Toronto-based musician and theatre artist Njo Kong Kie doesn’t have a lot in common with migrant Chinese factory workers.
Njo grew up in the bustling city of Macao and attended a preparatory school and university in Canada. Then he went on to great success as the founder and artistic director of Music Picnic, which melds melancholic piano compositions with compelling stories.
But Njo found himself attracted to the tale of Xu Lizhi, who wrote heartfelt poems about his bleak existence in Shenzhen, cranking out electronic products for western consumers.
In 2014, Xu committed suicide, leaving behind a body of work that both chronicled his sad existence and contained fond recollections of his childhood in rural Guangdong.
There was something universal in Xu’s story—after all, there are millions of migrant factory workers like him all over the world. He missed his mom and had little to look forward to in the future.
So Njo decided to write a song cycle, which is one of the components of his one-man show depicting the lonely labourer’s life in a tiny apartment. In I swallowed a moon made of iron, Xu’s poetry is prominently displayed in English and Mandarin on the wall as Njo performs haunting songs on the piano and depicts Xu’s pain on-stage.
“I feel a certain empathy toward this person’s experience even though I have not lived it,” Njo tells the Straight by phone from Kelowna. “But the emotions that he describes with his words are not unfamiliar to me.”
Njo was in the Okanagan in advance of performing I swallowed a moon made of iron live for the first time in more than two years. Last year, Njo was scheduled to present his homage to Xu live at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, but it was moved online due to a provincial health order. He is very much looking forward to presenting it live at this year’s PuSh fest.
“There are things that people will see in the stage version that they don’t see in the streamed version, and vice versa,” Njo says.
For example, there’s more movement in the live show and it’s more immersive with a darkened theatre and giant projections. The music remains the same. Njo was trained in the European classical-music tradition, and the songs reflect that, with baroque references, hints of Franz Schubert, and a minimalist approach at times so as not to take away from the power of Xu’s poetry.
This is not a thesis or analysis of global issues, Njo emphasizes. Rather, it’s his personal response to the experience of the poet, done in a way that’s intended to touch the hearts of others.
“For people looking for a meditative space to be in at this time, I think this will be a very good piece for them,” Njo says.