No Foreigners is a clever show, but the creators should take a page out of Latin-American culture about how to handle magic realism. In short, no matter how fanciful the idea, there is still an obvious thread that anchors the fancy to logic. While No Foreigners is long on technological brilliance, it is short on lucidity. Nonetheless, there are scenes within No Foreigners that are very compelling, making this a show where the parts are better than the whole.
The production was created as a joint venture between Vancouver’s Hong Kong Exile and Toronto’s fu-Gen Theatre, and was performed in both cities in February, 2018. No Foreigners is now back in town as part of a national tour. Hong Kong Exile is an interdisciplinary arts company that explores multi-media innovation and integration with live performance. Fu-Gen is the premiere Asian-Canadian theatre company in the country. The duality formed by these two companies explains the nature of the show – the heavy tech presence and the focus on Chinese-ness. fu-Gen’s award-winning playwright/artistic director David Yee wrote the text, while the Hong Kong Exile team (Natalie Tin Yin Gan, Milton Lim and Remy Siu) were responsible for miniature design, projection, sound, media apparatus and direction.
The starting point of No Foreigners is the phenomenon of the Chinese mall, a place that is like an ordinary mall, but contains only stores, services and a food court geared to Chinese wants, needs and tastes. It is a place where the immigrant community can gather amid familiar things. In the storyline, there seems to be two characters searching for something. The first is a young Canadian-Chinese man who wants to buy an Hermes bag for his girlfriend, but is denied the sale by the shop owner because he is a foreigner. His journey in the mall is to find his Chinese-ness. The second young man has been left a legacy from his grandfather but he has to discover a secret word to claim the inheritance. He’s in the mall to contact the spirit of his grandfather. Along the way we visit a travel agency, a video store with a Chinese-ness personal trainer, a failing electronics store, a koi pond with talking fish, a mattress store, a karaoke club and the Moth Room. Apparently it is a Chinese belief that moths are the spirits of the ancestors. In short, this exploration of the zeitgeist of a Chinese mall should lead to larger questions including what does Chinese-ness mean in the Chinese diaspora?
Dominating the stage is a bank of computers, cameras and miniatures which generate images that are then projected onto a large screen, or as someone wrote, the technique of micro to macro. The visual components are manipulated by actors April Leung and Derek Chan, who also provide the differing voices of the various characters who populate the mall. The miniature images are much of a muchness over time, but are relieved by projected texts, which are either translations from the Cantonese dialogue, or the secret thoughts of a character. There are also other images like the hilarious rules of the mall based on Chinese superstitions (the mall has its own zodiac sign), and the blueprints of the mall itself.
In his program notes, Yee refers to the scenes of No Foreigners as imaginings, which indicates, to me, the creators’ foray into magic realism. Some episodes are more realistic than others such as the plan that the electronics store owners hatch to compete with online shopping. On the more whimsical side of things is the koi pond, which is a mix of factoids about how the fish are bred, along with their feelings about being culled if they are not colourful enough. I particularly enjoyed the bizarre way that the young man found his Chinese-ness. Coached by his personal trainer, he watched every Chinese movie every made, learned many Chinese dialects, mastered a myriad of martial arts, and then performed a karaoke song in Cantonese which functioned as his final exam.
I realize that each vignette is designed to show a different aspect of a Chinese mall and how it relates to the Chinese community at large. Some scenes, however, have no apparent link to the main idea, like the randy female travel agent who falls instantly in love with the purse guy (at least, I think it is the purse guy). Nonetheless, you have to admire the technology of the show, and certainly the excellent performances of Leung and Chan. I just wish some of the imaginings were a little more logical in terms of theme. Too much unsecured fancy makes for an opaque impact.
I have no problem with shows that ask me to work out metaphor and symbol, but often during No Foreigners, I needed a hook that just wasn’t there.
Hong Kong Exile & fu-Gen Theatre, No Foreigners with text by David Yee, directed by Milton Lim, Theatre Centre, Sept. 17 to 29, 2019.