Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Tuesday poem: Coming Home by He Zhizhang




少小離家老大回, 鄉音無改鬢毛衰;
兒童相見不相識, 笑問客從何處來。


I left home young. I return old;
Speaking as then, but with hair grown thin;
And my children, meeting me, do not know me.
They smile and say: "Stranger, where do you come from?"

From "300 Poems of the Tang Dynasty"
This is a poem I quote in my play The Bone Feeder. Yesterday over lunchtime, in order to give my actor something to practise with, I recorded my Dad reading this in his native Cantonese (with my mum in the background exhorting him to read it with 'more feeling'!) It was pretty emotional to me to hear my dad reading this, as I cannot read Chinese but understand it at a basic conversational level. The play, as might be suggested by the poem, deals with the migrant experience but is based on Chinese-NZ history.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Bone Feeder : Press release

Play brings to life ghosts of Chinese immigrants

20th Nov – for immediate release

In 1902, the SS Ventnor sank in the Hokianga Harbour with the bones of 499 Chinese miners bound for ancestral graves in Canton. A century later Ben, a young man, arrives in the Far North to try to find some link with his past. A new NZ play which draws on the traditions of Asian storytelling, The Bone Feeder is a sumptuous professional theatre production which uses a cast of 19 performers, live music, high-wire martial arts, dance, drama and comedy to tell this story of one of the first times of contact between NZ Chinese and Maori.

The Bone Feeder is a fictional exploration of what is for many Chinese New Zealanders a very real and significant piece of their history. The story of the SS Ventnor, chartered in 1902 by the Shin Tong Association to carry the exhumed bodies of immigrant Chinese back to their home villages, is one which carries emotional weight for the many NZ Chinese who lost family members in the shipwreck, and for the local Maori families who found bones washed up on the coast.

“Back in the 1900s, it was considered important for Chinese to return to their home villages,” playwright Renee Liang (The First Asian AB, Lantern) explains. “So the Chinese which had migrated to New Zealand to work, mainly in the gold fields, considered themselves only temporary visitors. They always intended to return home once they had made enough money. Of course, life being harsh at that time, many of them didn’t make it."

Those who died were buried in temporary graves, and the then-vast sum of four thousand pounds raised by subscription among the local Chinese community to charter a ship, the SS Ventnor, to carry the exhumed bones home. It was believed that people needed to return to their home villages in order to watch over their descendants and in return, have their graves looked after and spirits nourished.

Unfortunately, the Ventnor struck a rock and subsequently sank near the Hokianga Harbour. The coffins and bones were lost, along with 13 lives of crewmen. But some of the coffins and bones were washed ashore where, local stories reveal, they were found by local Maori and buried in family urupa.

The Bone Feeder follows the fictional Ben, a young fifth-generation Chinese New Zealander who travels to the present-day Hokianga to look for the bones of his great great grandfather. Driven by his father's dying wish, he encounters some unusual ‘locals’ – who may or may not be cheeky ghosts. It’s also the story of Kwan, a man who emigrates to NZ in the 1800s and has to decide where he belongs.

Liang says, “The story has evolved from a simple hero-quest to a much more layered consideration of what it means to be an immigrant or to inherit an immigrant story. I delve into history and intergenerational relationships, and hopefully make it funny and dramatic along the way. Because it is set in the Hokianga and involves 'ghosts', there's also a fair amount of magic which we use theatrical techniques to bring to life - high-wire flying, live music with traditional Maori and Chinese instruments, light and shadow play, puppetry and dance.”

It is believed to be the first time in NZ that martial arts with high-wire flying have been used for a professional play. Dragon Origin, NZ’s first martial arts stunts company, are providing the technical expertise and muscle power. Stunt choreographer and actor Willie Ying is excited about the show. “It is a chance for us to tell the real Chinese stories, stories that mean something to us.”

Significantly, many of the cast have family history intertwined with the real history explored in The Bone Feeder. Lead actors Gary Young (Apron Strings, Underbelly) and Rob Mokoraka (Strange Resting Places, Tama Tu), have both drawn on their heritage while developing their characters. Young’s family immigrated to NZ during the turbulent post-WWII era, and Mokoraka, who is of Ngapuhi ancestry, spent part of his childhood in the Hokianga. Even director Lauren Jackson (Passage, Exchange) has Chinese ‘ancestry’ – through her young daughter, who is one-eighth Chinese and whose great-great grandmother was one of only six Chinese women living in NZ at the start of the 20th century.

With set design by Jessica Verryt (Young and Hungry Festival 2011, Yours Truly), The Bone Feeder is heavily influenced by both Asian and Western theatre techniques.
Liang’s brief of “creating a magical environment where anything can and does happen” is explored to its fullest potential, with poetic touches and references to Chinese paper cuts and shadow play – with a distinctly NZ feel.

Talented composer Andrew Corrêa leads a group of musicians playing traditional Chinese and Maori instruments, who provide all the sound effects and music for the play. As in Asian theatre, the arrival of the musicians on stage will herald the start of the play.

Liang says that she hopes the story will have universal resonance. “ I can imagine what it’s like to have a foot in two worlds, torn between what is left behind and what is hoped for in the new country. New Zealand is a nation of immigrants – even Maori have their immigration stories. Ultimately it is the people we love – our whanau– that bring us home. And that to me is the most important thing.”


