Making a meal out of a play: Leeds restaurant will host production

Ellen Wang. PIC: Simon Hulme
Ellen Wang. PIC: Simon Hulme
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A play which looks at the positive impact of Chinese immigration on the UK is set to open… in a Chinese restaurant in Leeds.

It’s not uncommon to combine a trip to the theatre with a meal out but usually that means visiting two separate venues. A production, opening in Leeds tonight, has taken the legwork out of the equation by staging a play in a restaurant. From Shore to Shore looks at the positive impact immigrants from China have had on the UK. It takes place at the Oriental City restaurant, where guests will be treated to starters before watching the play, then enjoying a meal afterwards.

Ellen Wang, operations manager at the Business Confucius Institute at the University of Leeds, above, was one of those whose story was used as research for the production. She moved to the UK aged just 15, having been born and brought up in Beijing. Now aged 35, Ellen, whose birthname was Xu, is a product of China’s ‘one child’ policy, which formally ended toward the end of 2016.

You might think there is nothing unusual about Ellen’s circumstances. A woman in her mid-30s, engaged to be married to a Yorkshireman, she is successful in her own right but had she remained in China, she would have the sobriquet of ‘sheng nu’, which translates as ‘left-over women’. It’s a largely derogatory term to describe women over the age of 27 who have not yet married and had children and it’s a consequence of the aforementioned birth control policy.

Ellen explained: “It means left over, it’s a derogatory term. If you reach the age of 27 and you are not married, then you are ‘left-over woman’.

“In some ways the single child policy has advantages… a lot of girls are successful in what they do and they have certain expectations for their partners. I have been engaged for five years now, I’m actually liking taking my time, I’m proud to be a left-over woman.

“I was a single child born and bred in Beijing. I came to the UK when I was 15 and came across by myself, it was a very bold move.

“I went to private school and I always wanted to see the world, I did not want to be a ‘frog under a well’, which is a phrase from China… I wanted to see more of the world than was given to me.

“At that time in my life, there was a lot of American influence, with restaurants like KFC and McDonald’s, which were seen as prestige restaurants then. I was offered a scholarship in the US but it did not go through. That’s when I started to look elsewhere.

“I decided to change my name to be part of this new society but the older I get, the more I think family is important to me. I do see being Chinese as one of my strengths but even though I am Chinese, I now think of myself as a Yorkshire lass and very British.”

She adds: “I did all sorts of jobs when I first came here. I worked in a call centre and did other jobs. I wanted to be part of the society, I wanted to be someone I might never have been. Now I am quite proud I came from such a background.

“The Chinese make a big contribution in Leeds and I think it has been under-reported, hopefully this play can go some way to helping bridge that gap.”

Playwright Mary Cooper has written for BBC Radio 4, Channel 4 and Granada, as well as writing more than 20 plays to commission for touring theatre. Together with multilingual collaborator M W Sun, she spent three years researching and recording stories with people in the Chinese community.

Mary, who also teaches creative writing at Bolton University, says the innovative play takes the “long view” on migration and the positives which can come from it.

“The play is aimed at anyone one and everyone who likes a good story. It takes the long view on migration. It looks at the community that’s here now and tries to express what’s happened.”

The play, directed by David K S Tse (Song Unsung, Southbank, Running the Silk Road Barbican and King Lear, RSC), spans a century of Chinese history through its stories of love and loss, struggle and survival: Cheung Wing is escaping from war, Mei Lan’s had enough of the potato peeler, and Yi Di wants the impossible, her parents’ approval.

Food and its relationship to love and survival are important themes in the play and, say the organisers, the restaurant setting enhances and underlines these connections.

Mary adds: “There are three different stories: an older man and why he came to the UK, the middle generation, many of whom went into the catering industry and students.

“In relation to China’s one child policy, there are lot of people who did very well in education but then felt constrained in terms of expectations to get married and have children.

“Now there are many British born Chinese; the previous generation were one which believed strongly in education, so today you see many highly qualified Chinese people. They have found a place to call home. All the stories have an element of searching for relationships.”

Mary was keen to shine a light on what is an under-reported aspect of Chinese immigration and the impact it’s had right here in Leeds.

“When everyone told their stories, I thought I’ve never heard anything like it. I thought we need to hear these stories. The Chinese community has to a large degree been invisible and silent, existing in the margins. The idea for setting this in a restaurant came about because food is a central part of Chinese culture and these are stories about families.”

Director David KS Tse, adds: “Directing From Shore to Shore is both an exciting challenge and a risky venture. The ambition and scale of the storytelling, spanning 75 years, three languages, and touring to nine non-theatre spaces across the UK, requires a versatile, hard-working cast, creative and production team.”

A SHORE THING

The play is set to tour nine restaurants in nine UK cities

May 16 and 18 are now sold out. Tickets still available for Leeds on Wednesday May 17, 12.30pm. The play will also be in York on June 9 & 10.

Tickets £17.50 including meal (concessions £12.50) from www.wyp.org.uk/events/from-shore-to-shore/ or by calling 0113 213 7700

For more info visit www.fromshoretoshore.co.uk

From Shore to Shore is supported by Arts Council England and The Business Confucius Institute at the University of Leeds

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