The Chinese restaurant is a bastion of our urban culture. Birthdays in the suburbs spent with red lanterns, lazy susans and honey chicken dot our collective memory. While contemporary Australia’s lust for foodie culture and an ever refining palette may have moved away from the Red/Golden Phoenix/Centuries in the 00s, they still form culinary centres in our regional hubs. While we’re all familiar with the happy-go-lucky (or grumpy) nature of their restauranteurs, our culture has little to show for it outside of an outdated trope or comedic sketch, through an anglo lens. Single Asian Female puts the Chinese-Australian experience firmly at the centre, and explores womanhood across generations in the process.
Pearl (Hsio-Ling Tang) is a recently divorced woman with two grown children, trying to run a restaurant and deal with the ripples of an abusive relationship, the shackles of which continue to tighten even in his absence. Her elder daughter Zoe (Alex Lee) is struggling with a classic case of child prodigy who hasn’t met her own expectations, while younger daughter Mei (Courtney Stewart) is a highschooler trying to negotiate her culture in a world that derails it while simultaneously ripping off the parts it likes. The three women at varying life stages are all in a crisis of identity, of culture and of purpose, attempting to maintain strength in a society that subconsciously (and conciously) demotes them.
Written by Michelle Law in her debut play and directed by Claire Christian, the pace and dialogue is snappy and almost reminiscent of a sitcom, with some stylistic elements adding to a cinematic quality. When it works it’s clever (like a sharp ABC comedy), however in a few parts can move a little towards melodrama or caricature, but never too much to completely lose focus or fun. Hsiao-Ling’s Pearl is gutsy and heartfelt as Pearl, the harsh realities of her situation and past not losing sight of her humour or warmth.
The play, while focused on a family of Chinese women, is ultimately a reflection of us as a whole, through a migrant lens. Those who cohabit our spaces and serve us food have been central to Australian culture since the gold rush era, and our identity as a British nation is imaginary in comparison to our location at the bedrock of Asia.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Single Asian Female enjoys performances at the Belvoir Theatre in Sydney until 25th March. For tickets and more details head to: https://belvoir.com.au/productions/single-asian-female/
Photo features Alex Lee & Hsiao-Ling Tang. Taken by Daniel Boud.