The three stars of new play Single Asian Female dissect racism, tiger moms and chicken feet over yum cha with Joanna Wane.
"Why are you so ashamed of your culture?" When Kat Tsz Hung read the script for Single Asian Female, that's one of the lines that sold her on the play.
Years before, her father had responded in a similar way when she told him about the racism she was experiencing for being Chinese. "I was 15," says Tsz Hung, whose family moved to Auckland from Hong Kong in the early 80s when she was a preschooler. "He was like, 'What are you talking about? You should be proud to be Chinese!'
"It really opened my eyes. He didn't experience racism in the same way I did because from his perspective, he felt grounded here, where I always thought of myself as a Kiwi, having to move within that dual identity. I've been ashamed of being Chinese for most of my life."
This time, though, it's Tsz Hung who gets the line as first-generation immigrant Pearl Wong, whose younger daughter, Mei, is so desperate to shuck off her Asianness and be "normal" that she literally throws her Hello Kitty toys out of the cot. Pearl is newly divorced, still considered shameful in Chinese culture, and belts out karaoke from the tabletops after-hours at her restaurant, The Golden Phoenix.
"The play has so much heart," says Tsz Hung, who recently reverted back to her Chinese birth name after years spent trying to distance herself from her roots. "I feel very connected to Pearl because it's like playing my mother and father — the love she has for her daughters and trying to instil confidence and pride in their culture.
"Being on the margin of society, that's what speaks loudly to me. It's only in the past two years, when I stepped back to take a break from acting, that something grew in me; something changed. But a lot of the words that Pearl says, and that the daughters say to Pearl just make me crumble inside. Even though I've gone through it and feel like I'm on the other side, hearing it again brings so much pain."
The theatrical debut by Chinese-Australian writer and actor Michelle Law, Single Asian Female opens in Auckland on Thursday, after sell-out seasons in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. Reset in Mt Maunganui from its original setting on the Sunshine Coast, it's billed as a comedy, built around the relationship between Pearl, Mei and Zoe — the dutiful older daughter, who is a professional violinist and awkwardly navigating the dating scene.
Xana Tang, who plays Zoe, has notched up a string of credits since her screen debut in the feature film Matariki in 2010. A natural comic, she stole the show in TVNZ's outrageous black comedy Fresh Eggs and appears in the live-action Disney film Mulan as Xiu, Mulan's arachnophobic sister.
Growing up as a Kiwi-Asian girl, Tang says she saw a rare reflection of herself on screen in Tsz Hung, who's a decade older, and was a lead character in the TV skit show A Thousand Apologies. Tsz Hung later won a best actor award for her heartbreaking portrayal of a mother of three abandoned by her husband in the short film Wait.
Newcomer Bridget Wong, the youngest of the three, gets her first breakthrough role as Mei, the tantrum-throwing teenager painfully embarrassed by her irrepressibly Chinese mother. "The first time I read it was so exciting," she says. "I'd never seen a play with three Asian leads.
"Mei is really mean to Pearl but whatever she says, her mum is so accepting of her. When Pearl cooks for Mei, it's the way she shows love. We don't really say sorry in our family — I clean the house for my mum or do chores; she bakes for me. There's so much unspoken [in the play] that really hit home for me."
Food is the language of love and connection in many cultures and in Chinese movies some of the best scenes happen around the dinner table (think The Farewell and The Wedding Banquet, for starters). So, in honour of the play's matriarch, Canvas invited the three lead actors to yum cha at Auckland's legendary Pearl Garden restaurant.
"Aaaah . . . chicken feet!" exclaimed Wong, tucking in. "That's her favourite," Tang noted, affectionately, moving aside some steamed dumplings to make room for a plate of golden-yellow custard tarts that had just arrived at the table. Already deep in rehearsal, the trio have formed a close bond, and fool around taking selfies at the table.
By all accounts, Single Asian Female is an entertaining, heart-warming night out and has resonated strongly with Asian audiences, who so rarely see themselves represented centre stage. But it also unpeels some uncomfortable truths. Few stories explore the intersection of patriarchy, misogyny and racial oppression lived by Asian women, wrote reviewer Carrie Hou in the Guardian after seeing the show in Sydney, where she sat in "a strange trance of guilt, anger and euphoria".
Hou was aged 2 when right-wing populist Pauline Hanson was elected to the Australian Parliament and made her notorious maiden speech claiming that the country was in danger of being swamped by Asians. "That week, my family discussed increasing security to our house after a mutual family friend had theirs egged by racists."
In the years that followed, Hou became the target of disturbing incidents of sexual aggression that were often overtly racially driven. "As a first-generation migrant watching the play, I was confronted with the lengths I used to go to in order to prove myself to white society," she says. "Single Asian Female hit home so hard that it was at times difficult to watch, but that's what makes the story so important to tell."
