Header image courtesy of Wenting Li
By Wilma Lee
Following a piano piece interwoven in major and melodic minor arrangements, seven women sing a Chinese folksong. Three grandmothers and their granddaughters: the Song, Lee and Chan families gather together to perform an annual Chinese ritual — Ching Ming Festival — with three bowls, three sets of chopsticks, three cups of rice wine, and three bows. It is a day dedicated to remember the dead. Playwright Diana Tso’s latest production Spring Moon thus begins with a ritual of the living in remembrance of the dead.
The melody leads to the presentation of Grandma Song, her granddaughters Jewels and Andrea; Grandma Lee, her granddaughter Anne; and Grandma Chan with her granddaughter Jacqueline. In ensemble, the ladies dance in choreography resembling the Ching Ming ritual, bowing three times at the invisible tombstone of their ancestors, and pouring rice wine from the cups on the ground. In the face of death, the three Chinese grandmothers and their Chinese-Canadian granddaughters are invited to ponder the meaning of life —present and past, in the lands of origin and diaspora, as grandmother, granddaughter, and ultimately, also as woman.
Beginning with the rituals of Ching Ming, the audience learns that the Festival connotes varied meanings for the three families, despite their shared Chinese origin. For Grandma Lee and her Chinese-Canadian granddaughter Anne, the Festival brings them memories of the late Grandpa Lee. For the Songs who are Buddhist, Ching Ming Festival is part of their practice and tradition. But the Festival is a reconnection to the traditional culture for the Chans, who have become Catholic converts after immigrating to Canada. The three grandmothers each share a distinctive dynamic with their granddaughters, each relationship subtly exploring what it means to be a woman, a grandmother, and a family.
Unfolding a Heavy Past
Betty Chou as Grandma Song refuses to communicate with her granddaughters, Jewels and Andrea. As the story unfolds, it is revealed that Grandma Song raised her children by earning a living through the arts of paper-folding and embroidery, traditionally understood as the “lady’s arts” (女紅) in Chinese culture. As an immigrant in Canada, she travels between downtown Toronto and Markham to work as a babysitter. Grieved by the death of her husband, Grandma Song rejects conversation with anyone except the picture of her late partner; she has cried so much that her eyes hurt, and wears a pair of sunglasses. Although lonely, she regards herself as a burden to the children she raised, and refuses to interrupt their lives. Betty Chou’s performance was authentic and genuine, prompting us to think of the question: How old before one is old enough to tackle death; the loss of a loved one?
Juvally Chan as Jewels Song and Ashley Chan as Andrea Song (sisters on stage and in real life), are keen seekers of their origins, reflected in their knowledge of the Chinese idioms they are named after as well as their interest in Chinese arts despite their grandmother’s unwillingness to teach. In the play, Jewels and Andrea are important characters who remind us of the notion of family — they with contrary personalities, are exact resemblance of their grandparents: one talkative, bossy, and dominating, the other shy, quiet, and timid. The sisters remind us that we all are partial embodiments of our origins, born from our parents and ancestors. Jewels and Ashley also embody the tensions of growing up. In one of her first lines, the younger Andrea shows admiration for, and slight frustration at Jewels, who is two years older and always seems to possess more insight than Andrea. In the interactions between them, we see Andrea’s aspiration to become wiser and more mature, but also to be heard. How old before one is old enough to be wise, mature, and to be considered as adult? In the personas of Jewels and Andrea, we can see an honest playing of a pair of siblings keen to seek their origins by establishing reconnection with their dearly-loved grandmother, as well as the genuine dynamics of sisterhood.
Despite their grandmother’s consistent refusal to communicate, the siblings nevertheless seek different means to learn and imitate the art of paper-folding. Although raised in Canada, the siblings manage to find ways to reconnect. While grandchildren often see grandparents as tough and mature, exemplars of weathered adulthood, the silent presence of Grandma Song who suffers in an inarticulatable past and ongoing trauma is a disruption. The story reveals an under-addressed past of their grandmother: needlework reminds Grandma Song of her experience during the Japanese Occupation. How old before one is old enough to overcome trauma?
Like Grandmother, like Granddaughter
The Song family makes a significant remark on (grand)parents’ impact on the becoming of (grand)children. This motif is also explored in the Chan family, where Grandma Chan (Shasha Huo), a former army in the Communist Party, has a toughness inherited by her granddaughter, Jacqueline (Mikaela Cordero), who strives to become a human rights lawyer. Just like how Jewels resembles Grandma Song as an outspoken character, Jacqueline is as well an imprint of Grandmother Chan in her strength. Unlike Grandma Song, however, Grandma Chan loves recounting her past to Jacqueline. As a female soldier in the Communist army, Grandma Chan embodies another code of being a woman: disciplined, tough, and independent. She teaches Jacqueline that one is the owner of her own fate, so one must master it (「你是命運的主人，好好掌握它」). The two also share intimate memories exclusive to themselves — the army’s march, one that begins as salute to the past, and eventually becomes a metaphor for the present. Mandarin- and French-speaking Shasha Huo’s character, Grandma Chan, is autobiographical, as the character’s experiences as an immigrant are also the actor’s. Recounted by Jacqueline, it is revealed that Grandma Chan first moved to Montreal, where she had to learn French in order to survive; before moving to Toronto, where she has to learn English in order to sustain a livelihood in the community. Shasha Huo’s bilingualism allows the persona of Grandma Chan to be extraordinarily authentic, where the struggle of language differences is heightened when Shasha Huo speaks to the audience in French, a language that may be less familiar to Torontonians, and also a language less-associated with Chinese folks in Toronto.
