Yen (Alan Zhu) is a nerdy and stubborn, albeit charming boy. Born to first-generation Chinese immigrants in 1970s Wollongong and one of only two Asian boys at school, he is taught the secrets to self-defence by his older self (Edric Hong), who reflects on the trials and tribulations of his own childhood in preparation for fatherhood.
A Practical Guide to Self Defence, a co-production between the National Theatre of Parramatta and Merrigong Theatre Company is described as “part play, part instructional guide”. Practical tips ranging from the technical: “how to fall”, to the personal: “never hurt your 姐姐 (older sister)”, and value-laden: “never turn your back on the enemy”, appear to be a medium through which playwright Hung-Yen Yang explores the use and misuse of violence in his own life as an Asian-Australian growing up in the 80s. Yang writes with such natural authenticity, it is difficult to believe this is his first play.
But to describe it as a play — in the traditional sense of the medium — would be a disservice to the incredible creative team (led by Director Dom Mercer) who blend genre to bring Yang’s writing to life. It is action-packed, hilarious, and absurdly dramatic — at times reminiscent of classic Kung fu comedies like Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer (2001) or Kung-fu Hustle (2004). It is simultaneously philosophical, as Yang ponders the dichotomy between good and evil that exists in all of us. It’s also rich in culture, with niche jokes about Zhejiang drunken chicken or Cantonese “superiority” leaving me reeling. Being able to resonate with these references in English-language media is a rare experience, and so it is worth cherishing every time.
But perhaps most interestingly, it is a distinctly modern play — adopting a hybrid format many of us have likely never seen before in theatre. The creative team uses music, animations, visuals of 80s Wollongong, Sydney suburbia, and Hong Kong to transport us back in time. The technology used to complement the play makes it feel like you’re watching a martial arts blockbuster, which is quite a spectacular achievement considering the play’s cast of two.
Edric Hong and Alan Zhu displayed an impressive mastery over martial arts and emotional story-telling, underlying the ins-and-outs of the play. With just the two of them playing the many side characters in Yen’s life, in addition to Yen himself throughout the ages – as he battles an American bully in Wollongong and Cantonese bullies in Hong Kong, enters Sydney Law School and spirals into alcoholism — both actors were a marvel to watch.
All in all, A Practical Guide to Self Defence is a hilarious, touching, and nuanced look into the Asian-Australian experience. It explores the racial discrimination that underpins much of the Asian diaspora experience. Being called a “chink” or mistaken for the “other Chinese kid” are experiences all-too-many of us can relate to. But the play ponders a more complex perspective: when you are often ostracised for being different, perhaps the question of “to fight, or not to fight?” should be directed towards the beast within ourselves, rather than the white kid who tells you to “go back to China”.
A Practical Guide to Self Defence is screening at the Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta from 25 to 29 October.
The play will also be performed at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre from 9 to 12 November.