Then-ness attaches itself to rosy nostalgia, as well as a deeply poetic sense of tragedy. In then-ness, everything tends to become bigger, better, bolder and braver. Black-and-white photographs of forebears stiffly striking poses for portraits, with their tints and taints (the photos, not the forebears) are, in their way, so much more colourful. This is the gift of the past, in storytelling. Now-ness, by dint of newness, is starker, sharper, more mundane. Or so we think, when we’re standing in it. But, of course, it, too, will give way to the romantic, for those who come after us and, like us, look back.

Annette Shun Wah and William Yang’s Stories Then And Now revives the intention of their earlier work, Stories East & West, under the auspices of Performance 4A, a company dedicated to “producing inspiring Asian-Australian theatre”. In both works, the company’s objective has been richly realised. The latest has curated and nurtured six personal journeys, related by the very people who’ve taken them. These have been broken down into Then & Now segments, to lend a gentle kind of suspense. The only ‘props’ are evocative family photos, projected on two huge screens behind the storytellers.

The first journey is Jenevieve Chang’s. It’s one that begins with her characterful great grandmother and an aristocratic upbringing in Hunan, south central China; the spicy province, if you want to pinpoint it in culinary parlance. And the birthplace of Mao, at whose hands Chang’s grandmother suffered. Mao might’ve thought it poetic political justice she be incarcerated in one of her own wheat silos. Politics weighed heavily on the Chang family, who were forced into decisions they mightn’t have otherwise made. Chang’s story is imbued with so much sadness, it’s almost a ready-made, tearjerking screenplay and, were it not true, it’d take the most gifted writer to contrive it. Chang’s grandparents journey to relative freedom meant leaving a daughter behind. Another died soon after. But their ‘little emperor’ and only son, Sam, survived. Happily for Jenevieve, who wouldn’t be here to tell the tale, otherwise.

Chang is cool, confident and natural, perhaps, as we learn, because she has a background in performance, albeit of quite a different kind; as a dancer (and actor, to boot). Sometimes, an “exotic” one. Her story makes for a beautiful bookend.

Ien Ang doesn’t come across as having any kind of theatrical training or experience, as such, but she exudes warmth, personality and seems to have performative instincts. More than is usual, arguably for a professor. What’s not unusual is for a young girl to fall in love with her father and, inasmuch, Ang wasn’t unusual. But her handsome father was Chinese-Indonesian, at a time when that populous nation to our north was ruled by the Dutch. And though his family had been Javanese for generations, the colonial masters saw fit to segregate ‘Chinese’ from Javanese, as colonial masters are wont to do. Ien’s father became a pawn for the Japanese invaders, too. They also underscored his ancestral origins by pressing him into service as leader of a Chinese militia with the objective of suppressing resistance. There was a rock. And a hard place. Mr Ang was between them. After the war, Mr Ang forgave, even if he couldn’t forget and enthusiastically set about pulling his weight in rebuilding his beloved nation. But anti-Chinese sentiment reared it’s ugly head yet again and an almost broken man scooped up his family and took them to the Netherlands.

Ang’s story is as sobering as Chang’s and reminds us the tide can quickly turn against us. Without warning. And without justice.

Michael C. S. Park is of Korean extraction and has worked as an actor, editor, video journalist, screenwriter, director, business analyst and academic. (One thing’s for sure, he’s a charmer.) Perhaps his parents’ early misfortunes have kept him unsettled and seeking. After all, both experienced crushingly cruel abandonments. But despite aching tragedy, Park chooses to leaven the telling with playful humour. I wasn’t close enough to see the twinkle in his eye, but I’m sure it was there. The result is irresistibly engaging and not even a momentary “dry” could dissuade the big love being sent his way.

Willa Zheng’s story afforded an insight into the nascent Chinese communist state to which we haven’t necessarily previously been privy. Who would’ve thought notions of class would still have pervaded the implied egalitarianism of its underpinning philosophy? Too naive? By half? Maybe. This was, of course, a kind of class revenge. An inversion which afflicted her bourgeois grandparents, who were barred for the party and, as such, remained ineligible for promotion. But her family kept a low profile, kowtowed to the powers that be and bided their time, which finally came. The comic treasure embedded in Zheng’s yarn is her grandmother’s unauthorised, secretive alteration of her father’s uni application. From accounting, to hospitality management.

As a performer, Zheng isn’t quite in the same class as, say, Chang, but it doesn’t diminish or tarnish her story in the slightest. Besides, she’s not really a performer, so can’t, perhaps, be judged against the same criteria one would apply to other theatrical ventures. One of the uplifting effects of narratives like Zheng’s is they foster forgiveness.

Sheila Pham’s grandfather loved French and, fittingly, worked as a court interpreter in French colonial South Vietnam. Despite a well-to-do background, through a series of almost unbelievably catastrophic events, her father ended up orphaned and homeless. However, his eldest sister eventually took him in, but more as servant than sibling and a photo of him as the only shoeless child in a family portrait is heartbreaking. That was just the beginning of his woes. And hard labours. But Pham’s courageous father  was master of his own destiny; captain of his own boat which, as it happens, took him, indirectly, to Australia.

A little like Zheng, Pham’s performative appeal is an endearing shyness. And, again, it’s another utterly compelling saga.

Paul Van Reyk, like Chang, has a disarming naturalness about him, peppered with some put-on panache. His spiel is built around his jingle; his mantra. “Burgher buggers make better bastards!” I’m sure you know what a bastard is. And a bugger. He elaborates, of course. A burgher is a Sri Lankan ‘born of the dalliances and marriages between Portuguese, French and Dutch spice merchants and military on one side of the bed and Singhalese and Tamils on the other’. In his case, however remarkable his ‘then’ is, his “now” will have you agape and aghast. Suffice to say, if the kooky Christian lobby’s offensive and hyperbolic outburst of recent days is any guide, he’s its public enemy number one. And loving it, I expect. For Van Reyk seems to have enough room in his heart to love everything. And everybody. Without fear, favour, or prejudice.

Stories Then And Now is not only nourishing theatrically, but socially. It’s important work. Vital, in every sense. Go and get a heapin’ helpin’ of unbelievable truth.

The details: Stories Then And Now played CarriageWorks on May 22-25.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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