The foreign place

Photo courtesy of Hong Kong Exile

In some ways the modern world has created a universal diaspora as people move and settle in new places, all the while hoping for better opportunities or more fertile beginnings for their children.

As people grow and face the conflicting natures of their homeland’s culture (kept close through the efforts of parents or the individuals themselves) and the dominant culture of their new homes (ever present and potent), many will seek to recreate or import pieces of their old world into their new lives.

No Foreigners, created by Hong Kong Exile and fu-GEN Theatre, takes one of the most distinct yet clandestine efforts to bring the familial home into a new place and transforms it into both the backdrop and a character in a sprawling and deeply imagined story. The lowly shopping mall insulates the smells and lights of a foreign land from the mundane indifference of a new country; though often overlooked, when reconsidered and placed in the right hands it can tell the stories of the people it shelters and reinvigorates.

Milton Lim, Hong Kong Exile (HKX) project lead and director of No Foreigners describes some of the ideas and processes behind this multimedia odyssey.

Strange culture finds a new home

The project was first conceived and started in May 2016, after David Yee (artistic director, fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre) walked into a luxury store and was told that he couldn’t shop there because they weren’t catering to foreigners. This was an experience that confused both Yee and Lim, but also began rolling the ball for the name of their burgeoning project. Though Lim is careful not to dictate how the title should be taken or approached, he is willing to explain his own interpretation and understanding behind it.

“For me, it instils the distance, disorientation, and desires that I personally find in relationship to these North American Chinese malls. It looks, smells, and feels like home, but I can’t call it mine,” he says.

One of the main goals of the project was to deeply explore the nuanced and multi-faceted relationships that the Chinese diaspora has to these cultural spaces. Lim explains that since more than half of the show is in Cantonese, it was exciting for David Yee as a playwright to expand (using surtitles and translation) on what the words could manifest, such as one-to-one translation, inner thoughts, or perspective shifting. They spent many rehearsals co-creating the ways that the projected text shapes and folds our understanding of the space, relating it back to the “code-switching” that is common for diasporic communities.

Time and space reused

Milton Lim. | Photo courtesy of Milton Lim Photo courtesy of Hong Kong Exile

In many ways, malls have a bad rap as being a place for waste: wasted time, wasted money, and opportunity wasted in mischief. However, Milton Lim sees it as much more than that.

“I like to think that it’s a place to see friends, for people to find clothes and gifts for their families, and to wander around dreaming. In the show, we consider the mall as a character.
[Looking] within that lens makes the mundane ethereal and plays witness to countless threads of stories, relationships, and lives across generations,” he explains.

With the mall being an integral part of the story, not just as a location but also as an entity, it gave HKX and fu-GEN Theatre an opportunity to use time in a fresh manner.

“Once we began considering the mall as the character, it only made sense that time should be amorphous in this world. In this mall, you’ll find that there is endless waiting and other times you’re just in and out,” Milton says.

As complex as the approach sounds, Lim and his team took care to ensure that each of the worlds feel both distinct, and yet part of the coherent whole.

Three days at the mall

Running from Oct. 9–12 at the Shadbolt Centre, the deeply immersive, multimedia look of No Foreigners coupled with the otherworldly digital renderings will introduce audiences to a world they have seen but never truly considered.

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