But at the heart of the story of Grandma Chan and Jacqueline is survival. Grandma Chan’s childhood reveals the harsh reality of a history in China – the Cultural Revolution, possibly the most traumatic event that happened in contemporary China, where Chinese values, traditions, and over 5000 years of historical heritage and artifacts were largely destroyed; a time for many Chinese people akin to Hell overtaking Earth. For Grandma Chan, fleeing to Canada was a move to seek life after the tragedy of history. Yet, while Grandma Chan leaves China behind for Montreal, life as immigrant in Canada is a different struggle: to survive in an entirely foreign land, cut off from her roots. Grandma Chan embodies in fullness the toughness of a woman from China, as part of the Communist Party, in diaspora, and also (as we discover) in the battle against cancer. She remains a fighter in the face of the constant threats of death with her strong belief that she is the master of her own fate.
While Shasha’s proficient bilingualism in Mandarin and French does add a surprising feature to the performance itself, we must not forget Mikaela’s efforts to breathe life into the character of Jacqueline. It was an impressive feat by the Filipina actress, who commented during the Q&A session that she does not speak Chinese and had to overcome some challenges during practice. It is also telling that the dynamic between Jacqueline and her grandmother, despite linguistic boundaries, created one of the most emotive moments in the play. What is communicated between Jacqueline and Grandma Chan is love, a feeling often less verbally expressed in traditional Chinese culture. As opposed to Grandma Song who refuses to talk, and Grandma Lee who does talk, but often through soliloquies and monologues, Grandma Chan openly shares with her granddaughter. In the Chans, we see earnest granddaughter deeply inspired by her courageous grandmother. The play begins its final scene with the Chans confronting the possibility of eternal departure from each other; but the difficult articulation of love does not mute the granddaughter. In the face of death, we learn what it means to live and be braver in love.
The Flesh in Diaspora
Angela Sun as Anne and Susan Chou as Grandma Lee represent another dimension in the narrative of being an Asian woman in Canada. From their story we see an intergenerational dynamic of untranslatable fear: Anne, the Canadian-born, is protected from the first smooth breath from her birth, a C-section baby delivered into comfort of advanced medical technology. In interactions with her grandmother, primarily via phone, Grandma Lee often begins conversation asking if Anne has gained weight. The term she uses, “fat fat white white” (肥肥白白) gestures to a past in China where people were threatened by famine, starvation, and hard labour. To be “fat” and “white” meant that one was blessed enough to not worry about food, or exposed under the sun through tough labour.
Juxtaposed is the story of Grandma Lee’s childhood as a “cow whisperer” in rural China, working the farmland and following the farmer’s calendar. Grandma Lee is well-acquainted with the seasonal cycle of barrenness and fertility, and this is presented with beautiful dance choreography. Living through the outbreak of Second World War, the Japanese Occupation, and Cultural Revolution, Grandma Lee remains a survivor, more importantly she refuses to join Anne’s life in Canada and insists on staying in China.
Anne earnestly wants her grandma to join her in Canada, promising a first-class air ticket to secure her trip, and comforts Grandma Lee that the many Chinatowns in Toronto will minimize home sickness. But Grandma Lee prefers life in China, talking to Anne via FaceTime, and watching TV dramas to kill time – she does not want to go to anywhere, for China is the largest Chinatown in the world. Although not explicitly highlighted in the play, the playwright mentions in her notes for the show that her first visit to Hong Kong was due to the family’s loss of four relatives in a plane crash. As a child, she wondered if there was a Chinatown, and her mother’s response was, “the whole island was Chinatown”.
But the soliloquy, articulated by Angela Sun as Anne, is perhaps the most moving part for me, in the play. The Chinese-Canadian granddaughter expresses her struggles to be situated in a hyphenated identity. She describes herself “not an ideal Chinese woman” and “not an ideal Canadian woman”. This remark on cultural difference is real today – roundness, although considered as marker of perfection in Chinese aesthetic, is not an indicator of ideal beauty when used to describe one’s body. Anne’s hyphenated identity is embodied in fullness in her corporeal presence: her very body makes her an imperfect fit in Asia, yet her Asianness makes her an outsider in Canada. For one living in diaspora, what must we bring with us when permanently situated in intra-cultural journey? What are the “props” and “customes” we must bring to fit into other customs? Who are we without such a baggage? In Anne, the tension of the performative nature of identity is quietly heightened.
The Lightness of Death
Humankind tends to be euphemistic about death; but Spring Moon revolves around literal and symbolic notions of life and death. The play unifies itself by beginning and ending with a Ching Ming ritual, differing in that the ending is led by the grandchildren – the stage juxtaposes the dead and the living, origin and offspring in one unified spatial and temporal realm.
Spring Moon explores themes proximate to living in a diaspora and living as a woman; the cast, mixed with professional and amateur actors, created a fresh and genuine dynamic. As a multi-lingual production, performed in English, Cantonese, Mandarin, and French, the play highlights the audible aspect of living in a Chinese-Canadian society, offering different levels of access to different audiences. We are asked to engage with the fullness of the play’s themes in its minimalist setup: six suitcases hung aloft on the left and right of the stage, and three suitcases stacked in the centre. Without extra props, Spring Moon revolves around luggage both metaphorical and physical. Every day, we carry suitcases from yesterday containing our memories, histories, traditions, relationships; everything that defines who we are and who we will become. When we travel from one place to another, we select items carefully to bring with us, and leave other things behind. When we transcend from this world to the realm of the dead, we often choose what to leave behind to our offspring as legacy. But what could fit into the space of a suitcase? What could be packed into the space of a human heart made of veins, blood, flesh, and pasts full of memory, sorrow and hardship? As suitcases are picked up by the four grandchildren, their journeys of becoming by way of their grandmothers begins.