Where are you from? It’s an increasingly fraught question, as issues of identity and belonging make headlines, and provides fertile ground for examination through art.
Case in point: Citizens of Nowhere?, written by award-winning playwright Ming Ho. It immerses audience members in a British-Chinese family’s real-time drama, seating them around the performers and letting them eavesdrop on the discussion through earphones while enjoying a meal at Duddell’s restaurant in London.
Duddell’s is an apt choice. It is itself a multicultural hybrid – a concept imported from Hong Kong, bringing a contemporary flair to traditional Cantonese recipes, and located within London’s historic St Thomas Church. (Both restaurants regularly feature arts programming.)
The performances at Duddell’s follow an acclaimed premiere at Southbank Centre last year, and the play’s name references British Prime Minister Theresa May’s controversial ‘citizens of nowhere’ speech in 2016 related to the Brexit referendum.
We spoke with Ming Ho about her British-Chinese heritage, the timeliness of the play and what makes it especially relevant to Hong Kong, known for its community of third culture kids.
How much of your own experience did you draw upon for Citizens of Nowhere?
My late father was Chinese and came to the UK in 1957; my mum’s Welsh; I was born and brought up in provincial English towns where there were few people of East Asian origin. So growing up I wasn’t really aware of a British-Chinese community. I saw myself as wholly British, and when I started to pursue an interest in drama, I did somewhat distance myself from my Chinese side, because I feared being stereotyped.
That’s something I came to interrogate when Chinese Arts Now (CAN) approached me. What was I afraid of, and how common or unique was my experience? Together with CAN’s artistic director, Chang An-ting, I interviewed a number of other British-Chinese people for their thoughts and experiences about identity and belonging. These stories formed the basis of the work.
Scottish-Chinese actor Siu Hun Li was one of the interviewees and his story inspired the character of Jun Chi, whom he plays in the show.
What appealed to you about performing in a live setting like Duddell’s?
The noise, bustle and a certain degree of unpredictability about a restaurant setting is all part of the fun of this concept. Instead of watching the actors on a stage, the audience becomes aware of them sitting amongst them in a public space – with earphones giving access to their private conversation. It’s a very naturalistic and surprisingly intimate and empathetic way of experiencing a story.
The restaurant setting has added significance for the Lo family, whose background is in the trade. And a restaurant is itself a form of theatre; this is the environment our characters have grown up in – they know how to put on a show in ‘front of house’ and the hard graft beneath the glamour…
The issue of belonging is central to the play. How important is that discussion now when the UK is in the midst of its own identity crisis?
I think it’s hugely important. It’s perhaps human nature to default to territorialism when we feel insecure of our own place in the world and feel threatened by change. But the seam of xenophobia and isolationist nationalism rising since the 2016 Brexit referendum has shown that we can’t be complacent about diversity and tolerance.
Do you think the play would have a similar resonance for audiences outside of the UK?
I do as there are universal themes in the play. Feedback has show that the intergenerational family conflict and anxieties of first- and second-generation immigrants were recognisable to many, not just those of Chinese origin but Irish, Jewish, South Asian, Afro-Caribbean.
One of the conflicts explored in the play is… how matriarch Linda nurses an idealised memory of her Hong Kong childhood under British rule. It would be very interesting to play that at Duddell’s in Hong Kong.
What do you hope people will take away from the experience?
I hope we’ll have challenged some assumptions about identity and appearances. And I hope they will have felt something: laughed, cried and maybe learned something about themselves – as I did, writing it. As Jun says, ‘I think you’ve got to own it. Say “this is me: the whole package”.’
Citizens of Nowhere? is performed through 2 February at Duddell’s London. Tickets can be purchased here.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed; the opinions expressed are those of Ming Ho and not necessarily endorsed by Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd.