Photos – Daniel Boud
Set in and around an owner-occupied, very old-fashioned, and somewhat tacky Chinese restaurant in a town on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, we meet not one titular “single Asian female", but rather three of them as a family. Single mother and somewhat begrudging restaurateur Pearl (Hsiao-Ling Tang) is celebrating her acrimonious divorce being finalised. Her two daughters are now both under her (above-shop) roof again, for the first time in years, awash with troubles of their own.
Youngest daughter Mei (Courtney Stewart) is in the tail end of her final year at school, with exams looming. Yet she is far more concerned by the social trials of fitting in as the only Asian girl in her school, trying to ingratiate herself with more popular Anglo girls other than her otaku/weeaboo (anime-obsessed) friend Katie (Emily Burton). Worst of all, the School Formal is imminent. Moreover, she angsts over the prospect of an afterparty of the type her strict mother never lets her attend. Mei is filled with racial self-loathing over her Asian roots (in juxtaposition to her friend’s fascination with them), desperately wishing to be “normal” i.e. a white Australian. As a result, her mother bears the brunt of her backlash, being in many respects the pushy Chinese mother stereotype writ large. Her heavily-accented and culturally unassimilated immigrant status seems worn on her sleeve, despite having lived over half her life in Australia and had two children here, who speak only English.
Zoe (Alex Lee), the elder daughter, has been forced to move back home at short notice, when Pearl decides without explanation to sell the family apartment in the city where Zoe had been living to pursue her career as a professional concert violinist. Auditioning for a position in an orchestra and awkwardly attempting to start dating again (with rather unexpected consequences) after the breakup of a five-year relationship, this is not the best time for her to be moving back home. Suffering from panic attacks since childhood, Zoe is hardly in a good frame of mind to deal with the stress of all this while having to resume sharing a small above-shop residence with her inexplicably even-more-overbearing-than-usual mother and sullen, argumentative kid sister.
A first play by Michelle Law, this story takes the form of a (Chinese restaurant’s) kitchen-sink dramedy, one that is poignant and often very funny, if perhaps at times a bit predictable. While there are a few twists and turns as characters reveal some secrets along the way, the narrative is an almost faintly anodyne tale of family squabbles with stakes that, although fairly high to the characters themselves, seem not to be aiming for bowling the audience over with impactful dramatic pathos. That said, it is a very well-observed piece of writing, with strongly-drawn characters who air, discuss and play with racial and cultural stereotypes and the lived experience of intergenerational immigrant assimilation.
It is also clearly intended as a woman-centric play with an almost entirely female cast, and the focus on these vibrant women’s lives and their relationships to each other is refreshing. Suffused with ‘80s and ‘90s karaoke hits and an infectiously good-natured humour, it is largely well performed by its cast under Claire Christian’s direction.
Single Asian Female may not be a particularly challenging play, but as a diverting, lightly dramatic comedy, especially to anyone for whom the immigrant and especially Chinese-Australian experience will hold personal resonance, it is an entertaining night at the theatre.
La Boite/Belvoir presents
Single Asian Female
by Michelle Law
Director Claire Christian
Venue: Belvoir Street Theatre | Belvoir St Surry Hills NSW
Dates: 16 February – 25 March 2018
Tickets: $72 – $77
A La Boite Theatre Company production