Loose Canons: Chye-Ling Huang
Loose Canons is a series in which we invite artists we love to share five things that have informed their work. Meet the rest of our Loose Canons here.
Chye-Ling Huang is a Chinese-Pākehā director, writer and actress, and co-founder (in 2013 with James Roque) of Proudly Asian Theatre Company (PAT), which is dedicated to showcasing and empowering Asian storytellers in Aotearoa New Zealand. PAT’s productions include Lantern, Roots, the New Zealand premiere of FOB, and her own original scripts Call of the Sparrows and Orientation – the latter of which she is also directing for a season at Q Theatre (5-15 September).
Chye-Ling is the director of Asian Men Talk About Sex, a Loading Docs short documentary, as well as Like Sex, Nathan Joe’s award-winning B425 play. Through PAT, she runs a series of monthly play readings called Fresh off the Page which showcases Asian scripts, directors and actors, and provides mentorship with the NZ Film Commission.
Chye-Ling created The Han Chronicles, a two-episode TVNZ webseries based on her immigrant father in 70s New Zealand, and continues to work as an actor in theatre and film. Her recent acting credits include Te Waka Huia, War Stories and Ao-terror-oa’s Road Trip.
I was nine years old when Mulan graced us with her gender-bending presence. Mulan was the first Asian woman I’d ever seen on screen. She spoke English, she wasn’t a damsel in distress, and I was in love. I think Mulan counts for 80 percent of my personality and informs at least 50 percent of my artistic choices. I played with a Mulan figurine from McDonalds with my sisters for years, which is probably why I’m into puppetry. Mulan allowed me to embrace being a tomboy, made me love being Chinese and probably turned me gay. There’s a lot of Mulan in everything I am and do. Representation matters. It matters that she was my true heroine for way too many years. I should have had more options than Mulan, more characters I could connect with who reflected how I looked and who my family was. The reason I make work with Asian casts is to continue giving myself and others their Mulan moment.
Weirdly, my first work was devoid of sex or relationships. It was a deliberate play-against, as I had a female protagonist and didn’t want the thematic waters muddied. But since, I’ve directed and created works mostly about sex and sexual politics. I’m in an non-monogamous relationship and I’m pansexual. I get to connect with and see perspectives from multiple people from many backgrounds, genders, expressions. I’m fascinated with how sex is used and how we are used by it, and especially how the New Zealand psyche makes us prudish but clueless at the same time. Taboos around sex exist in both my cultures, Kiwi and Chinese. There’s a lot to deal with if you’re a Chinese Kiwi woman who likes sex, and the politics of sex are endlessly interesting to me.
James Roque and PAT
James Roque was in my very first audition for drama school in 2008. We both share the middle child syndrome, crammed in a bunch of three sisters. We both liked lame jokes and dumb gags. We both equally annoyed and inspired each other. And we were both the Asian kids in the class – along with Saraid De Silva and Jason Wu. We formed PAT to survive when there was no apparent career path for two Asian actors graduating drama school. We kept PAT going when we realised that this was bigger than us, and that our community was our biggest strength. I’m constantly inspired and humbled by the Asian theatre and film community and its resilience, generosity and downright talent. James is becoming famous as a comedian, and I’ve taken leadership of PAT now, but we still tight as bros that made something beautiful together that we could never have made happen alone.
When I was 19 I saw a show called Temple, by the Singaporean company Cake Theatrical Productions. It had punk rock, a live band of school kids that swarmed onto the stage, and the most terrifying SFX and projection I’ve ever seen. Having been back to Singapore and worked with The Finger Players, the coolest contemporary puppetry-based theatre company, I felt a strange sense of belonging. Asian actors performing in English and sometimes Malay and Chinese, surtitles (subtitles in the theatre) on everything, and puppetry and wild dramatic themes playing out within an hour felt like the Eastern and Western elements of my influences combining seamlessly in front of me. Though we are worlds apart there is a huge affinity with Singapore that I found as a diaspora Chinese maker. And simply seeing Asian faces for the first time on stage as full casts and layered characters was enough to make me enamored with Singaporean theatre forever. My fav plays of theirs are The Book of Living and Dying, Poop!, Roots and Furthest North Deepest South.
A Chinese Pākehā love affair
My parents, my family, my universe really. Everything I am and make is somehow connected to being biracial. I come from two supremely loving, wild, loud and dramatic families who are culturally so different but share so much. My Chinese dad from Malaysia taught us the food culture, acceptance of others and badminton, but never taught us the language. My Pākehā mum from Christchurch made traditional Chinese recipes using pasta, had craft skills for days and kept the name Huang even after they seperated, to maintain a connection to her Chinese kids and experiences. The juxtaposing histories of my two families will never not be wonderful and fascinating to me.
Orientation runs from 5 to 15 September at Q Theatre. Tickets available here.