Drama on the menu

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A new play tells stories of the British Chinese community in a restaurant setting. Nick Ahad spoke to director David KS Tse.

In a restaurant just North of Leeds City Centre, a little revolution is happening.

Long hidden stories are being prepared to be shared.

It’s a warm spring afternoon and inside the Oriental City restaurant, it’s a busy lunchtime. White customers are present, but the Oriental City bears that cliche quality that marks it out as a place with good, authentic food: more of the customers are ethnically Chinese than white.

In a separated banqueting suite up a flight of stairs, something special is happening that will move way beyond stereotype and cliche.

Shore to Shore, a new play by Mary Cooper, is telling the stories of the Chinese community in Britain. Cooper herself is not Chinese, but the hundreds of hours of interviews carried out for Shore to Shore were all with members of the Chinese community of Leeds. Some were born in China, others born in Britain, all had a story to share.

Like many immigrant communities, the Chinese community story in Britain is bound up with food and it is through food that the actors of Shore to Shore will tell their story – the play takes place not in a theatre, but in a restaurant.

“There is something very evocative about having the smells and even the sounds bleeding through into the action as the play is happening,” says David KS Tse, the play’s director.

Tse is one of the true pioneers of British theatre. It was over 21 years ago that he realised that if a chance was going to come, he was going to have to instigate it.

“I came to Britain as a child,” says Tse, with the most perfect cut-glass RP accent I’ve heard in many years.

“My family had a restaurant and as the child of an immigrant there was a lot of pressure to work really hard and to perform well academically.

“When I left school I studied for a law degree, but once I had finished that, it felt as though that was the payment I had made to my family for all the sacrifices they had made for me to have the life and education I had, so then I went to drama school and that was for me.”

Unfortunately when he left drama school, Tse faced a battle that so many ethnic minority actors before him have faced – and continue to face today.

“I had studied Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, I had trained hard to become an actor and every part I auditioned for was a stereotype. I was sent to auditions for one of three roles: a waiter, a martial artist or a triad,” he says.

It’s not an unfamiliar story. In the arts, ethnic minorities have long had to make their own rules, create their own paths and Tse is no different. In fact, he was one of the original pathfinders.

Having grown tired of the stereotypes, Tse began to examine his cultural routes and started to study Beijing Opera. This led to the creation of a show with Polka Theatre, which Tse still says proudly “played to 89 percent capacity” and it also led to an epiphany. Tse took the power back and established Yellow Earth Theatre, still the only East-Asian revenue funded British touring company. “The history of institutional racism is endemic both here and in America. The idea of yellow peril and the Sax Rohmer depiction of Fu Manchu were ideas that permeated Western society and the effects of that can still be felt today,” he says.

It is those notions that Shore to Shore, Tse hopes, will explore and ultimately explode.

Based on interviews carried out by Mandarin and Cantonese speaker MW Sun, Shore to Shore tells three stories woven together, all of which come from actual people in the Leeds Chinese community.

There is the story of a British Chinese woman who feels a pull and a duty to her parents’ homeland, there is the story of a British Chinese woman in her 40s and then there is the story of a man who is 83 and has the most extraordinary story of being separated from his mother when he was eight, then tracking her down almost a decade later after being sold into child labour.

He then ran a stall, saved money and came to Liverpool and eventually ended up in Leeds.

Tse barely bats an eyelid as he recounts this story. “It’s a story you hear often in the community,” he says. It is the power of this kind of real, lived story that gives Shore to Shore its strength. First performed in 2015 and produced by Bradford theatre company Freedom Studios, this new version is going to be performed in Leeds next week before touring to restaurants around the country, including Edinburgh, Newcastle, Manchester and York. At each performance the audience will be served food to help immerse them in these lived experiences.

With arguments in Hollywood about the ‘whitewashing’ of roles – Scarlett Johansson and Matt Damon just two high profile recent examples of actors playing roles that were originally conceived of as being East Asian characters – it feels like Shore to Shore is timely.

“Unconscious bias, or I suppose the other word is institutional racism, is the reason that British Chinese actors have been all but invisible. It’s been a perennial problem in my career and it means we are missing out on these hidden lives, dramas and stories that haven’t been shared.”

Hopefully, the end of that sentence will eventually be that they haven’t been shared – until now.

Shore to Shore, Oriental City Restaurant, Leeds, May 16 to 18. Sunrise Chinese Restaurant, York, June 9 and 10. www.fromshoretoshore.co.uk