In Hive: The New Bees 3, 11 emerging theatre companies will each simultaneously perform a 10-minute piece in the various spaces of Chapel Arts, a former funeral home. Natalie Gan, Milton Lim and Remy Siu, the interdisciplinary threesome that form Hong Kong Exile, will be performing in the morgue itself.
The name of the company is inspired by a musical composition by Remy Siu, and reflects all three Canadian-born Chinese artists’ shared interests about their cultural identity.
“It’s [about] going back to a motherland that’s actually not your motherland,” says contemporary dancer Natalie Gan, referring to the notion of exile. “You go back, you’re seen as a foreigner. You come home, and you’re still seen as a foreigner.”
Gan emphasizes that Canadian-born Chinese have to chase their heritage. Growing up, she felt sandwiched between two worlds: the traditional, ethnic life at home and the modern, Western culture at school. In her adult life, she recognizes that being Chinese is dependent on her interpretation of what “Chinese” is.
Art ideal platform for expressing identity
While exploring this Eastern identity within a Western context, Hong Kong Exile strives to create art with strong social and political implications, says Gan.
“Cultural identity encompasses ethnicity, customs, values, the languages we speak and so on,” says Dr. Wright, professor in the department of educational studies and director of the Centre for Culture, Identity and Education at UBC. He says that identity is the negotiation between obvious characteristics that we have, the identity that we assert, and the identity that people assign to us.
“We need to think of the arts as an expression of culture in and of themselves,” he adds. “Cultural identity is about performing an identity, not just [passively] having an identity. We have our culture when we perform our culture.”
Gan’s experience teaching theatre and English to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and attending a contemporary arts field school in Ghana have also given her a deep appreciation for the performance aesthetics of other cultures.
“[It was] nice to be reminded of different definitions of rhythm, speed, beat and timing,” Gan says of African music and traditional Lebanese dance.
Indo-Canadian actress Adele Noronha sourced from her Indian heritage in order to portray a Russian character in the Chekhov play Three Sisters.
“I had to really tap in to how this could be Indian, and how the circumstances could be Indian, because that is the culture that speaks to me,” says Noronha.
Dialogue between cultures
“It’s important to note that cultural identity is not stagnant,” says Dr. Wright. “New cultures can emerge from the merging of different cultures,” he says, including forms of music such as jazz and calypso.
In the conversation between the East and the West, Noronha recommends leaving the ego out of it, and says it’s important for both cultures to perceive the other as equal, not as one threatened by the other.
“That is also very much the heart of Hong Kong Exile,” says Gan. “When there is no eye-to-eye, [it’s the understanding that] your perspective is shaped by different experiences and different realities.”
Using art as a channel of communication and exploration to illuminate these differences leads to richly textured stories offering different perspectives, providing entertainment, and ideally, fostering understanding and curiosity.
“In many traditional cultures, stories were not merely entertainment, but were actually part of one’s education,” says Dr. Wright. Telling stories was not the projection of one’s cultural identity, instead, one’s cultural identity were the stories themselves.
And, as Dr. Wright eloquently quotes from an African proverb: “Why do we tell our children stories? It is because we are stories. If you want to kill a nation, kill its stories.”
Hive: The New Bees 3 runs
from June 11-14 at Chapel Arts.
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