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Amy Ng: I want the right to tell stories outside my culture

Charlotte Chiew and Mei Mac in Under the Umbrella. Photo: Robert Day Charlotte Chiew and Mei Mac in Under the Umbrella. Photo: Robert Day
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When first starting out as a writer, a mentor predicted that, since diversity was all the rage, I would ‘make it’ before my non-ethnic peers. And I felt guilty.

I grew up in Hong Kong and was educated at Oxford. I did not feel like an underprivileged, embattled minority. Unlike British-born BAME peers who never saw their communities represented on stage and screen, I could turn on the TV and watch Chinese stories with Chinese actors.

Amy Ng. Author of Under the Umbrella
Amy Ng. Author of Under the Umbrella

Theatre was different. Hong Kong stages were still full of Chekhov, Ibsen, and Brecht. However, since these were performed in translation by Chinese actors, I never experienced Ibsen, Chekhov et al as ‘other’. But when I pitched my Brechtian ideas for political plays to London theatres, I was urged to “write what I know”. Once I was told bluntly that I’d been brought in to write “diverse stories”.

I understood that while a playwright such as Anders Lustgarten could turn his PhD in Chinese politics into a play, I would have to fight hard to do the same with my PhD in nationality conflict and ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe. I don’t dispute Lustgarten’s right to set a play in China. I would just like the same right to tell stories outside my culture.

Theatre will asphyxiate if it remains hermetically sealed from our multicultural society in all its fraught glory. Yet I am uneasy about the assumptions underlying the mission to bring ‘hidden communities’ to the stage.

I resent that it implies limiting these works to the naturalistic and quasi-documentary. I worry that such plays will be judged by a different yardstick to ‘mainstream’ plays, just as non-Western art is primarily exhibited in ethnographic museums instead of art galleries.

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Most of all, I fear our work would be distorted by the need to explain or to justify ourselves. Ibsen and Chekhov are produced because they still resonate with our concerns, not because they ‘represent’ Norwegian or Russian culture.

When Belgrade Coventry approached me to write about arranged marriages in China, I was intrigued but wary. How could I avoid it being perceived as a story about foreign people doing reprehensible things? So I created a play around the central question – “How do we find agency as women in a world that constructs us as commodities?” – which I hope will resonate with audiences universally.

I am looking to plant the seed of something –  a doubt, a question, a slight shift of perspective on universal issues, irrespective of cultural background. But I have also learned the hard way that I cannot control what audiences take away.

There are ghosts, incense sticks, funeral rites, a lychee orchard in my work. Those who want to see it through an exoticising, orientalist gaze will find enough to latch on to, though for me these elements are part of the furniture of my childhood, and integral to the story. On bad days, I tell myself it’s a marathon, not a sprint. After all, some don’t see beyond the samovars in Chekhov.

Amy Ng is a London based Hong Kong-Chinese playwright and historian

Under the Umbrella review at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry – ‘hopeful play about China’s attitude to marriage’

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