Last year the Kandinsky theatre company staged Limehouse Nights, a piece inspired by Thomas Burke’s account of life in early 20th century East London. The story of an outsider fascinated by the lifestyle of the area’s immigrant Chinese population, the play’s portrayal of racial tension and social inequality is (depressingly) relevant to contemporary E14. Given this issue’s emphasis on colour, cowardice, decadence and orientalism, Murdofleur decided to revisit the piece with actors Julia Sandiford and Jeremy Tiang who talk here about theatre and place, racial drag and the ego-insulating fringe benefits of denuding oneself for Specsavers…
First I wanted to talk about Limehouse Nights – how you got involved, the characters you played, anything about the text that you particularly liked or struck you….
I was sent a casting breakdown from Poppy [Keeling, producer] via Yellow Earth Theatre and auditioned for the play. At the time I knew very little about the project as it was going to be a devised piece, but I was attracted by the ideas of the city, architecture, how communities of outsiders find their place within a city, and also James [Yeatman, director/writer] spoke of using ‘Viewpoints’ as a starting point, a way of rehearsing using a movement vocabulary which I was curious to know more about.
As I am mixed-race (English/Vietnamese) I was interested in the history of East Asians in London but was also initially ambivalent about how racially-specific this production was going to be. In the past I have felt I could take ownership of productions where the world of the play evoked the East, but that the play itself was fundamentally about other stories/relationships. The best example I can give is doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream which was set in Japan. Now I am going to evoke Japan more than a blonde girl would, but the story is not really about just Japan. However I was later asked to audition to play a Cambodian girl in another show set in Cambodia, about Cambodian history and politics and I felt very uncomfortable about that as I think my ‘whiteness’ would distract the audience from making the imaginative leap to the story.
As I didn’t know what Limehouse Nights was really going to be about, I took the plunge. I initially rehearsed the part of Billie Carleton, a white actress, but when the play took another narrative turn and she was effectively cut from the play, I was then given the part of Siu-Ching. I had invested so many months devising and developing the play that by then I felt I had such a strong understanding of the world of the play, and I hoped it wouldn’t matter if I was too ‘white’. In terms of movement/character/environment I felt I understood Siu-Ching very well, and in the end got no negative feedback about my ethnicity.
I loved the challenge of playing Siu-Ching – she couldn’t speak or understand English in most scenes she was in, so it was really interesting seeing how you relate to other characters purely through their body language, tone of voice and clues my English speaking husband chose to give me.
I thought she was quite a noble character as she had left her home behind and arrived in a very alien environment and there would have been almost no other Chinese women there at the time. I thought the relationship she forged with her Irish neighbour Meeta was therefore very important to her.
I liked the energy of the text, that people talked over each other, and that thoughts often ran faster than words, so a lot of sentences were incomplete – or change direction very quickly.
Limehouse Nights was an extraordinary experience – unlike the airtight theatrical space of most plays, it took in the building and neighbourhood, so that the audience’s journey to the venue became part of the experience. James continued to work on the text even as we rehearsed, and right up to opening night we were making changes. I liked how the play didn’t insist on a single idea of ‘Chineseness’, but acknowledged that individuals within the Chinese community might have very different views about racial identity.
I played Ho Chi Chung, the respectable owner of a Chinese laundry. He had very fixed views about his duty – to work hard, stay out of trouble, and above all maintain racial purity by marrying a Chinese woman and having lots of kids. Interestingly, he was both the least likeable character in the play, and also the only one who was consistently responsible and law-abiding. By the end of the play, his blind adherence to duty has led him to physically abuse his wife and betray his closest friend – an interesting corollary to the ‘model minority’ view of the Chinese.
When I read that this play was taking place, I pretty much bombarded the producer Poppy with e-mails until she came to see another show I was in, after which she invited me to join in a development workshop, and six months later I was cast in my part.
Many people have no idea the Limehouse used to be London’s Chinatown. How much did you know about the history of the area – or the venue? And what did you make of contemporary Limehouse? The disparity between how run down a lot of the area is and all the skyscrapers around Canary wharf is pretty stark, to say the least.
I hadn’t known that there was a Chinatown in Limehouse, so was very intrigued when I got the casting breakdown saying that’s what the play would be about. I love London and always want to learn more about the history of our huge city.
I thought the venue was fab because it was in the heart of where our story took place and also it was nice to have the opportunity to play in quite a large space which simultaneously felt quite intimate.
I find the offices of Canary Wharf slightly alienating, but get the sense that there are still very strong communities (e.g. Bangladeshi) who feel ownership of this part of London and the big offices aren’t on their radar as much as you would sense as an outsider. I feel there is a good energy to Limehouse.
At the time I was living on the Isle of Dogs, which is a bizarre place – a bit of a ghost town on weekends, and usually inhabited by a queasy mixture of smart city boys, and feral-looking children who used to hurl racial abuse at me as I walked home. That whole stretch of East London, I would say the whole area covered by the DLR network, is about midway through the process of gentrification – which means pockets of poverty existing next to obscene wealth. I don’t romanticise poverty, but it does seem a shame that the lovely old pubs you stumble upon in alleyways are slowly being replaced by wine bars.
