On a Journey to Somewhere: Asian Canadian Theatre’s Future
Throughout high school, I was a very active student. I was involved in many after school
programs ranging from tutoring for academic improvement to skill developing programs such as sports. But what I gravitated towards the most was the theatre program, the school’s improv team, and arts education excursions. The most fascinating aspect of it was the process of creating a whole new universe, which is what theatre essentially is, out of nothing. So, when I first applied to the University of Toronto (Scarborough Campus or UTSC for short), I did not have a clear sense of what I wanted to do, but I knew that I wanted to create and be able to help others achieve their artistic dreams. Going through the three years of my Arts Management specialist program and Theatre and Performance Studies major made me realize that what I aspired to do was much more complex than what my 18 year old self thought I could easily achieve. I found myself fascinated by the artistic process and the arts administrative support that goes alongside it. But, simultaneously found myself to be incredibly lonely, frustrated, and at times, disadvantaged.
What I was learning was, in a sense, unrelatable and dissatisfying, because much of the work was comprised of white dead men and their problems. I would be lucky to have the occasional two hour lecture on one coloured writer’s script and its brief history. After much internal debate, I decided that if the opportunity for me to learn about Asian Canadian Theatre did not present itself, I was going to make that opportunity for myself, which brings me to this piece of work. After a semester of my independent study with Professor Barry Freeman, I have compiled a multiple part series where I will be looking at the complexity of the Asian Canadian Identity and where I am as an artist. For this entry, I will be bridging the gap between identity and self by giving an overview of what identity is, what the Asian Canadian identity is comprised of, where Asian Canadian theatre is and what the future of the Asian Canadian Theatre field may look like.
Identity is a tricky thing. James D. Fearon from the Department of Political Science of Stanford University argues “that ‘identity’ is presently used in two linked senses, which may be termed ‘social’ and ‘personal.’ In the former sense, an ‘identity’ refers simply to a social category, a set of persons marked by a label and distinguished by rules deciding membership and (alleged) characteristic features or attributes. In the second sense of personal identity, an identity is some distinguishing characteristic (or characteristics) that a person takes a special pride in or views as socially consequential but moreorless unchangeable” (Fearon 1999). Identity can represent almost anything because it signifies the interiority of a being without disregarding the exterior factors. So, identity becomes a construct of everything you want to represent yourself with but it also includes external factors that you may or may not have control over. For example, socio-economic standing, history, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural backgrounds. On a more personal level, identity is about you and me. It’s about how we think and feel. But more than that, our intrinsic sense of self is a lifetime of discovery, a happenstance of fortune, even a verisimilitude of one’s soul.
In terms of the Canadian identity, what does it mean be fully Canadian? It’s a question that immigrants and visible minorities are often left to struggle with. A large number of Canadians were outraged when Stephen Harper used the term “old stock Canadian” in one of the electoral debates last year (Toronto Star). They demanded that Harper should clarify the term, since it created an “us versus them” mentality that seemed to be rooted in race. Harper failed to explicitly clarify the term, but regardless of his definition, he clearly takes a divisive approach by categorizing Canadians into “new,” “existing,” and “old stock” (ibid). Why aren’t all Canadians just seen as simply “Canadian”?
On a more specific note, what does it mean to be Asian Canadian? To plainly put it, you have the Canadian identity, for what it’s worth, and you can trace back your ancestry to an Asian peoples, or country. For me, I was born and raised here, in Toronto. Tracing my ancestry, I have a mostly Vietnamese ancestry with some Chinese here and there. But when someone asks me where I am a local, I say Toronto. An unfortunate reality is that the question, ‘So, where are you really from?’ is still often posed, which shows dissatisfaction in the initial answer, creating tension on the receiving end. The honest truth is that the questioning of where one is really from is only a question posed towards visible minorities, despite the fact that being a visible minority does not equate to not really being from Toronto. No matter how innocuous the question may seem to the one posing it, it can unknowingly exacerbate the sense of cultural identity in Asian Canadians (or any other non-white Canadian). This brings up the reality of bicultural identity conflict in Asian Canadians, which has to do with being simultaneously part of two cultures, but being unable to determine which social and cultural identity is dominant for oneself. Questioning where I am a local seems to be a far less loaded question, and prompts me to provide a simple, clearcut answer. If someone was to ask about, for example, where my parents are from, what if my parents happened to be second generation Canadians themselves? To reiterate my previous point, why can’t all of these groups be considered the same kind of Canadian? How far back in one’s lineage does Canadianness have to extend back to in order for Asian Canadians to be considered really Canadian? On the other side of this dichotomy, does being Canadian, to the fullest extent of this nationality, imply losing one’s Asian heritage (or any heritage for that matter) in order to be truly Canadian?
With that complexity of identity established, Asian Canadian Theatre is just as complicated. The history, the composition of all these other identities, and all of the baggage and problems we face as visible minorities end up being reflected onto the stage, because the issues seen in our theatre is a reflection of the Asian Canadian peoples. Nevertheless, our issues becomes prominent within our work, because they’re already in us. And then there are the more theatre related issues that come alongside. We have the enduring stereotypical castings of sex trade workers, Dragon Ladies, geeks, conservative family members with old Asian values, whiney conflicted second generations, the kungfu master, etc. However, it would be impossible to place the fullness of any group’s identity into a box, because identity cannot be captured by mere descriptions.
