Chop/Stick: Michelle Ang and Jo Holsted in Conversation

Theatre

15.11.2012

Chop/Stick: Michelle Ang and Jo Holsted in Conversation

Chop/Stick is a play of firsts: It’s the first full-length play Jo Holsted has written and it’s Michelle Ang’s first solo show – though she’s by no means a newcomer, having graced our screens on shows like Outrageous Fortune and more recently MTV’s Underemployed.

They're calling it an experiment. An exploration of ethnicity. “We took one Asian actress and turned her into a ballsy British casting agent,” reads the invitation to their script development session. “And a bumbling white guy. And his New Zealand Asian love interest. And you know, some others. If you can see where we’re going with this.”

You can, and you can’t, because regardless of how an ‘Asian play’ is packaged it’s still tagged with a set of preconceived notions about what it means to represent that experience onstage. You don’t expect it to be incredibly funny, for instance, but Chop/Stick is absolutely a comedy – as I discovered one afternoon in the boardroom at Planet FM, a community-access radio station located on a grassy knoll at the outskirts of the Unitec campus.

Both of them break into nervous smiles when I walk through the door. “Thank you so much for coming to our reading,” Michelle calls from the front. She’s clutching the script in her hand and bouncing on her feet.

“Do you want something to drink?” Jo asks. “We have tea, coffee– “

“Don’t forget the expired blood orange vodka,” Michelle adds.

“Oh yeah,” Jo smirks, because full disclaimer: we live together, and she knows which I’m going to pick (for the record: it was definitely still okay).

Two glasses and a play reading later, the three of us sat down to discuss the origins of Chop/Stick, the thorny issue of ethnicity and the lunches we ate as children.

 Jo

So in 2008, I was living in Barcelona and Michelle came and stayed with me for three months over the summer. I'd been working at a school –

Michelle

– and I had saved up some money and was taking intermittent jobs as a film set AD even though I couldn't speak any Spanish –

Jo

– and we were at a similar point in our lives, career-wise.  I had been doing a bit of writing, and Michelle –

Michelle

I had come off the back of a couple of seasons of Outrageous [Fortune], which was fun, but I'd gotten nervous that there wasn't much left for me to audition for in New Zealand. Looking back that was probably my own paranoia, but at the time it felt very real, and I felt limited a lot by my ethnicity and how the industry was looking at me as an ethnic actress, so I brought that to Jo, and we thought it'd be an interesting thing to write a play about, and it grew from there.

Jo

A one-woman play was sort of perfect, with Michelle playing all these characters that represented many of the things she wouldn’t be cast for, or wasn't being told she could be cast for –

Michelle

Yeah, it was a way of creating roles that seemed totally absurd that I'd ever have a chance to play.

[pause]

But we're also two representations of people who could be considered in-between, which is what we're trying to explore with Chop/Stick. The fact that it's kind of hard to have definite boundaries, because while I have the personal experience of having a Chinese upbringing, I was born in New Zealand. I also went to school in New Zealand. I have a lot of Pakeha friends – like, there are things I think are hilarious about Chinese culture when I look at them from a Western viewpoint, and likewise Jo went to a school where there were lots of mixed cultures and she's not, you know, a redneck white person –

Jo

Thank you!

 Michelle

[laughs] Well you know, you've experienced just as many cultures as I have, really –

Jo

Yeah, in terms of the in-betweeness we're so fascinated with, more than anything we wanted to have this conversation – this idea of face value –

Michelle

– and the quickness of people to assume there's a delineation between themselves and others - when really there's so many crossovers –

Jo

Yeah, the 'us' and 'them' thing is something we keep coming back to when we're talking about this. I don't even know who 'us' or 'them' is supposed to be anymore. But there still seems to be a sense of people being themselves and 'other', as though 'other' is a potential group.

Michelle

It's recognising that everyone is an 'other'. We're celebrating that nobody is that different –  like, everyone is different, but nobody is that different that they're no longer unrelatable and totally distinct from you, you know?

