Minh Ly is emphatic as he resists any attempt to pigeonhole his new play.
“I don’t see my play as a ‘gay play,’” the gay playwright insists. Nor is Ga Ting, premiering this month in Richmond, simply about Chinese-Canadian immigrant parents grappling with their gay son’s death.
“It’s about parents who happen to be Chinese immigrants coming to terms with that,” he agrees, “but I don’t see it as an ‘Asian play’ either.”
Ga Ting opens on a sombre note, in the aftermath of a gay man’s overdose, as his boyfriend Matthew meets his partner’s Cantonese-speaking parents for the first time. The parents, played by BC Lee and renowned Hong Kong television star Alannah Ong, didn’t know their son was gay and want to understand him better. Matthew wants to help them understand. But that doesn’t mean communication comes easily.
For Ly, Ga Ting (which means “family” in Cantonese) is ultimately about exploring the chasm of communication that can lie between parents and children. It’s about understanding loss and bridging gaps.
In staging the play at the Richmond Cultural Centre, in collaboration with Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre, the frank theatre company (formerly Screaming Weenie Productions) wants to explore new terrain and reach more diverse audiences.
Ly, who went to school in Vancouver and now lives in Toronto, hopes to offer “authentic” Canadian theatre “where what we see onstage reflects who we actually are, that we’re not all white.”
Matthew’s arrival with a bamboo plant for his dead lover’s parents prompts the Chinese couple to remark that Greeks, Italians and others of European ancestry all look the same to them. Meanwhile, Matthew struggles to understand why the parents can’t simply accept their late son’s sexuality.
“You care too much about what people think,” Matthew tells the father, Hong. “If you just let go of —”
“Do not tell me how to think until you bring up a family with nothing but your bare hand and having eyes that are different kind look you up and down and judge you,” Hong replies.
“It’s hard enough being an Asian growing up in a white society. That’s already a minus,” Ly explains. “I don’t want the parents to come off as just conservatives. They’re not bad people. They’re simply brought up in a different way; they have a different understanding of the world. I want the audience to also understand where they’re coming from and not to judge them.”
Hong, who has faced his share of discrimination as an immigrant and a visible minority, has struggled to fit in, to not stand out in a way that might set his family back. Learning his son was gay reignites that struggle and determination to fit in.
“A lot of times, I feel excluded from what it means to be Canadian,” Ly admits. “As a kid, I wanted to be white because I felt it would be easier to fit in. It’s not that I was rejected. But everything’s white, so it just made sense.”
“There’s no such thing as ‘the gay Asian experience,’” frank artistic producer Chris Gatchalian cautions as he cracks open a box of Ga Ting brochures in the theatre’s Downtown Eastside headquarters. “There’s gay Asian experiences.”
Reality, he says, is “always a little more complex. It’s not monolithic how immigrant families view this issue. That said, stereotypes exist because there’s sometimes an element of truth in them,” he adds. “We have to acknowledge that, too.”
Sitting beside Gatchalian, by the boxes of leaflets, is actor BC Lee. A one-term Non-Partisan Association (NPA) councillor and cultural diversity educator, Lee approached his portrayal of the father, Hong, from a universal perspective. In fact, his preparation involved watching YouTube videos of parents talking about their children’s suicides, as well as reflecting on the traditional Jewish father’s journey in Fiddler on the Roof.
Though he shies away from simplistic stereotypes, Lee says Ga Ting’s nuanced treatment of the parent-child chasm reflects a current common in many Chinese-Canadian families, including anxieties over being socially shamed for individualistic behaviour, an emphasis on the collective good, and prioritizing actions over phrases such as “I love you.”
“It’s a very common two-generation problem,” Lee says. “I don’t look at this as a ‘queer play.’ It’s about family, about the collective requirements of how you can be an accepted individual in a collective society.
“I think it’s more about survival,” he says, “surviving in a new strange place. For the parents as first-generation immigrants, that’s their basic instinct.”
In Lee’s experience, sexuality is something rarely discussed in most Asian cultures. He says he’s honest when asked about his own orientation but doesn’t necessarily volunteer or emphasize it.
“All my friends and family, all these years, they all know,” he says. “But there is one thing about outing is that in Asia we don’t talk about sex or sexuality; it’s not part of our conversation. It doesn’t mean I’m ashamed; it’s just never come up in a conversation.”
That the characters in Ly’s play are even willing to engage, albeit reluctantly at times, in genuine conversation with each other, shows Ly’s commitment to bridging gaps, onstage and beyond.
“Plays never really represent whole communities,” UBC theatre scholar Eury Chang notes. “They represent stories in communities.”
Chang wrote his PhD on representation of Asian and queer identities in Canadian theatre. He applauds Ga Ting for taking a complicated and nuanced view of culture — not simplifying everything down to “gay” and “Asian.”
“The audience might latch on to what it means to live in an Asian-Canadian family, but conservatism isn’t culturally specific,” he points out. “No culture is monolithically conservative or liberal.”
He chuckles over the phone, adding a reminder about Ottawa’s current Conservative regime: “I don’t want to get all political or name names, but we live in a particular country with a particular government.”
“Ly’s play is really complex,” he continues. “He reveals his characters’ prejudices and then tries to debunk those assumptions. [Ly] complicates what it means to communicate across those boundaries.”
Asked if the dynamics in Ga Ting resonate with his own personal experiences and identity, Chang turns the question around. Would he be less credible as a theatre scholar if he didn’t identify as Asian-Canadian? Or gay?
“In Vancouver, it’s too easy to use just two terms: queer and Asian,” Chang cautions. “I self-define in such a diverse way — even if my friends define me in a way more simplistic than I allow.
“When others do it, it’s beyond my control,” he says. “By asking me to self-define, you’re saying to pigeonhole myself. In theatre, we need those shortcuts. But in life, it doesn’t work.”
For Lee, the play is ultimately about communicating “before it’s too late.”
“I hope it helps parents who have a gay son and still have to find ways to understand and accept them,” he says. “But it’s not about, ‘You die, I survive.’ It’s about how we evolve together.”