[Pulled from the Past]
Anticipation for the opening night of Pork and Poll Taxes has been building within the Pan-Asian community for weeks – encouraged by a mesmerising trailer for the production which showcases the production’s fusion of movement and story. By opening night, the atmosphere in the foyer of the Herald Theatre is palpable.
It has been a long road of development since first time writer/director Talia Pua’s idea for the play was seeded when learning of the weighty Poll Tax imposed on Chinese migrants who came to Aotearoa in the late 1800s. Supported with funding from Creative New Zealand and the Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust, the script was developed as part of Playmarket’s Asian Ink playwriting scheme and Red Leap Theatre – with interviews conducted with descendants of those affected by the Poll Tax.
A full-house fills raked seats opposite a bare, raised stage and a row of flowing, bamboo-like structures contain ambient fluorescent lights. The stage floor is rough, with cream tiles adding a contrast texture to Michael Mccabe’s set. The end result is a canvas, ready to absorb the many creative lighting states that transport us from one scene to another throughout the non-linear narrative.
The production opens as Ah Ma (Jo Lo), the matriarch of the family, explains to the audience how she was blessed with a prosperous son, born the year of the pig, but will soon be parted from him. Her boy Jiu Choy (Benjamin Teh) is heading for San Gam Saan – New Gold Mountain – in order to grow vegetables in the fertile soil of Aotearoa, and build a better life, leaving behind his wife and two of his children .
Jiu Choy is joined by adult son Kam Loi (Kelvin Ta). Eager to help his father, he also has priorities of his own. Back home in China, Jiu Choy’s wife Shui Ching (Anna Lee) struggles to adjust to life without her husband and son – awaiting news by letter. But many months pass, leading her to believe Jiu Choy no longer intends to send for her. Little does she know that her husband is trying to raise the painstaking amount needed to pay her Poll Tax. Meanwhile, without her father’s presence, free-spirited daughter Yuk Chun (Celine Dam) reluctantly prepares for marriage.
The actors take on these main roles within the family, but as the story progresses they morph into other characters where necessary. Anna Lee becomes a kind-hearted vegetable customer, interacting with Jiu Choy and Kam Loi to provide much of the production’s light relief through stolen moments with them. These vignettes – of Jiu Choy and Kam Loi adjusting to life in Aotearoa – are both relatable and bittersweet. Celine Dam and Jo Lo become both larger-than-life male Chinese friends as well as Pākehā, abusive and aggressive towards the immigrants who have ‘stolen all the jobs.’
A real strength within the production is movement and dance, directed by Yin-Chi Lee, and the ensemble perform as one with feverish shapes evoking the harvest, the wedding preparations, and the family’s longing for one another. Celine Dam’s performance is expressive and engaging, and her natural abilities within dance provide a focal point for her youthful story (the other cast members more than keep up – and do so with overwhelming exertion). Repetition of choreography serves to bookend the production, acting as a timely aide for audience reflection.
Scenes explore tense family disputes which arise from Jiu Choy’s unwavering desire to bring his wife to New Gold Mountain and the cast showcase a well-honed cohesivity, often present on stage as action plays out with other characters – reminding us of the ties of family, no matter where we are in proximity.
The soundscape, designed by Nikita Tu-Bryant, fuses modern jazz riffs and beats with traditional, evocative phrases – giving the production the timelessness which Pua aimed for, not wanting it to feel ‘historical’. The question of ‘who am I and where do I belong’ continues to be relevant.
A moving tribute to those affected by the Poll Tax, and by divisive, racist immigration policies, Pork and Poll Taxes is a resounding success. A must-see performance from some of Aotearoa’s most talented, emerging actors and practitioners.
Pork and Poll Taxes is presented by Proudly Asian Theatre (PAT) and Hand Pulled Collective and plays The Herald Theatre 10 – 15th August, 2021.