Border Crossings in association with Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre
Tuesday 19th March 2013 at the Djanogly Theatre, The Lakeside, Nottingham.
A poignant little gem of a play, it tells the story of the 1980s generation of educated Chinese.
When Tong Zheng returns to Shanghai to do business after years living in the United States, he is full of himself. But lost in the neon and high rise, he does not recognise the China he left behind, except in the alleys and back streets.
Involved in the usual murky Chinese consumer shopping mall deal, he hooks up with John Bartholomew, a British businessman who has been living in China for ten years. A shadowy Neil Heywood type figure, Bartholomew speaks no Mandarin, but promises connections with the Mayor. A bilingual love and business triangle develops and Tong Zheng is confronted with his past.
The deracinated characters float about a white and black minimalist set, anchored only by their mobile phones, and laptops, the Apple logo on their devices shines silver out of the darkness. The characters rarely talk face to face but interact through technology, constructing a false reality out of a void.
The play runs bilingually throughout in Mandarin and English with translations appearing on chat line screens or deliberately getting lost. It worked brilliantly for me, illustrating the lack of communication between the characters and the relationship between the West and China, both of which are alluded to as being autistic like John Bartholemew’s son, in the sense that Bartholemew never can really understand the boy. I wondered, however, how much someone who only spoke one of the languages would make of the story. But that, perhaps, is the point of the play, for even elements of the title itself are lost in translation.
Despite the clever use of language and technology to illustrate the pace of change in China, the real power of this play lies in the message of the 1980s generation, and the songs of Deng Lijun are used to great effect to convey the mood of the time. Growing up during the anarchy of the Cultural Revolution and clawing back a lost education, many were at high school or university during the heady days of the mid nineteen eighties, part of a great hope and drive to build something better after years of Maoism. Yet these people were also the children of 1989 and with it the heirs of May the 4th 1919, and those that could, fled to the West in fear in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. There is a hint of this when Bartholomew first meets Tong Zheng, asking him if he left because of politics, a question Zheng is quick to gloss over.
As someone who studied Chinese in the West and in China in the 1980s and had friends and contemporaries who were at Tiananmen Square and other protests in China at this time, the gut wrenching moment in the drama came when Tong Zheng is forced to refer to full form characters that were used before the Communist revolution to express his feelings.
Guanxi/关系” he says, “this word we use so much to describe our precious business relations and other relationships; in the full form 關係 the character shows that it means bound together, bonded, tied, but I want 自由 / freedom.”
He goes on to refer to the character 爱 for love.
“In the simplified form it has lost its heart, but in the full form, 愛, it still has its heart. I want to put the heart back into love.” he says.
This play is above all a cry from the heart of the 1980s generation of educated Chinese who, hoped and worked for so much, but know that they have been sold a dud.
“为什么， 为什么，为什么”？ “Why, why, why?” a character asks at the end of the play. I was haunted by it for days.
Photographer Richard Davenport
Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang is a writer and author of a China historical novel, The Woman Who Lost China. Her work is characterised by strong international themes and perspectives and an interest in cultural and historical fault lines.