Asian Canadian theatre: a study long overdue

Eury Colin Chang sorts through similarities and differences between Asian Canadian theatre and Anglo Canadian theatre.| Photo by Michael O’ Shea.

Eury Colin Chang, a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia (UBC), is writing his dissertation on the impact that Canadians of Asian descent have made on professional theatre in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto.

The performing arts have played a significant role in one form or another for most of Chang’s life. Now, his fascination with theatre culminates in his research, which will take him across Canada.

Asian Canadian influence on theatre

After earning a Masters degree in Theatre Studies at UBC, Chang began his PhD in Theatre Studies in 2013 and is currently in his final year of study at UBC.

Chang, who wrote for the Capilano Courier in the 1990s while studying theatre at Capilano University, says that the experience has helped him prepare his 300-page dissertation paper on the 30 year history of Asian Canadian influence on theatre in Toronto and Vancouver. When he began his doctorate, he explored Western theatre studies ranging from Shakespeare to the Jewish German intellectuals but found little information on Asian contribution.

“There is this new branch of Canadian Theatre called Asian Canadian Theatre. Essentially it is an English language theatre, and it is like any other theatre we would see, but it is coming out of the multicultural community, and it is usually created by Canadians of third or fourth generations that happen to be of Asian descent. So there is a particular perspective to that,” says Chang.

We are all Canadian

In his research, Chang found similarities and differences between Asian Canadian theatre and Anglo Canadian theatre. One such difference is that Anglo Canadian theatre companies can draw from material such as Shakespeare, whereas Asian Canadian theatre cannot. Yet both styles of theatre are expressions of a similar experience.

“Whether it is from a Euro Canadian perspective or an Asian Canadian perspective, it is really about the Canadian experience. Asian Canadian theatre just has a slightly different take on it,” Chang explains.

While the stories Asian Canadians draw from might be different from the ones that inspire Euro Canadians, the theatre is still – at its core – Canadian.

The French connections

This does not mean that that there is no difference between Anglo theatre and Asian Canadian Theatre. With the Anglo Canadian Theatre being able to draw from English and American plays and musicals (think the Stratford Festival or Bard on the Beach), Asian Canadian Theatre is more prone to telling their own stories, not unlike the French Theatre communities in Canada. Chang talks about the French Canadian dramatist Robert LePage and his play 887 that was produced in Vancouver in 2016.

“More than any other play it just shows how Francophone Culture is quite distinct from Anglo Canadian culture and in that regard there are quite a few parallels between French Canadian Theatre and Asian Canadian Theatre,” says Chang.

He goes on to say that the Vancouver theatre community is very innovative, but there does not seem to be as big a need to reclaim heritage as there is with minority theatre communities or Quebec.

The future

The biggest surprise that Chang came across during his research was that no one else had thought to document the history of Asian Canadian contributions to the theatre community of Canada.

“The Chinese had come to British Columbia at the same time as the English. Obviously there was a power differential at the time but we are in our 3rd and 4th generations now. Yet, one of the first professional Asian Canadian plays, Yellow Fever, written by Rick Shiomi was only produced in Toronto in 1983,” says Chang.

Chang is off to Toronto soon to delve into documents about Yellow Fever to see if it truly was one of the first Asian Canadian Theatre productions.

After the research is done and his dissertation is completed, Chang will be teaching what he has learned to third year Theatre students at UBC.

“I will be teaching the first Asian Canadian Theatre course at UBC in the Fall. It will be offered under Theatre Studies as a Special Topics, and I think this will be the first time we introduce 3rd year students to this kind of work.” Chang says.

He hopes his next research will take him to Quebec as he would like to research multicultural theatre and intercultural theatre in Montreal.