Last week, writer Sherry Zhang was at the opening night of Auckland Theatre Company's production of Single Asian Female. She's waited to see it since 2019 and now, having finally seen it on New Zealand shores, she reflects on the play and what it means to her.
I’ve been waiting for a while to see this show. I first heard about Single Asian Female in 2019 from a Sydney friend who told me I had to see it. “I’ll fly over from Auckland then,” I joked, but more than half-serious.
So in 2021, when Kat Tsz Hung, who plays Chinese matriarch Pearl Wong, stared defiantly at me on a giant yellow post in Auckland Theatre Company’s Waterfront Theatre, I was beyond chuffed.
I’ve waited so long because it’s about time.
To be produced at ATC is as mainstream as you can get with theatre in New Zealand. It’s validating to have an Asian-centric story, directed and written, right at the viaduct. I’ve been to a few ATC shows now, and the audience is generally a sea of white hair on white people.
There’s been incredible mahi buzzing from Proudly Asian Theatre for the past few years, championing the community needs and interests. From producing works, supporting emerging artists, and calling out the lack of diversity in Aotearoa’s performance spaces for Asian creatives.
Working with PAT on this project is smart for ATC, it provides them with some street cred for an institution that has otherwise been slow on the diversity and inclusion front. Just a few years ago, ATC was still pumping out predominantly all-white casts and all-white production teams. (The two actors of colour had fleeting, almost silent roles).
Single Asian Female is a thank you to the sacrifice our parents endure to bring up children in an Australasian space. As the character Pearl says, “food is the great equaliser, our stomachs are the same." Our parents run restaurants or takeaways so we can have a chance at a better life. They cook because they can, and it pays.
A scene familiar to me: older siblings running the tables while you sit in the corner finishing maths homework. Or being pulled in to shift work even if you have prior commitments, because who else is going to run the family business?
Playwright Michelle Law isn’t afraid to pick apart the ‘tiger mum,’ parenting trope. Pearl has so much love for her daughters Zoe (Xana Tang) and Mei (Bridget Wong). She’s funny, supportive and would do anything to protect her children. But she’s also snappy, harsh and overbearing.
It tapped into a fair amount of mother issues I’m still carrying. My friends and I all walked out of the theatre slightly dazed, because “I’m pretty sure line for line, that’s something my Mum has said.”
I was pretty good at holding back the tears, until the final scenes when Zoe shares the songs Pearl would sing to calm her down when she has panic attacks. I sobbed a bit in the dark until the red lanterns and glitzy dance lights came on again for the karaoke finale spectacular.
I see how Asian mothers talk about their duty to their children. This martyrdom of suffering, of keeping up a strong face, often translates into coldness. Pearl's chants of “I am strong,” is both inspiring and heart-wrenching.
The transition from the play’s original setting on the gold coast to Mt Maunganui provides some gorgeous one-liners about Winston Peters and L&P. But there are some awkward translations, with jokes about Penny Wong, openly queer Australian MP, not sitting as smoothly. It felt like a missed opportunity to flesh out queerness in Chinese culture.
I understood the joke was in Pearl's unexpected openness regarding sexuality (and her complete horror of Zoe’s unexpected pregnancy). But to use queerness as the punchline felt like a slap in the face as someone who’s continuing to unpack the trauma of being queer in a conservative Chinese family.
Other moments that stung include the racist comments Mei endures from her Pākeha high school friends. The internalised racism and identity unravelling is a particular point of growing up Kiwi-Asian. But it frustrated me when on opening night, non-Asian audience members laughed at these comments. “Oi, it’s literally just our reality,” I wanted to shout.
At first, I struggled to place how old Mei was. But through her growth, I found her characterisation to be realistically matched with the sophistication 17-year-old teenage girls deserve.
Xana Tang’s performance as Zoe was particularly charming, while Kat Tsz Hung was flamboyant and unapologetic as Pearl. To see Asian women taking up space, loud and demanding attention is a necessary breakdown of the small, quiet and obedient stereotypes enforced upon us.
Director Cassandre Tse expertly moves us from moments of immense heartache and grief to fits of laugher. A balance and lightness needed to transport us through a two and a half hour play that holds rather heavy traumatic themes.
We’ve been waiting to hear our mothers, sisters and ourselves speak for so long, and now I just want even more.
- Asia Media Centre