Asian representation in Western media has been historically reductive, shallow, and blandly stereotypical. Australian theatre is still predominantly white and monocultural, such that playwright Michelle Law, writer of Miss Peony (Belvoir), Top Coat (Sydney Theatre Company), and Single Asian Female (Belvoir) has expressed a deep sense of exclusion from the industry as a person of colour.
Directed by Courtney Stewart, Miss Peony joins a new wave of Aussie plays attempting to shift this racial balance. Plays such as Laurdina (Melbourne Theatre Company) and A Practical Guide to Self-Defence (Riverside National Theatre of Parramatta and Merrigong Theatre Company) place the Asian-Australian experience at the centre of theatrical narratives. But in doing so, Miss Peony may have bitten off more than it can chew.
In Miss Peony, the blinds open, and Lily’s grandmother (Gabrielle Chan) dies. A long-standing icon in Miss Hong Kong pageant circles, 婆婆 (Pohpoh) makes a final request for Lily (Stephanie Jack): to continue her legacy by winning Miss Peony, the pageant competition established by Pohpoh for the Chinese-Australian diaspora.
Except Lily is fervently opposed to the idea. To Lily, Miss Peony embodies all that is wrong with Chinese culture: conservative and patriarchal values that reduce women to their mere physicality. Valuing women for their “traditional” and “domestic” qualities would not fare well in contemporary Australian society, Lily suggests.
But to Pohpoh, who returns as a tortured ghost to essentially convince Lily to enter the competition and to guide her through its unnavigated depths, Miss Peony is about cultural pride. It’s about the establishment of a Chinese community in a country where you are othered, in a culture of immigration that encourages assimilation, stripping generations of their distinct cultural heritage in favour of blending in with a singular view of the “Australian.” Chan plays Pohpoh perfectly, embodying the endearing but stereotypical Cantonese grandmother: (head)strong, sharp-witted, and so crude that she could bring any Jordan Peterson typecast to tears.
Miss Peony pushes against this culture of ‘assimilation’ by embracing the complexities of a Chinese identity. This is evident in the innovative trilingual presentation of the play, made possible by an army of translators, creatives, and engineers in an attempt to “decentralise English and the spoken word while making theatre more inclusive and accessible to historically excluded audiences.” The entire play was subtitled in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English, allowing for seamless shifts in language. It’s an exciting time in Australian theatre – and it’s about time to welcome more experimental modes of delivery that value the experiences of non-English speaking audiences.
The work of the production team really shines in the second half of Miss Peony. The lighting by Trent Suidgeest captures the glamour, glitz, and garish flamboyance of a Miss Hong Kong pageant show. Accompanied by Nicholas Ng’s music score, which enters an eclectic realm of 70s/80s Funk, Motown and Cantopop, as well as Julian Starr’s use of sound, which facilitates the play’s ambitious plot where the afterlife intertwines with the present reality — you are immediately immersed in the world of the beauty pageant. The cherry on top was Zhenhua’s (Charles Wu) charming rendition of the stereotypical pageant host, his live performance of Jay Chou’s sappy 2016 hit 告白气球 (Love Confession) being an unquestionable highlight of the night.
Whilst the play delves into the competition, the relationship between Lily and Pohpoh remains at the crux of Miss Peony. Like many second or third-generation immigrants, Lily questions the place of “traditional” Chinese values in Australian society; she laments the exclusionary behaviour that consequently flowers from this rigidity within her own community. It’s a classic subversion of the in-group favouritism theory, as well as an exploration of East-West values and the meaning of cultural authenticity.
It’s quite ironic then, that the play’s ambitious exploration of these age-old themes lacked the emotional potency that audiences would’ve expected. Lily repeatedly whines about every perceived Chinese value or stereotype which she dislikes or even views as morally abhorrent, such that it feels gratuitous at times, sacrificing the authenticity of Jack’s delivery. Through Lily and Pohpoh’s relationship, we see an exploration of what it means to be Chinese, an impossibly complex question that somehow seems to resolve itself within this two-hour production (in favour of Lily). This unfortunately resulted in what was a deeply unsatisfying and rushed conclusion to the play, lacking the nuance that diaspora communities deserve.
These awkward conclusions were thankfully assuaged by the symbiotic casting of Shirong Wu, Deborah Faye Lee, and Mabel Li as the other pageant contestants Joy, Marcy, and Sabrina, all of whom represented different cross-sections of the Chinese community. Li delivered a standout performance as Sabrina — a hilarious caricature of the Western Sydney Chinese girl. Her impeccable humour, muzzing, and overall charming brashness were the titular subversion of Chinese stereotypes for sure.
Despite these critiques, Miss Peony remains an enjoyable experience celebrating the diverse identities of the Chinese diaspora in Australia. It welcomes innovative technologies and a dynamic cast that transports you to a nostalgic time in pageant history.