The stage play From Shore to Shore is an ambitious, heart wrenching yet ultimately successful drama that charts the lives of three interconnected Chinese families over 70-years as they move between Mainland China, Hong Kong and the English city of Leeds.
The play is a tale of modern China and a story of migration. It is also, in a number of ways, pleasingly unusual.
First, it is being staged in a series of Chinese restaurants across the UK. Clearly though, this has not been seen by English theater goers as a negative, as it’s close to selling out in every venue.
Second, it is staged in three languages. The cast speak and often sing in a changing mix of English, Mandarin and Cantonese as the play moves back and forth in time and space: The hills of Japanese-occupied World War II Guangdong, a Hong Kong government public housing estate in the 1970s, an apartment in modern-day Shanghai, and various Chinese restaurants and homes in and around the English city of Leeds.
Finally, the play is, almost unconsciously, tragically sad in that it tells the common story of 20th Century China from a family point of view.
This is a tale of hardship and unrelenting work, persecution, migration and family division. Add in racism combined with the struggle of forging another life in a new land, and it’s a brutal story familiar to millions of Chinese who made this journey .
The running motif used to carry this tale is food: The lack of it under the Japanese; cooking it for the English in the take-outs in Leeds; and how recipes passed down through generations fuse together memories from past to present, mothers to children, grandmothers from their mothers and beyond.
The play opens with an elderly man, Cheung Wing, walking to the middle of the dining room/stage and urging the audience, who sit at conventional circular Chinese restaurant tables, to eat and drink from the bowls of soup in front of them.
Cheung – played by the veteran British Chinese actor, David K S Tse, who also directs and leads a seven-person cast – then recalls the soup his mother used to make for him in 1940s Guangdong. Yes it’s an unconventional start, but it works – the audience is in a Chinese restaurant but also, immediately, in Cheung’s world.
Cheung was kidnapped as a young boy when he lost his mother on a refugee trail and then sold to a poor villager to work as a peasant laborer. Years later he finds his mother again, working as an Amah for an English family in Hong Kong, but leaves again for the north of England where he eventually starts a restaurant and a family.
The life stories of the other characters – Cheung’s wife and her Hong Kong family and his daughter-in-law’s mainland Chinese family – run seamlessly in parallel as their story lines weave in and out of the plot. As does the food. At each key moment in the drama, there is a different bowl of soup.
The play has it roots in a 2010 Manchester Chinese art center project that tried to fill a void of British Chinese writers telling their family stories. From this came an abundance of real life tales and it was these that writer M W Sun and playwrite Mary Cooper used to form the nucleus of the play.
“Nobody had been telling these stories,” says Cooper. “And in the UK, we don’t learn Chinese history. So the story of the Chinese community has been largely invisible and silent… When we heard all these tales on the writer’s course, we felt strongly that they needed to be heard.”
Cooper says they are seeking sponsorship to take the drama outside of the UK, and especially want to play Hong Kong.
From Shore to Shore’s UK tour had a mix of British Arts Council grants and funding from Beijing’s international cultural body, the Confucius Institute. It is another reminder that China’s global economic emergence involves not just grand infrastructure projects and development financing, but also local-level, soft power.
But to call this a propaganda piece does the writers and cast a disservice.
Yes, it praises the Communists for liberating the country after 1949, but that was the sentiment of most Chinese whose lives had been ravaged by years of warlord nepotism, colonial corruption, civil war, and Japanese occupation.
No, this is a long way from a two dimensional cultural puff piece for the Chinese Communist Party. It’s sensitivity and brutality make the resilience of the Chinese people the real hero of the play – be they in Shanghai, Guangdong, Hong Kong, or Leeds.
As Cheung says in the play’s closing lines: “I know what it’s like to be starving because I know what it’s like to be fed.”
And then, with ironic aptness, the audience are served a delicious Chinese dinner.
From Shore to Shore is planning in major cities across the UK in May and June. For dates and ticket information see: www.fromshoretoshore.co.uk