Njo Kong Kie's compelling one-man PuSh fest show offers timely reminder of tech's terrible legacy

I swallowed a moon made of iron is set to the poetry of deceased Chinese worker Xu Lizhi

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      Composed, directed, coproduced, and performed by Njo Kong Kie and set to the poetry of Xu Lizhi. Livestreamed on February 4 at the Push International Performing Arts Festival. Two more performances will be held on February 5 and 6 

      It's unusual for a dead Chinese poet's words to take centre-stage and star in a solo piano performance shown in Canada supplemented with video imagery.

      But when that poet is factory worker Xu Lizhi, who killed himself at the age of 24 in 2014—and the pianist, Music Picnic artistic producer Njo Kong Kie, is summoning his spirit—it makes perfect sense.

      Njo's song cycle, I swallowed a moon made of iron, was livestreamed last night at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival as a tribute to Xu and countless other migrant workers who provide amenities for our digital lives.

      Xu was among the hundreds of thousands who've toiled in Foxconn's facilities in Shenzhen, China, making electronic devices for Apple and Hewlett-Packard.

      Njo's compositions, set to Xu's haunting and heartbreaking poetry, capture the horror of young lives entombed on an assembly line and merely existing in their off-hours in tiny dormitories.

      At times urgent and intense—reflecting the pace of factory life—and on other occasions spare and plaintive, Njo's mastery of mood bursts forth through his music.

      He truly feels Xu's sorrow, as demonstrated in his mournful voice singing the worker's poems, his pained facial expressions, and his often depressed body language as he shuffles about the dingy room when not playing the piano.

      The minimalist and compelling pieces ensure that Xu's poetry is never overshadowed. In fact, the music amplifies stanzas that cry out over the injustice of his life.

      Surtitles of so many of Xu's poems are shown the unadorned wall, carrying soul-crushing titles such as "A heart interred by life" and "As I lay dying".

      "They have made me docile / I will not shout, will not revolt / Won't denounce, won't complain / Just quietly endure this exhaustion," Njo sings at one point in Mandarin as the English-language translation of Xu's words loom large on-screen.

      At times, the visual imagery consumes Njo, reflecting how Xu himself disappeared in his dilapidated dorm, with ashes crossing the screen representing his cremation, along with the sea where they were spread.

      This is melancholia writ large and it's fitting in light of the tragic lives of so many of the world's factory workers. But there are moments when Njo snatches a little bit of joy, such as when singing "Mother", a wistful 2011 Xu poem that recalls his village life in Guangdong province.

      The colourful rural imagery here stands in sharp contrast to his bleak life in Shenzhen, a city of more than 12 million.

      The only real glitch came in Njo's opening remarks, prior to the performance, when his microphone went dead for a while. 

      Just over two months before Xu flung himself off a building, he wrote a poem foreshading his demise.

      "I know the day will come / When those I know and don't know / Will come into my room / And clean up the remains I leave behind."

      Like many who've made that horrific decision, Njo almost seems to lighten up a little as these words appear on-screen. The pain will soon end.

      For anyone who knows a person who's committed suicide, it's excruciating to watch because, in some instances, it's so terribly familiar.

      For me, just writing about this nearly 24 hours later still elicits deep grief.

      No doubt, Njo would appreciate it if you would think about that the next time you check your latest text messages.

      For anyone in distress, helpful resources include the Crisis Line (604-872-3311), postsecondary institution counselling departments, and family physicians or medical clinics. Those in distress can also visit a hospital emergency room.