Alice Canton is one of New Zealand’s strongest emerging artists, a graduate of Toi Whakaari, who has always been politically active in her work but who has, in her words, ‘inadvertently side-stepped making something about the Asian-New Zealand Experience.’ She does it now in this passionately delivered, thought-provoking one-woman show about what it is like to be a Pakeha-Chinese born in New Zealand, forever being asked where she comes from.
Prose and movement are finely distilled, reinforcing her point, underscored rhythmically by drum loops, and riffs of David Bowie’s ‘China Girl’. She is inscrutable, she is laid back, she has become accustomed and has not become accustomed to the slights made on the Chinese community in New Zealand, from the poll tax to people blaming the Chinese for Auckland’s house prices.
She feels condemned for being too ambitious and not being ambitious enough, for assimilating or not assimilating enough. She lists and recreates the clichés of Chinese women from James Bond temptress to Dragon mother. ‘We are Siamese, if you please’, echoes again and again around the room, as she makes a sheet ripple in the air. Canton keeps herself busy. She plays the drums, she winds up cable, and lays it down. She creates sound loops, shifting microphones into place as she goes. She allows gaps for the audience to think. She wants us to think. She wants us to listen. She wants us to understand that actually all this does have an impact on a person’s sense of self.
She is confrontational in her words but as often as not will not look at the audience. She seems to be opening up a difficult conversation that is too important to turn into a fight, and her body language is soft, open and vulnerable. It is rare to see an actress more in the moment than Alice Canton last night. She is not only highly accomplished as a performer, she is courageous and in this play she finds her voice.
This play is worth seeing for the performance alone, but also for the debate that we need to have in New Zealand. The Chinese Community has long been the third largest racial group in the country, and Auckland is home to people from more places than any other city in the world. We aspire to egalitarianism as the gap between rich and poor widens, to fair play as we offer our services as a tax haven, and racial equality, and yet, it is quite clear from this performance and other statistics, that this is not true. Kiwis pride themselves on not complaining. ‘You’ll get over it,’ usually stops a moaning child in their tracks.
And this is what proves that Alice Canton is a kiwi to me. It takes a huge amount of courage in New Zealand to stand up and say that she is not happy with the status quo and she clearly finds the whole thing upsetting. An older man, her father perhaps, comes and sings. He adores her and you can see he just wants her to be happy. She is smart, beautiful, talented and much loved. He is helpless: he would, I think, change the world if he could.
And yes, the great majority of people mean well and are kind. Yes, stoicism is part of the national character and is often a very valuable trait. Yes, people get asked where they are from a lot of the time and pay it no mind: it is a conversation starter usually. But surely we can have a debate about property speculation by non-residents without it getting stuck on race? Surely NZ children should learn NZ history and understand how we got to where we are, what we are doing right and where we want to go, what we want to be. Surely New Zealanders can cut out the gentle and not so gentle generalised insults and consider different ways people can do things? We feel threatened perhaps, and maybe it is our turn to show our vulnerability and courage to find out the real reasons why that is so.