While the presence of Chinese people in Britain has been well-documented since at least the 17th century, in 2019, it’s still a relative rarity to see the stories of Chinese and British Chinese people play out on UK stages. Where East Asian characters do appear, they’re often minor characters rather than protagonists, sometimes offensively stereotyped, and occasionally even portrayed by actors who are not of East Asian heritage.
Unsurprisingly, recent years have witnessed growing calls for better representation, with organisations like Yellow Earth Theatre and BEATS challenging current practices and creating a space for British East Asian voices to be heard.
It’s amidst this push for change that Under the Umbrella emerges – a brand new play at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre revolving around a young Chinese woman studying for a PhD in the UK. Written by Hong Kong-born playwright Amy Ng, the show is based on an original idea by emerging British Chinese producer Lian
Ahead of its opening in Coventry next month, Amy told us a little more about its creation, and how creating better roles for East Asian performers must start with a concerted effort to listen to more stories from East Asian communities.
“I think there’s probably still a long way to go, and not for lack of good will, but [the lack of representation] won’t change unless you have more playwrights like me who grew up in a different culture. It’s very hard to write about someone you perceive as a complete outsider with that kind of dimensionality,” she explains.
“You know, I don’t set out consciously to say, because I’m a British East Asian playwright, my duty is to create more roles for British East Asian actors. It just happens because those are the stories I tell, and it’s easier for me to write East Asian characters with a lot more interiority. So in that sense, I feel like my plays are quite different from a lot of other plays out there, where if there are East Asian characters, they tend to be quite two-dimensional.”
Set in Coventry and Guangzhou, Under the Umbrella features an all-female cast, three out of four of whom are actors of East Asian heritage. The story it tells is one of generational clashes, touching on decades of shifting social and cultural mores in China through the characters of three women and their vastly differing choices, ideals and expectations.
When protagonist Wei (Mei Mac) returns home for the Lunar New Year at the behest of her anxious mother (Charlotte Chiew), it quickly becomes clear that the 27-year-old student feels she has more in common with her British friends and peers than she does with her famine-hardened grandmother (Minhee Yeo).
“There are so many different levels of cultural shock when you move from one country to another, I think part of it is, when you move away from your family and then you go back, you realise you’re just not the same person you were when you left, so they have to adjust their expectations of you. Or not, and I think usually the clashes come when they still expect you to be a certain way.
“I almost feel like your DNA changes a bit, especially if you, like Wei, embrace the values of the other country rather than staying in your own little enclave. Everything changes, your worldview changes, and therefore you have to recalibrate your relationships with your family. Which I think to some extent happens in everybody’s lives, irrespective of whether you go to a different country – everyone has a different relationship with their parents and grandparents when they grow up. It’s just that much more exacerbated if you move away.”
Wei might disagree about many things with her mother and grandmother, but Under the Umbrella by no means about straightforwardly pitting a progressive present against an oppressive past. The initial inspiration for the play was actually a 2015 ad campaign exploring China’s “marriage markets” and the concept of “shengnu” or “leftover women” (i.e. unmarried women over 27), both of which have emerged within the last 15 years. For a generation of high-achieving only-children like Wei, who have been encouraged to pursue their educational and career goals, to suddenly find themselves pressured into getting married and having children is something that’s proving a struggle to adjust to.
Nor is there a straightforward division between Eastern and Western culture in the play. As well as giving us the room to better understand Wei’s mother and grandmother and the decisions they have made, it was important to Amy to find a way to tell this story to a Western audience that didn’t feel voyeuristic – which is where Wei’s British best friend Lucy (Laura Tipper) comes in. A supermarket pricing manager born and raised in Coventry, Lucy’s life is on first glance very different from Wei’s.
“There’s an ongoing thing in the story with Lucy and Tinder, which is something that was definitely a shock for me, because sexual mores are different here than they are back home. I’m not saying that people back home are virgins until marriage, but that still is the ideal, whereas it’s no longer the ideal here.”
Yet look closer, and there are a lot of similarities as well – both were brought up by struggling single mothers with whom they now have a strained relationship, and both are battling in some way to maintain their agency and independence in societies often inclined to treat them as commodities.
“When Lian first came to me with the idea for the show, I thought it was a very interesting subject, but at the same time I wasn’t entirely sure why we should be doing this in the UK. I was a bit worried that it would just end up being something about strange people doing really weird things on the other side of the world.
“But then we talked some more and I began to realise that it was a really good way of examining how societies value women, and how different societies evaluate or rank who’s more valuable on the marriage market. You know, there’s as much a marriage market in this country as there is in China, just not a physical one. How desirable somebody is deemed to be, that’s something that’s always very political, and that idea really appealed to me, as well as the set-up of a Chinese student in Coventry – I thought would enable us to say very interesting things about how women are valued both in China and in the West.”
Under the Umbrella is presented by the Belgrade Theatre in partnership with Yellow Earth Theatre as part of Tamasha’s IGNITE programme, with support from Arts Council England’s Sustained Theatre Fund.
The play makes its world premiere at the Belgrade Theatre Coventry 2-16 March 2019, ahead of a short UK tour. Tickets are available to book now by calling the box office on 024 7655 3055 or visiting www.belgrade.co.uk where prices are even cheaper.