Musical champions the communities of Dominion Rd, writes Dionne Christian.

In the homely foyer of Te Pou theatre in New Lynn, a slightly-built Chinese woman, with hair dyed to match the black and maroon jacket she wears, holds composer Jun Bin Lee and singer Jackie Clarke under a spell.

Mary Wong, 73, is reminiscing about being born on Dominion Rd, above a supermarket - now a Malaysian restaurant - and how the street was so quiet in the 1950s that gangs of neighbourhood kids could roam safely, building huts for picnics behind old bank buildings.

She recalls standing at her bedroom window and watching crowds moving toward rugby games at Eden Park; trams running up and down and the day she and the little girl next door - she can't recall her name - heard the Queen was coming down from Balmoral.

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"We stood on the corner waiting to see the Queen; I was sucking a lollipop and she was eating an icecream. The Queen didn't come and we wondered why she was taking so long when Balmoral was just up the hill."

Too young to realise that the Balmoral referred to on the radio news was a world away, the little girls eventually abandoned their vigil. Wong chuckles at the memory, revived by a small but significant theatre role.

It's been 25 years since Dominion Rd was celebrated by Don McGlashan and The Mutton Birds singing about being halfway down the 7.3km strip. Now the road is being celebrated again; this time in a home-grown musical which includes 20 songs with titles like Our Place, Diversity Supercity, Why I Hate You, See It From My Side and Token White Girl.

Marissa Holder.
Marissa Holder.

Directed by Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho, Dominion Rd - the Musical stars five professional actors - Jackie Clarke, Marissa Holder, Mustaq Missouri, Brady Peeti and Benjamin Teh - and 10 members of the community. Like Wong, they answered an advertisement to tell their stories of life on Dominion Rd.

Wong says the road, now famous for its Chinese noodle and dumpling restaurants, has long been a cultural melting pot. Wong has fond memories of the Chinese families, including her cousins, who ran fruit and vegetable shops. They would share traditional foods - her mother made buns but it was hard to get the right type of flour back then - and speak Cantonese to one another.

In 1961, before she married and went into business, Wong took a chartered flight to Wellington to perform in a traditional Chinese opera. Later, working and being an active member of the Auckland Chinese Community Centre didn't leave much time for performing, but when she saw the flyer about Dominion Rd - The Musical, Wong wanted to share her memories.

"Every time I go to Dominion Rd, I can see what it used to look like," she says, "but, of course, it's all different now with a lot more restaurants and traffic."

From the admiring looks from Lee and Clarke, you can see Wong's stories are a treasured route into discovering - and appreciating - more about the road. For Clarke, a former NZ Idol judge and established musical theatre performer, being part of Dominion Rd - The Musical is a rare chance to play a New Zealander. In a career spanning more than three decades, she's never played a local in a musical.

"It's very cool to be involved in something so early in its life," she says. "With any musical, you always have, within the boundaries, the freedom to make a role your own but by coming in on the ground floor, as it's being written, there are fantastic discussions about what we're thinking.

Benjamin Teh.
Benjamin Teh.

"Auckland is a series of villages and it's nice to have a story focused on one of them but it was the music that really did for me; that made me want to get involved."

Clarke says Lee's songs are catchy, perfect pieces of pop that she can't get out of her head. There should be an album, she thinks. That's music to the ears of Lee, a stormwater engineer by day, who has written original music for several community-theatre groups.

The score utilises traditional Asian instruments like the sitar, erhu (sometimes called a southern fiddle), guzheng (a stringed instrument Lee likens to a kind of horizontal guitar) and tabla (Indian percussion instrument).

Some of the songs he wrote with the actors playing certain characters in mind; others are crafted with the character's own backstories. Clarke has ended up with a number called Why I Hate You, a duet with Missouri who plays Indian cafe owner Ahmed, whose business is opposite her character's.

"Alison owns a vegetarian cafe, she's a second-generation Dominion Roader and very territorial about her 'hood'," Clarke says. "She tries to welcome everyone in but sometimes gets things wrong. She and Ahmed love to hate one another and bicker constantly but there's genuine affection under it all."

Flashing a smile, Lee acknowledges he had a lot of fun with the music but underneath the stories and songs, there's serious intent.

Writer and co-lyricist Renee Liang started the musical after feeling "incensed" at suggestions by ethnographic researchers and Auckland Council to slap a "Chinatown" label on Dominion Rd's Balmoral precinct.

"As a Dominion Rd resident, diner and shopper myself, I wondered why you break a good thing? For so long, Dominion Rd has harboured migrants and their stories from all cultures. Putting in fake signifiers, no matter how glossy and well meant, could change the growth of the area and drive away those original businesses."

She figured what better way to argue the point than with a new musical? It means fiction confronts current events as the characters, a group of residents on the iconic road, must put aside their differences to fight again the proposed development of their street as a Chinatown.

Like Liang, Wong doesn't favour labelling a stretch of Dominion Rd as Chinatown. She says it's too loaded a term. "I don't agree with it because it stigmatises an area and, unfortunately, it could encourage the undesirable side of Chinatowns, like drugs, brothels and protection rackets."

Clarke says until possible issues were brought to her attention, she'd never thought about the full ramifications of labelling a certain part of town. "In essence, this is a show that says everyone has a story and don't steamroll over those with your own branding or marketing exercise. "

Lowdown

What: Dominion Rd -The Musical
Where and when: Playhouse Theatre, Glen Eden;August 9-19