Project New Sun: Exploring Chinese culture or is it a self-loathing China-bashing monologue?

Photo credit – Chris Chan  – Comedy show Gongs, Songs & Hong Kong Thongs courtesy of China Changing, South Bank Centre
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of  Nee Hao 
By Paul Wu – Guest contributor

I had been looking forward to seeing Project New Sun: “a double bill exploring Chinese culture in modern day British society through music, dance, performance and comedy.”

I had missed it at the South Bank where it had played as part of the China Changing one-day festival  and with British Chinese performers a sad rarity in the UK, I was excited to see fresh British Chinese talent in the form of Julia Cheng: a dancer and Chris Chan, a comedian.

The performance I was attending took place at the China Exchange on London Chinatown’s Gerrard Street. The Moonchu Hall on the second floor is a slightly odd space with a makeshift bar area to the left of a central hall which has a large pillar right in the centre. Simple wooden chairs had been placed in rows either side of the pillar and the large industrial windows looking over Gerrard Street had been haphazardly blacked out with drapes. By the time I arrived most of the 60-odd chairs had been filled so I took a seat in the back row.

The performance began with a welcome from Louise Chapman from China Exchange exhorting the audience to see Chinatown as more than just a place for dim sum and an announcement by Jonathan Man, whom I think directed Project New Sun but who is so physically uncomfortable and awkward to look at and listen to that I missed most of what he was saying apart from getting the impression that he was very excited that audiences for the show seemed to keep growing since the South Bank.

Julia Cheng’s “Orlando Warrior” kicked off the evening. It was billed as a solo contemporary dance piece blended with traditional Chinese martial arts. The performance is will (sic) explore the mythology of the gender-bending Orlando of the West, fused with the legend of Mulan of East, looking at being a British Chinese Woman today.” Accompanied by a  live cello player and prerecorded beats and loops of introspective conversations Cheng hit shapes with crane-fists in a somewhat angsty dance solo that seemed crippled by the lack of space she had to move in and the terrible sight lines afforded by the way the audience had been seated. As contemporary dance goes, it wasn’t bad – but it did teeter on the edge of being another danced-up kung fu spectacle once Cheng got out her sword. There was strength and skill and shifting dynamics but any overt meaning was buried although the spatial limitations did accentuate the sense of frustration in the piece. Cheng’s solo came to a close with her lying on the floor, mostly obscured for me by other people’s heads and the pillar in the room.

Jonathan Man returned to ask the audience to clear the space as the staff set-up for the second half of the evening’s programme. About a tenth of the audience moved, whilst the rest stayed in their seats. The audience was pretty mixed, probably about a third were East Asian and there was a good range of ages.

In “Gongs, Songs and Hong Kong Thongs” Chris Chan made his stage entrance wearing a straw hat and kimono and with shuffling steps, the palms of his hands pressed together in front of his chest, his eyes narrowed into slits, he portentously moved onto a raised dais and took position at his electronic keyboard and microphone. He yelled with a cod Chinese accent and then broke out into his fey received pronunciation to detail how he got the call to do this one man-show and the technology he employs to perform: basically a pre-programmed synthesizer and a digital clicker to change images on two screens. He introduces himself as a “banana” – yellow on the outside and white on the inside and then goes onto do a ‘powerpointy’ skit about how funny it is that Chinese people burn paper iPhones and helicopters at funerals. The audience seemed to find this all pretty funny but there’s an odd self-loathing about the performance. This is comedy as cultural self-destruction – sending up Chinese tradition and lifestyle.

Another skit follows: “Banned or not banned” looking at what films and books are banned in China and the ridiculous and hypocritical reasons why e.g. “Babe” is banned because it features talking animals and Avatar 2d was banned to make sure box office receipts for domestic Chinese films weren’t decimated – which apparently shows how “capitalist China really is”. Then there’s a musical number about two girls: one in Essex who wants to be brown and one in China who wants to be white. Chan switches vocals frenetically between the two characters and God and a deceased Grandmother. The point is made in seconds but the performance goes on for minutes. Another musical medley compares celebrities to animals and cartoon characters to get a hit at China’s President Xi Jinping banning Winnie the Pooh because of the popularity of a meme that emphasised the resemblance between them.

So far I listened and watched Chan fairly impassively – finding him not very funny, mildly irritating  but ok, he was young and up there performing with a sort of panicky conviction. But then the next sketch happened. Chan began by recounting a telephone conversation with someone who didn’t think that he “sounded like a Chan”. This allowed Chan to meditate on what it means to be Racist. He equates the R for racism with the “Restricted” cinema rating and talks about how people get so upset about racism that it becomes a witch hunt and mentions that Music Theatre Wales experienced this recently with their opera production set in a Chinese restaurant but only featuring white performers. Chan then sings a song which lists all the ways in which a change in intonation – e.g. “HI-ya” versus “hi-YA!” can be taken to be racist, or how pulling slant-eyes is such a small variation in the angle of the eye that it’s inconsequential or if someone says “hee-haw-hee-haw” at you then they could be impersonating a French person.

Chan sings that rather than shout “Racist” people need to have more of a sense of humour about these kind of slip-ups. This enrages me. I’ve been on the receiving end of racist behaviour since I was a child – I know the hurt that someone pulling slant-eyes and shouting “hee-haw-hee-haw” can bring and how that behaviour unchecked leads to physical violence and abuse.

It’s happened to me and it’s happened to my kids and I had a complete sense of humour bypass as Chan continued his apologia for racism. Meanwhile some of the audience were laughing heartily, bobbing their heads along to the tune.

Chan finished his show wrapping up with a return to the title of the piece and comparing himself and everyone else with the string of a thong – caught between two hemispheres and often to up themselves. Perhaps the whole thing is meant to be provocative. When I stutteringly challenged him about the Racist sketch afterwards and try to make the point that it’s actually about the intention behind racist behaviour that is unacceptable Chan just shrugs and says that everyone is entitled to their opinion. I’m apoplectic with anger and walk off. Analysing my reaction now I think that I felt offended on several levels – first by the sentiment behind the Racist song, but also by the general tone of “being Chinese is so stupid and ridiculous” – epitomised by the sketch about the two girls where the last image is of a bronzed white girl next to a Chinese girl dressed in a face mask to protect her from the sun at the beach. The whole show felt like an attack on being Chinese.

Additionally I was disappointed at the amateurish presentation of the whole thing. I kept thinking that this was performed at the South Bank – a prestigious venue where high calibre artists have performed – and these two lacklustre performances were used to represent the British Chinese experience. I felt ashamed and embarrassed. The conceit behind Chan’s piece is just wrong – demonising an entire culture from within with no sense of irony and most importantly no sense of comedy.

If the show was actually funny and if Chan was funny in himself or was bristling with charisma then perhaps one could almost forgive him for his self-loathing but the tepid nature of the performance is itself damning of  the show, British East Asians, Chinese culture and audiences. This was less Project New Sun and more Project Total Eclipse.

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