family were flying out for the premiere: “That morning, just before they got on the plane in Toronto, I was in bed. My sister texted me and was like, ‘Mom asked me if you were gay. I said yes.’
“My mom’s Vietnamese,” Ly goes on. “My dad’s Chinese. And they’re both from Vietnam.” The family moved to Canada when Ly, who is now 32, was a one-year-old. He says that, especially for Asian immigrants, accepting queer offspring can be challenging: “It’s like ‘Maybe we can fix it.’ ‘It’s a phase. You’re not really gay.’ Or ‘I don’t want to hear about it. Just stop.’ That’s the kind of language that is used.”
In Ga Ting, Ly explores homophobia within the Asian-Canadian community. We find out early on that Mai and Hong Lee had a son named Kevin who committed suicide. Mai and Hong didn’t invite Kevin’s Caucasian lover, Matthew, to the funeral. When Matthew shows up to challenge them, Mai tries to be open-minded, but Hong is convinced that Matthew turned his son gay.
Ga Ting also examines racism within the gay community. Matthew makes a few blunders. He brings bamboo as a gift, for instance, which prompts Hong to ask “Why not lilacs?” But Ly admits that he only touches lightly on gay racism in Ga Ting; he would like to write a complete script about it because it’s so pervasive. He points out that, on apps and dating sites, many men feel no compunction about saying “Not into Asians.”
And, just by existing, Ga Ting challenges the pervasive whiteness of Canadian theatre. Ly says that the successful Richmond run “attracted one of the most diverse audiences I’ve ever seen. There was Asian, white, gay, straight. People moan about theatre companies going under, but I’m sorry, if you tell stories that speak to a community, you will get an audience.”
The frank theatre company, which is producing this rewritten version of Ga Ting at the Cultch, is being strategic about attracting its audience. The story unfolds in both English and Cantonese; there are surtitles. And the actors playing Mai and Hong have huge pull in Vancouver’s Asian community. Alannah Ong is a Hong Kong film star and B.C. Lee is a former Vancouver city councillor.
Going back to coming out to his mom, Ly remembers the day of her arrival. “The plan was for me to go and meet them at their hotel once they got here,” he says. “It was interesting. My mom got out of the taxi and we said hi, and nothing was different. But by the end of that visit, I took her aside, and I was like, ‘Mom, we need to talk.’ And she said, ‘Is this for real?’ This was after she’d seen Ga Ting twice. She was like, ‘Is it true?’ And I said, ‘Yes, Mom. It’s true.’ And then she said, ‘You’re still my son and I’ll always love you.’ So my mom took it okay, but I think she’d always suspected. I think parents know. I haven’t officially told my dad, but I think he knows as well. I live with my partner and he’s been over to their house for dinner. It’s just kind of unspoken at this point. I feel like, for me, it’s enough for my mom to know.”
Ga Ting runs at the Cultch’s Vancity Culture Lab from Tuesday (March 8) to March 19.