China Overseas

by Ken Smith

Okay, now I have to come clean. For most of the last month I’ve been away from China. Mostly I’ve been in San Francisco for rehearsals of The Bonesetter’s Daughter opera by Stewart Wallace and Amy Tan. This is not exactly getting away from China, since most of the cast and several of the instrumentalists are Chinese, but more on that later. Mostly I’ve been awaiting the release of Fate! Luck! Chance!, my book about the opera and the creative process behind it.

On the way to San Francisco, though, I stopped in Manila for the local premiere of David Henry Hwang’s Golden Child. This was a bit of a homecoming for the playwright, who based his 1997 Obie Award-winning work on an oral history he conducted in his childhood with his grandmother in the Philippines. In the play, a Chinese trader converts to Christianity, inspired by the modernity of business associates in Manila; the key figure, though, is Second Wife, whose opportunistic power play disposes of his other two wives and abandons the family’s Chinese values.

Now for the local subplot: most of the relatives in Manila – including Doreen Yu, the Manila journalist and arts activist who was largely responsible for the Philippine production –were descendants of Second Wife, who comes off as a “royal bitch” (to quote the playwright). I love a good family squabble, so I’d booked ringside seats.

Alas, the relatives were good sports. Judging by the intermission chatter, Second Wife was just a feisty realist who did what she had to do in changing times. First Wife’s suicide by opium overdose, though, was judged a tad harsh.

What resonated more, though, was the play’s narrative technique, where the ghost of the DHH-surrogate’s mother appears and hauls him into the past, where she relives her youth and he assumes the role of his grandfather. It’s more or less the same technique being used in The Bonesetter’s Daughter.

I pulled David aside for a few moments at the opening night reception to ask him about that. He found it rather suspicious that Amy Tan had been writing her 2001 novel around the time that Golden Child was on Broadway, until I pointed out that ghost-ancestor thing was not in the original book but only in the stage production.

“Well, I guess it’s okay,” he said, smiling. “I mean, I got the bit about eating opium from The Joy Luck Club.”


Playing next door to Golden Child in the main theatre at the Cultural Center of the Philippines was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella staring Lea Salonga. The event was rather appropriate, given that female domestic workers are the country’s principal export, and that the Philippine-born Tony Award-winner is something of a Cinderella story herself. Having the country’s most accomplished singer-actress back home in this production meant that thousands of local fans who know only her recordings finally got the chance to see her perform live.

What’s potentially more exciting, though, is what this might mean in the future. After Cinderella ends its run in Manila, Broadway Asia Entertainment plans to move the production to China, opening in Xian and moving later to at least a dozen other cities. Judging by bars and lounges throughout Asia, musicians are another major export of Philippines; given the growing Chinese addiction to Broadway musicals, this could well be a model for the future. China may draw fire from subcontracting in other industries, but as far as theatre is concerned, the country can now outsource its out-of-town tryouts.


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