Playwright Michelle Law is the voice of migrant children no longer willing to suffer racism in silence as the price of admission to their family's adopted country. On her Twitter account, there's a pinned post from a visit to Hanson's old fish and chip shop in Queensland, with a selfie of Law and the current Vietnamese owner.
Tang recognises that generational shift. "When our parents came, it was a mode of survival for them to shut that down within themselves and ignore it," she says. "Absorbing but not dealing with it was their way of surviving. With us, because we grew up here, there's more freedom to not put ourselves down or make ourselves smaller. We can say, 'Hey, I deserve to be here.' It's a real privilege for us to be able to do that when our parents could not."
That's a powerful message but for the actors, there's also been an element of reliving their own trauma. Tang admits some of Law's scenes ring so true they've been painful to rehearse. "You can tell it's been written by someone of colour who comes from that experience, rather than just a concept of it," she says. "There's this through-line of truth throughout the whole play."
Research in the US shows the number of anti-Asian hate incidents has skyrocketed since the pandemic, inflamed by Donald Trump's constant references to the "China virus" and "kung flu". Asian women are particularly vulnerable — more than twice as likely to be targeted as Asian men. Last July, an elderly Chinese woman in New York City was slapped and had her clothing set on fire.
Tsz Hung remembers the dread she felt going out for her first walk in Auckland post-Covid lockdown, waiting for the abuse and slurs on the street to start up again. "And it didn't." But in a study released by the Human Rights Commission in February, 54 per cent of respondents from New Zealand's Chinese community had experienced discrimination since the pandemic began, with 47 per cent reporting a friend or family member had been verbally abused in public and about 42 per cent feeling concerned about their personal safety.
One of the Stop Asian Hate hashtags is #AsiansAreHuman. It makes you wonder what kind of a world we live in where people need to be reminded of that. "Why isn't all of this important to everyone, not just those who are directly affected?" asks Tang. "To be an ally or to have empathy, you don't have to be part of that community. You just have to be human to say this isn't right."
She read something online recently that likened the racial slurs embedded in everyday life to getting a paper cut. "It's so miniscule, but before it heals, imagine getting cut in that same place again and again and again. That's what it feels like, a thousand paper cuts in the same place."
Tsz Hung suspects people will see her character Pearl as a "tiger mom", the phrase that's become popularised in the West to describe tough, pushy mothers. She wouldn't describe Pearl that way, but acknowledges it's more normal in Asian culture to drive children so hard.
Chinese parents focus on the long-term goal then work backwards, according to Wong, and don't allow children to have experimental time in the way European parents do. "They let you eat sand!" says Tang.
"In China, there are so many people competing for that one spot. But here, not only are you competing with other people but you're made to feel second-best. You always feel like you're the second choice, so you have to work extra hard to show that you can be that first choice — and that you deserve it."
It's no coincidence, perhaps, that Tsz Hung, Tang and Wong are all the youngest in their families. They're only partly joking when they say that's why they got into acting in the first place, to find their own voices and how to make them heard. And although they share the communality of Chinese ancestry, their disparate backgrounds have shaped their personalities in different ways.
Take the ritual of sharing meals, for example. Tsz Hung lives with her husband now but, growing up, food was always consumed in complete silence. "Dad was the hierarchical figure," she says. "For me, especially at drama school, it was hard to speak, because culturally we are not asked for our opinion and have to listen to what our father says. I was always jealous because we never got the chance to debate what's happening in the world, like Kiwi kids."
Tang, who was born in South Auckland, still lives at home and has dinner almost every night with her parents and two older sisters. Her father came to New Zealand as a refugee from Vietnam, a part of his life he rarely talks about. Her mother was born in China. "I find it odd if I have to eat alone or away from my family," she says. "For me, food has always been associated with a sense of connection and being taken care of."
As a child, she'd sit quietly at the table listening to conversations that were mostly about work or family matters. "Now, as I've got older and into this [acting] industry where I have to use my voice, I've become more vocal about bringing things going on around the world to my parents. I feel like I'm their window to the outside world."
For Wong, life in an extroverted Malaysian household was much less restrained. Before she moved to New Zealand at the age of 13, the family would spend every Sunday with her aunts, uncles and cousins at her grandmother's house, where the women took turns to help with the cooking.
Like Tang, she still lives at home with her older brother and sister, and the family nearly always eats dinner together. "We're all quite loud. And we leave the TV on, so if something comes up on the news, we talk about that as well."
At its heart, Single Asian Female is a celebration of family, with warmth and humour that has cross-cultural appeal. But for Asian audiences, says Tang, the layers go much deeper. "I hope they will laugh because it's so truthful, then go home and have a big cry, because it's so authentic to their own experience."
Auckland Theatre Company's season of Single Asian Female runs at the ASB Waterfront Theatre from April 27 to May 15(www.atc.co.nz).