Jo

We've joked about this seeming like we're doing a disservice to people who are celebrating their culture, or their difference, but at no point have we ever wanted to say that you shouldn't celebrate your differences, or be proud of your cultural heritage. It's great to be proud of that. It's when you see yourself as being different from other people in a way that separates you from them: that creates a lot of misunderstanding. And it's especially interesting in a New Zealand context because – [shudders] – I hate the term melting pot, but you know, it's a prime example of a melting pot. It's unbelievable to me that there can be a sense of ownership of New Zealand. Even being a majority in New Zealand seems ridiculous to me, because you're one of so many different options of what can be considered a New Zealander.

Michelle

Yeah. I mean, immigration has made this country.

 Rosabel

Do you feel like you identify quite closely with your ethnicity?

Michelle

No. I forget. I feel like a New Zealander, and I forget that I'm one or the other. I've actually said things like, "Yeah, cos us white girls don't have any culture," and my friends have been like, "Missy, you're not white." [laughs] I was like, "Oh, shit, yeah." So because I recognise myself as a New Zealander and I guess the majority of New Zealand culture is white, you could say I don't relate to my ethnicity. But when I look really critically at how I live my life, and my values, and even the food I eat, I have managed to pocket these parts of my life which are still quite Chinese. But I guess I don't recognise them because that's how I've always lived.

[pause]

But you know, I wouldn't necessarily invite some of my Pakeha friends to my Aunty's place for pig's stomach soup, which I had last night [laughs].

Jo

[in an Australian accent] Sicko.

[laughter]

Rosabel

I find it interesting because I’ve had these similar experiences with how I relate to my ethnicity. I don’t feel like it forms a core part of my identity, but there have been situations where it’s been brought to the forefront, like – when I first moved here.  I was eight, and it was during that first big wave of immigration and I became friends with this girl from Hong Kong. And I remember her grandmother would show up every lunchtime with these little containers of food – rice and meat and things, and my mum would always make me ham sandwiches, because I guess she was quite aware that I was growing up in a different culture. But I just remember this one time when I was sitting with this girl and her grandmother, and her grandmother saw my ham sandwich and laughed at me. And she said something in Cantonese, and I asked my friend what she’d said, but she wouldn't tell me, and – it was really upsetting. I stopped eating lunch for about a month after that. I'd throw my sandwiches away, and eventually I stopped spending lunchtimes with that girl, but in retrospect it was around that point that I started quite aggressively rejecting my culture – because of the way that experience made me feel, because I felt like I was being ridiculed for not being a real Chinese.

Michelle

Yeah that's really interesting because mine is the opposite. I always felt weird being Chinese, but the irony is that my Chinese-ness isn’t very Chinese. My mum's attempts to make me be Chinese was from a very weird misguided place, because she wasn't educated in a Chinese school when she was growing up – she's actually fairly Western. And so it's made for a mixed bag for me too.

[pause]

I wish I got ham sandwiches.

 Rosabel

They're not that great.

Michelle

No, they were the best! I would have died if I’d had ham sandwiches.

Rosabel

What did you have for lunch?

Michelle

My mum would put things like kaya in my sandwiches, which is this coconut custard–

Rosabel

I LOVE THAT STUFF

Michelle

Yeah but it looks weird, and it smells weird, and it's very different. And it was not cool to have. No one wanted to trade sandwiches with me.

Rosabel

I would never have been allowed that for lunch. My mum would’ve said it'd make me fat.

Michelle

My mum pretty much MADE me fat. She gave me juice every day.

Jo

I feel like I need to tell a lunch story.

Rosabel

Tell a lunch story!

Jo

Well, I mostly used to make my own lunch, but when I was six or seven, my dad would sometimes make my lunch, and he would get a cookie-cutter, like a rabbit shape and cut it into my sandwich so it was a rabbit-shaped sandwich, and at first I thought that was so cool, and then one day I just got embarrassed by that, and I did the same secret throwing out of sandwiches. Which actually now is making me want to cry thinking of my dad doing that cute thing and me wanting to throw it out, but... I just wanted you guys to know that it happens to non-Asians as well.

