REVIEW: Single Asian Female (Auckland Theatre Company)

Review by Cynthia Lam

[A Celebration]

Written by Michelle Law and first produced by La Boite Theatre Company in Brisbane (2017), Single Asian Female has been adapted and transposed to Aotearoa for its Auckland premiere. Directed by Cassandra Tse, the play is a funny and heart-warming domestic drama that centres on the lives of three single Asian women: mother Pearl (Kat Tsz Hung) and her two daughters, Zoe (Xana Tang) and teenager Mei (Bridget Wong). This powerhouse cast of Asian women is supported by an equally strong supporting cast consisting of Zoe’s love interest Paul (Zak Enayat), Mei’s best friend Katie (Olivia Parker), and Mei’s frenemy Lana (Holly Stokes). 

Walking into a set (designer Rachael Walker) consisting of floating red lanterns, neon signs with Chinese characters, and a large television screen ideal for karaoke, we are introduced to the world of Pearl – family matriarch, single mother and owner of Golden Phoenix restaurant. The opening song ‘I Will Survive’ embodies Pearl’s strong and tenacious character, as she has done all she can to keep the family together when her husband deserts the family home.

The play explores the intersectional experiences of being both a Chinese migrant as well as a woman in a patriarchal society. When Pearl got married, her mother advised: ‘You are married now, you have to follow your husband’; in response Pearl addresses the audience: ‘I could have been a CEO. I could have a degree […] All of the women here should know that in this modern age, the world is your oyster. And you definitely do not need a man in that oyster. There is such thing as a vibrator’. It is this laugh-out-loud type of humour that keeps the audiences engaged as well as being a vehicle to explore serious issues such as racism and domestic violence. 

The denial of one’s cultural roots – as commonly experienced by many migrant children – is expressed through teenage daughter Mei. Mei goes on an ‘Asian purge’ to get rid of all things that remind her of her own Chinese culture – Hello Kitty doll, bright pink jelly shoes, puffy pink jacket – so that she can better fit in with her Kiwi peers who call her names such as ‘fob’ and ‘gook’.

The loss of one’s mother tongue in second generation migrant children is stated when Pearl criticises Zoe: ‘I speak three languages, how many languages do you speak?’ Zoe––who is suffering something similar to a quarter-life crisis as she sees all her friends securing mortgages and babies––navigates the adult world of dating and sex whilst going on countless auditions as she tries to secure a job playing the violin in an orchestra. When she meets her charming date, Paul, they realise they have many things in common with Paul coming from a refugee family. Zoe navigates the tension between living one’s life as one chooses while holding the fear of being judged, as she continually reminds herself that she is an independent woman who can do whatever she likes when it comes to her body and relationships.

It is the embodiment of strength and vulnerability that makes the characters in Single Asian Female so endearing. It was great to see such a charming cast of Asian women on stage, telling their stories in a frank and humorous way. Together with the soundtrack consisting of Cantonese pop songs by Aaron Kwok and Chinese classics by Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng, I was transported back to my own experiences as a Chinese woman growing up in Hong Kong and New Zealand. I believe that although the story recounted on stage was particular to the Chinese migrant population, universal themes of mother-daughter relationships, single parenthood, wanting to fit in with one’s peers and trying to carve a space out in the world for one’s self are experiences we may all relate to –– as Pearl wisely says: ‘food is the great equaliser, our stomachs are the same’.

Single Asian Female plays ASB Waterfront Theatre 27 April to 5 May, 2021. 

SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Renee Liang

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