I did know that the original Chinatown was in Limehouse, which makes perfect sense as most of the early Chinese would have come in on boats. I am originally from Singapore, and my grandfather would have had a similar, if shorter, journey, sailing from Foochow to Malaya to start a new life. Before rehearsals at Limehouse Town Hall, it was wonderful walking around the neighbourhood looking at the very buildings that our characters would have lived and worked in almost a century earlier. The play did, I hope, bring people to a deeper appreciation of the history of the area, and a lot of our publicity focussed on bringing in local residents, many of whom were not habitual theatre-goers. The reactions and feedback we got were generally positive, and I would say a good argument for theatre that is sensitive to its surroundings.
One of the themes of the issue is cowardice – as in the convention of calling the fainthearted yellow bellied or lily livered – I wondered whether you guys had any stories about stage fright or about having to play parts that, for whatever reason, made you anxious?
I have never had stage fright, although I do feel nervous just before a first night or press night. The only time I feel anxious is if I’m in something shit, but that doesn’t have anything to do with the part, just my feelings towards the production!!
Quite early on in my career I had to get completely naked for, of all things, a Specsavers advert. I have not experienced stage fright since then – everything else has seemed comparatively unfrightening.
Around the start of the twentieth century there’s a tendency in ‘the West’ to identify ‘the Orient’ with acting and illusion and a strange, connected trend for these racial drag acts where Europeans and Americans to perform ‘as’ Chinese or Japanese (or just non-specifically ‘oriental’) characters – there’s The Mikado, Richard Barthelmes in Griffith’s Limehouse melodrama Broken Blossoms, a lot of stage shows and early films (Like this George Melies one). You might also have heard of American stage magician, William Ellsworth Robinson, who spent his whole life, onstage and off, disguised as ‘Chung Ling Soo’ and, rumour has it, only broke character to exclaim his surprise at having been shot in a botched trick (pretty sure he’s mentioned in The Prestige). I guess I wanted to ask both whether you think those stereotypes have been left behind and about your attitude to/experience of how ethnicity bears on casting (feel free to react to this hilarious/terrifying story)
I think (hope!) these stereotypes are being left behind, but think maybe Hollywood is the last place to catchup – the Chinese guys are often shifty, master-criminals, devious and good at martial arts etc. However since my career is unlikely to take me to Hollywood I selfishly don’t think too much about that!
Whilst I don’t think those stereotypes don’t have much bearing on the work being made in current theater/film/tv, I do think my ethnicity has closed certain doors to me. It’s not because I am specifically mixed-race, but because I’m NOT white – e.g. period dramas, some classic theatre. However I’m a firm believer in there being two-sides to each situation, and the plus side is that I’ve benefited from my ethnicity and it has opened doors to other wonderful jobs (like Limehouse Nights!). What I really want to do is play great characters and hope to come to a place where I’m given work where my ethnicity isn’t the first thing people notice.
And Broken Blossoms is mad!! Shows how far we have come…. can’t believe they thought a white guy with half-closed eyes was going to cut it…
The whole sexualisation/ fetishisation of the east is definitely still going on. Every Edinburgh Festival, the Thai ladyboys set up camp on the Meadows and do a thriving trade. And as for racial drag – I like to think we’ve moved past that, but every now and then racism (and it’s evil twin, Chinese reverse racism) rears its ugly head. MOSTLY it’s not an issue, but occasionally my agent has to really fight to get me seen for a non race-specific part.
Here is an example of reverse racism: Lyn Gardner’s blog talks about Bryony Lavery’s feminist play More Light; the subsequent online discussion is hijacked by Chinese commentators wanting to know why the play, which is set in the tomb of the First Qin Emperor, has an all-white cast playing Chinese. I subsequently spoke to some of the people involved in this discussion, and at least one of them had not seen the play, but didn’t see why that meant he couldn’t comment vociferously on the casting decisions. (I saw the play, it was fine, the casting was not racist. My own belief is that I want to be able to play all parts, not just Asian ones, and therefore I cannot expect Asian parts to be ringfenced for the likes of me. Quid pro quo. When I put this view to this commentator, he called me a race traitor).
Speaking of Idris Elba– the part of the junior sidekick in ‘Luther’ was originally written as Chinese. I auditioned for it, alongside I imagine most of the young Asian actors in town (there’s not that many of us). Then they announced that Idris Elba had been cast as Luther, and shortly after that ‘Justin Wong’ became ‘Justin Ripley’, and they cast some white kid off Hollyoaks. Did the BBC decide that they’d fulfilled their ethnic minority quota and could ditch the Chinese character? We’ll never know…
Thanks guys. It only remains to ask if you’ve any upcoming projects you’d like the world to be aware of?
I seem to be doing more writing than acting these days, so I suppose that – more info on my website – and I have also recently begun translating plays.
Oh, and I will shortly be starting work on Tony Ukpo’s film Random 11, in which I play a Japanese murder victim. I do get to say lines before I die. In Japanese. Which will be an adventure.