Season dates: 10-20 November 2011 (Preview 9 Nov)
Venue: TAPAC, 100 Motions Rd, Western Springs
Times: Tuesday – Saturday @ 7.30pm (Sunday at 4pm)
No performance Monday 14 November
Tuesday 15 November matinee @ 12pm
Cost: Tickets $15-$30, concessions for seniors, students, children and groups

75 mins. Parental guidance recommended for children under 10. In English with phrases in Cantonese and Maori.
Bookings phone (09) 8450295 from 10am – 5pm or online at


Full cast and crew:

Creative Team

Director - Lauren Jackson
Writer /Producer - Renee Liang
Dramaturg - Fiona Samuel
Production mentor - Andrew Malmo
Set design/props - Jessika Verryt
Design Mentor- John Verryt
Master craftsman/design - Ronald Andreassend
Lighting design - Nik Janiurek
Costume design - Estelle Macdonald
Martial arts choreographer - Willie Ying
Dance choreographers - Philippa Pidgeon, Su Ka
Animateur consultant - Felicity Horsley
Production consultant - Margaret-Mary Hollins
Production manager/Stage Manager - Theresa Hanaray and Jamie Blackburn

Kwan - Gary Young
The Ferryman - Rob Mokoraka
Ben - Kevin Ng
Wang - Charles Chan
Dan- Llanyon Eli Joe
Sam - Willie Ying


Henry Cheng
Monica Mu
Benjamin Teh
Ally Xue


Musical director/percussion - Andrew Corrêa
Composer/Ghuzheng - Jessica Wu
Composer/Taonga puoro - Riki Bennett
Composer/Chinese flute - TBA

Dragon Origin martial arts stunt operating team
Willie Ying
Salman Haider
David Mei
Walid Hossaini
Beyond Wen
Benjamin Teh
Henry Cheng

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tuesday poem: And what remains

blinded he watches the play
words falling like tears

tracing the salt line
of frozen memories

last year’s hunk of lamb
still stiff in the freezer

outside, cloud gathers in
an upside-down mountain


one night she came to him
in white polyester pyjamas

traced her shadow
beside his on wallpaper

his fingers thrummed
against her cold skin

when the heart fails
blood pools in the peripheries


her glass music box
contained a Russian spring

yellow plastic daffodils
humming with melody

in her carved wood box
she keeps a single earring

false pearls lost in surf
at Karekare beach


his door frames the sea
when he holds it wide

a candle in an old bucket
makes a fluttering beacon

her feet squeaks among pebbles
finds the cracks in his mind

he paints her pink bike blue
so she can find the sky


feathers; a sea of bedded feathers
from snow-white geese

the slash of wounded duvet
gapes in surprise

the two of them laughing
in sudden snowdrift

kissing him was like
finding her lost tooth


a golden O swinging new
on both their fingers

a surprised mouth an O
the entrance to a cave

pushing in head first
O, he slips and she laughs

licks the blood on her lips
where love has kicked


his sweat stains
the stainless steel sink

the sodden whiff
of filled nappies

so this is house of dreams
this is the picket line

cracking the roses
of his mother’s last teacup


she’s made love to a man
on a white lawn chair at midnight

danced tango in Buenos Aires
with a man in an old silk suit

now she’s home to winter
the smell of rain on asphalt

bitter homemade lemonade
squeezes her tastebuds


chalk letters blow from asphalt
like children getting lost

crossing the road
the rain makes jewels in her hair

her umbrella makes
an upside-down mushroom

she finds herself wishing
for the burnt taste of his coffee


in Bangkok he sleeps
on beds without love

in Italy he sleeps on the road
while waiting for a ride

in Izmir stoned half-men
take his passport

in Kyoto his payment for sleep
is early-morning prayer


he sees his abuelo touching
a young lady’s knee

good touch bad touch
soft touch hard touch

the old man says
you saw it the wrong way

he feels his face melt
his ears and his soul


she looks like a frozen rose
petals held cold and stiff

her hands are ice crystals
melting in his cracks

her mouth like soft soap
fragrancing his shower

in the morning he wakes
to find her a puddle.

This is the full text of the series of interlinked couplets written for mine and Gaby Montejo's Metonymy collaboration this year. It has just won the 'best writing' award at Metonymy. Gaby is a Cuban-American artist living in Christchurch, and he and I met to collaborate during my locum there in July. As we navigated the red zone fences to find each other, wandered around the ruins and explored new areas sprouting with life and people away from the ruined CBD, we were struck by the very personal debris on display - torn from or lost, abandoned, cherished or forgotten by their owners.

We started emailing each other memories - small childhood moments, love stories, moments of loss, betrayal, intimate tales we wouldn't normally tell a stranger.
Couplets were constructed from those emails, put together in small narratives, then separated again. Strips of paper containing a couplet each were stuffed into small baby socks and buried, toe-up, in a baby bath containing 67 kg of Christchurch liquefaction soil which had been transported to Auckland for the installation. Viewers were invited to fish a sock out, find their own couplet and keep, swap or recombine the couplets to make new stories.

And what remains of stories after we lose them or give them away....

Monday, October 3, 2011

My work's been mixed and mashed!!

Just clicked on the winners of the Great NZ mix and mashup competition, and found out that the winning piece uses my poem "Crossed Cultures" and Dylan Horrocks' images from Siso! Allan Tia does a wonderful job (a few of his own drawings also feature). For his explanation of process, the judges' comments and a clickable link, go here. As my husband observed, "Comics make everything look cool".

Allan uses my poem in full, but a number of other entries combine lines from my poem with those of other poems - fascinating for me to see, and a rare insight into how others might see my words. Click here for all the entries to the 'literature' category.