[laughter]

 Rosabel

I was also kind of tickled when I first moved in with Jo, and she told me that she was writing “a play about Asians” –

Michelle

Was that one of your 'enticing selling points'?

Jo

That's my tagline.

[laughter]

Rosabel

– because last year, when I was studying, I felt at times that – oh, how do I phrase this –

Jo

You have to say ‘Asian writer’ at some point.

Rosabel

I know. Okay, I felt at times I had to be careful or I’d end up being categorised as an Asian writer. Which I don’t want to be categorised as. Or a female writer. They're definitions that trap you. And there are artists who work in that niche, where if they create something, they're going to create something that comments on their ethnicity or some other aspect of their identity, and I think that's quite limiting –

Michelle

But aren't writers taught to write what they know? If that is a very strong part of your experience, why not draw from it?

Rosabel

I’m not saying don’t draw from it, because you absolutely should. Anyway, what’s interesting to me is that Jo's written this play – and I think a lot of people might question what right she has to write about what it means to be an Asian person in New Zealand, or any ethnicity that's represented in the play that's not hers.

Jo

Yeah, it comes back to that. There are two white characters in the play and possibly, at face value, they might seem most like me because I'm white. To put it bluntly. But certainly the characters that I associate with most in the play are not those who look like me. And I guess that comes down to my experience growing up. I don't know. But when I was at primary school, for example, I had such a mixed group of friends –  I was friends with all the refugee kids. I had friends who couldn't speak English, and we'd just plait things together and enjoy each other's company. And so I never felt that 'otherness', or maybe I felt like I was the other, I don't know. There is something that seems inherently wrong about a white person writing about a Chinese New Zealand experience, whereas a Chinese New Zealander writing about a white experience doesn't have the same negative connotation.

Rosabel

Because it’s writing from a position of less power about one of more –

Jo

– yeah, and with my friends growing up, the topic of cultural difference and what was in each other's lunchbox came up as conversation but it was on equal ground. I wasn't looking outside my group of friends and saying, "Hey look at that person." I was observing my peer group –

Michelle

– and that places you perfectly as someone who can write from this very even standpoint.

Jo

I think so. I hope so. One thing I have to admit: I didn't go into this thinking "Oh my gosh, is this dangerous ground,” but definitely there have been times when I've thought, I can only write this experience because Michelle has had input into the script. And if she hadn't had input into the script, it wouldn't feel right for me to write this.

Rosabel

And it does raise those questions around authenticity and the contract that's made between you and the audience. For instance, if you'd written this play, but Michelle wasn't in this play – if you'd gotten someone else who didn't even look Asian – issues of power and politics aside, your audience would have questioned how ‘real’ the play was. And that’s interesting because if you're producing creatively, at what point does something become something you can't represent? I feel like there isn't a line, but I suppose I’m coming from a certain position –

 Michelle

I think there's no line too. You draw on the human condition and what you know of it to put yourself in that position.

 Jo

I think a lot of it has to do with intention. If you're writing about something that's out of your jurisdiction, then what’s your purpose for doing it? And it might be to entertain, but if you have the potential to offend, then just doing it for the purposes of entertaining – some people wouldn't be into that.

In the case of Chop/Stick, I feel like Michelle and I have similar intentions, but – and this is something that comes up for me often - I think being at present a majority talking about a minority, I have real potential to come off as patronising if I write in a certain way, which is not my intent. I'm not like, "Hey, Asians! You're alright." That's not –

[laughter]

– well, you ARE alright, but there are certain experiences Michelle has had where I've gone: what was the experience, wow that's really interesting, let's talk about that, and it becomes a discussion.

Rosabel

And it does change things when those scenes arise from genuine discussion, whereas if it was something you'd conjured for a laugh, you're essentially enacting the same kind of prejudice –

Michelle

–  yeah, you're relying on your own prejudices as a starting point.

 Rosabel

Exactly. Hey, so, now that it's at this stage where you're marketing it, do you feel like you're promoting it to a specific audience?