Historically, there has been a lack of support, education, and resources for ethnic focused theatre companies, work, and artists. Even within the Asian Canadian Theatre spectrum, there are obvious imbalances where the focuses are not on all smaller pockets of nationalities. For example, one can find many work addressing the Chinese, Filipino, and Korean Canadian communities but rarely do we hear stories from the IndoChina regions such as Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, etc. We can also come from a different perspective and see that that we don’t have much theatre that addresses being a mixie, one of two different ancestries. One can see that there is a generational divide created by metamorphasized problems and struggles, such as determining what works are culturally relevant and the push for diverse theatre. This isn’t news.
The awareness of the lack of representation in theatre has always been there. But we’re at this part of history where we see the previous generation of Asian Canadian artists’ work take effect.We have people like Brenda Kamino, Jane Luk, Jean Yoon, Tetsuro Shigematsu, Betty Quan, Adrienne Wong, Nina Lee Aquino, and David Yee who have bled into this world to give it life. They may not have bled to death per se, but they have done what every other nonAsian artist has done: they dedicated their lives to the art form to tell important stories and invest in the future of the world of theatre. We are a community comprised of vibrant and passionate artists, arts administrators, philanthropists, and audience. Later on in this series, I will be sharing my interviews with Nina and David with you. We have discussed the issues that we face as artists, about the concept of taking on the responsibility of “representing the community,” and what our future as a community may look like.
So, here’s the big question. “So what?” Why look at how Asian Canadian Theatre has progressed? Or what kind of history it has behind itself? As my parents would always tell me, “Good planning and hard work gets you where you need to be,” and good planning comes from a thorough understanding of where you’ve come from. Knowing where we were and where we are now helps extrapolate a fair estimate of where we’re going to go. And who better to ask than the experts themselves?
I had the privilege of interviewing Nina Lee Aquino, David Yee, and some other well established artists during this independent study to discuss this question of “Where are we going now?” They were so gracious to give me some time out of their crazy schedule to answer my questions. If there’s one thing David Yee could do one thing for the rest of his life, it would be writing. But things get thrown at him frequently and he often ends up taking it all on himself. David and Nina are pretty much the power married couple of the Asian Canadian Theatre field. Ask Nina yourself, those were her words! To summarize my interview with him, we discussed about his writing process, how we have yet to fully articulate the various identities that form the Asian Canadian identity and how we seem to be ten years behind in processing/discussing the issues we face. What he hopes to see in the near future is the emergence of work that sharpens the image of the Asian Canadian identity, primarily works from the underserved subgroups in the community. Nina discussed the problem of how diversity is a hot topic and that it should not be a topic but a standard of awareness and practice. She shares how she perceives the community to go through cycles of progress and that we have a long way to go to sustaining this community. She sees that more intercultural work have been in the works which hints at her believing and hoping that the Asian Canadian artists will migrate to other stories that aren’t necessarily solely for the Asian Canadian Theatre community. And as a different generation, I can also attest to this as many of my colleagues have been directing very western work, they have actively been seeking out nonAsian collaborators to work with, or they started writing relatively more “western” work with small pockets of Asian influences.
Nina, David, and I also discussed about the loneliness and struggles of being an artist. Nina says the theatre is a very personal business. Their jobs require them to be vulnerable and have the critical public eye tear their work apart. But their position is one of power. They’re the ones who decide what gets staged, what and who they need to hire and when everything would be ready for public consumption. People get mad at everything and who gets the heat? Whoever is the face of the company. When I asked Nina how she keeps going, she simply replied “You need to be sure of what your calling is and find refuge in your own tribe of people, Asian or nonAsian. And as you keep going and you accumulate the years of experience, you start learning that you don’t sweat the small stuff anymore.” Which got me thinking, what is my calling? Barry, my professor, told me once that “Who you are is a lifetime’s worth of discovery” in response to my sudden outburst of frustration, which was a manifestation of my sense of displacement an uncertainty in my identity. I didn’t know what my calling was, I wasn’t sure where I belonged, and I didn’t know what kind of work I related to. Would I be part of this mark of transition in identity of Asian Canadian Theatre? Am I looking in the right places? Why do I automatically look to other people when I could do things for myself? As an artist, I found myself struggling with what my identity was (and is). I didn’t want to be just like another grain of plain white rice in a bowl of other grains of rice. At the same time, I didn’t know what it took to be that perfect grain of rice. What if I wanted to be rice bread instead? I knew that my growth came from the land that I have been cultivated in, my values have been fertilized by my motherland, and my influence is a combination of flavours from an accumulated history. So, at this point, I’m just figuring out what my oxygen is. And that’s okay. No one of my age has a definitive vision of where they are going to be in five years let alone for next semester. But I want to be an overachiever and figure things out now. So, I‘ll take David’s advice in not minding the people who would see my work when I write and Nina’s wisdom that it’s a matter of balancing choices and actually doing things.
As you may notice, this project has quickly become less surgical and incredibly more personal. Its evolution of simply being an observer to being the observed is uncomfortable and quite reflective. Perhaps, this may be an interesting journey to follow for the next month or so for you.
I would like to thank Barry Freeman for his mentoring and patience through this process, Jasmine Gui for presenting this opportunity, David Yee, Marjorie Chan, Ins Choi, Chloe Hung, and Nina Lee Aquino for their time and wisdom, Joshua Francis for being my soundboard, and to my family who gave me everything and asked for nothing in return.
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