"No Foreigners" @ CutchLab: xenografts seek roots

Multimedia depth probe of Chinese Mall culture's invasive speciation

Border patrolling Richmond's LL44: who's alienating whom? Photo: Justin Wonnacott

Hanging out with friends in Richmond’s Asian themed Aberdeen shopping mall, David Yee stumbled upon an obscure, ambivalently labelled shop entrance with a discreet sign alongside inviting (in Chinese and English) “Members Only.” Ringing the doorbell, he was met by a venerable matron who turned him away with the curt dictum “No Foreigners.”

But wait, Yee protested. Who’s foreign? I’m Canadian, after all. So how do I become a member here, anyway? No response; just a grim reprise – “No Foreigners.”

That would be explicit enough to deflect most of us. But not so for playwright Yee, artistic director of Toronto’s Fu-gen, the country’s longest-running Asian Canadian theatre company. Nor for his friends and fellow expeditionaries out to Aberdeen that day, who happened to be leading luminaries of Vancouver’s innovative Hong Kong Exile (HKX) multimedia coop.

As young, bright and incredibly talented offspring of the Chinese diaspora, the question is of burning interest to these up-and-coming pro’s. So they cooked up a fanciful, 80-minute disquisition on how to become a full-fledged, unchallengeable Chinese mall brat.

It’s an immersive process, as posited by the No Foreigners project leader, HKX co-founder Milton Lim. You’ve got to haunt the mall, 24/7, for 1,000+ days, clandestinely camping out nights in the bedding showroom and subsisting on food court delicacies. You need to sample every CD in the video store. Nearing graduation, you’ve got to brave the glare of the karaoke spotlight.

HKX co-founder Natalie Tin Yin Gan has compressed this whole rite of passage into a series of vignettes enacted by tiny, flexible plastic dummies. The manikins are posed in minimalist dollhouse settings against streaming backdrops that scroll across a linear array of five computer screens.

Black-clad ninja puppeteers April Leung and Derek Chan manipulate the figures and film them against the backdrops to project the silhouetted images on a large cyclorama, stage rear, voicing dialogue apace. The whole snazzy apparatus – mikes, screens, dolly-mounted tripods, cameras, projectors et al – was the brainchild of HKX tech wiz and co-founder Remy Siu.

Lim and Siu also collaborated on the soundtrack – a mix of electronica, Canto-pop and vapid shopping mall Muzak – and on some ancillary screen projections. Imagery ranged from architectural floor plans to stark typescript to fluttering moths.

The overall effect was one of cool, almost godlike, detachment. With such fleeting vignettes, a narrative thread so whimsically thin and a dramatis personae of 2D shadows and disembodied voices, there could hardly be much attempt at “character development.” It came as almost a shock the few times the actors actually swivelled around to show their faces, as in a veiled marital spat or a slinky karaoke foray into the audience.

Yee scripts us some clever send-ups of hoary Chinese stereotypes – the passive/aggressively domineering matriarch, the ostentatiously mournful heir inwardly gloating at a windfall legacy from some Dear Departed elder, the growly kungfu maverick.

But the real protagonist of No Foreigners is actually the mall itself – a complete, autonomous universe, a memory palace, a mandala. As such, it is infinitely expandable, laden with symbolism and superstition.

Yee’s “rules of the mall” have the ring of slightly surreal Laws of Nature. For instance: no skylights or egress in the topmost stories, time compresses in the sub-sub-basements. The digit 4 is forbidden as it’s homonymous the Chinese word for “death.” If you find yourself at mall level LL44, you’re dead – “don’t panic.”    

We track the maverick figure of The Foreigner as he transits from English to Cantonese, his voice growing growlier apace with his CQ (Chineseness Quotient). He rides the elevators ever deeper into the bowels of the mall, through layers of luxury retail, gourmet eateries, jade jewellers, gadget emporia, alt-health dispensaries and cosmeticians – all the way down to a secret “moth museum” where ancestral souls swarm in Lepidoptera incarnations.

One antepenultimate stop is the mall’s Koi Pond, whose denizens are as gaudy as “goldfish on acid.” The koi are introduced as a fairly transparent metaphor for the caste system of the Chinese diaspora. They’re prized (and priced) in a rigid hierarchy according to coloration. No other trait counts. Less lustrous fish are ruthlessly culled, regardless such irrelevant attributes as, say, swimming ability or mathematical genius.

But koi, we learn, are a wildly prolific invasive species that will out compete the native fauna of any habitat where they’re introduced. And if you return them to the wild, without strict breeding and culling, they quickly revert to the uniform muddy drabness of their true nature as plain, old, bottom-dwelling carp.


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