Michelle

This is the other thing. This is where we shy away, because obviously the arts foundations are very generous to encouraging emerging projects to speak to audiences that may not have been spoken to before. So we want to get people who don't normally get reached out to for theatre projects, and sometimes that means pulling the ethnic card, but you know I think it's good because with art, there needs to be a demand, and that's created when people want to hear the stories that are being told, so if we can get more people interested in this medium, then maybe there'll be more writers writing more varied stories, and it self-propagates.

Rosabel

That's actually why the idea of constructing your artistic output around ethnicity seems a little gross to me because I feel like a lot of that is actually birthed from funding.

Jo

Yeah. The idea of cashing in on your culture.

Michelle

It's weird, you know. But is it a necessary evil until it becomes a level playing field?

Rosabel

It depends on whether your motivation is to tell the story or to get funding.

Michelle

That's why our play is in the tone that it's in, because ethnic stories don't have to be told in that really drawn out, over-meaningful, overplayed way. There are other ways to explore it.

Jo

It's like the way you say 'I'm a feminist', and then you see things and think, "But I don't associate with THAT," because something that supposedly represents feminism makes you feel like, "Ahhh! That's not what I meant! You're the problem!"

Michelle

I mean, we want to broaden the voice of ethnic arts and create a new way to attack that category.

Rosabel

I think the label 'ethnic arts' is problematic in itself. The issue with a lot of those plays is that they're so on-topic –

Michelle

– yeah, it's heavy-handed, and the idea of the cultural aspect is so central there's no room for it to be a modern story - it becomes too thematic.

Rosabel

Exactly. It becomes about ethnicity. I feel like most good plays tackling an idea of identity will have that as part of something more universal. Like - Holding the Man - did you see that? Silo put it on a couple of years ago. And it  was about a gay couple, and one of them develops HIV/AIDS –  it was such a good play, but you know, it was about being gay, but it was also about losing someone you love.

Jo

And that's a very good point. If you don't associate with an ethnicity, then what do you come away from a play like that learning? "Oh, those people are that way."

Michelle

Yeah it's almost inviting more stereotypes from the people who aren't already part of the group that have been written about.

Jo

It is tricky, because of course when there are differences in society, you do need to tell certain stories, and there is something about people who are underrepresented in the arts, seeing themselves represented in the arts, making them feel like they're part of the community, but if the only way that they're seeing themselves is as 'other' –

Michelle

– and a very microscopic other – like really honed in and super focused on this one aspect –

Rosabel

– and if you focus on promoting something like that entirely to a specific audience, you are marginalising them. You’re saying, "Here's a little play for you guys, it’s about how you're always marginalised, here you go."

Michelle

It's funny because the irony wasn't lost on Jo and I. We're super, super grateful for the funding we've received, but we've had to do what we've been attempting to eliminate in our play, which was to brand ourselves and marginalise our audiences –  or say that we were going to marginalise our audiences. So it was clear we had a specific direction for people who could then help fund this. Not that we did it for the money.

Jo

It's a very strange situation to be in.

Rosabel

Going back to this idea of widening the scope of the types of stories that are told, one of the things I found really wonderful about Chop/Stick was that it was a genuinely funny and intelligent portrayal of the exact experience I had growing up in New Zealand. I think a lot of ‘Asian plays’ tend to be about fitting into a culture, and that sense of not belonging.

[pause]

I always felt like I existed in this weird halfway point where I was rarely a victim of prejudice, I was just completely acculturated in New Zealand culture and actually –  I felt like I had no right to be an Asian writer because I wasn’t a real Asian.

Jo

Aw!

Rosabel

Well, what kind of story could I tell? You know, "Oh, I had a ham sandwich." I've grown up completely embedded in Western culture.

Jo

And that's what's so silly. If you write what you know, then that's as Asian a story as you are. It's a nonsense phrase.

Rosabel

What about you, Michelle, do you like being labelled, or are you labelled, an Asian actress?

Michelle

Only when I'm writing funding proposals.


Chop/Stick is on at Basement Theatre Nov 20-24. Tickets are available here.

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