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Lynda Chanwai-Earle in Kā-Shue, returning to the Auckland Writer’s Festival this month. (Photo: Dianna Thomsen Photography, Image Design: Tina Tiller)
Lynda Chanwai-Earle in Kā-Shue, returning to the Auckland Writer’s Festival this month. (Photo: Dianna Thomsen Photography, Image Design: Tina Tiller)

BooksAugust 15, 2022

The groundbreaking Kā-Shue returns

Lynda Chanwai-Earle in Kā-Shue, returning to the Auckland Writer’s Festival this month. (Photo: Dianna Thomsen Photography, Image Design: Tina Tiller)
Lynda Chanwai-Earle in Kā-Shue, returning to the Auckland Writer’s Festival this month. (Photo: Dianna Thomsen Photography, Image Design: Tina Tiller)

Sam Brooks interviews Lynda Chanwai-Earle, playwright of the groundbreaking New Zealand-Chinese play Kā-Shue, which is returning to the stage as part of the Auckland Writers Festival.

Paw Paw’s entrance in Lynda Chanwai-Earle’s Kā-Shue is one of the most memorable in New Zealand theatre. She’s in Hong Kong in 1941 as the sounds of Japan’s invasion approach, clutching a baby that is a few months old. She packs to flee the country, while directing a monologue, panicked and angered, at the child, about what she plans to do with her. She tries to find an heirloom, and then in a tragicomic moment, it’s been in her pocket all along.

It’s a moment that defines Kā-Shue (“Letters Home”). The show, which turns 26 this year, was playwright and journalist Lynda Chanwai-Earle’s first. It follows three generations of Chinese-New Zealanders sending letters back and forth to each other, from the aforementioned Paw Paw to Jackie, who ends up back in Beijing for the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. 

When Chanwai-Earle debuted the show at Wellington’s Circa Theatre in 1996, it broke new ground as the first major show by a Chinese-New Zealander that focused on an immigrant family across generations. There was no tokenism of the characters, nobody was pushed to the side or made a joke of. These were Chinese-New Zealanders, voices unashamedly loud.

Kā-Shue has since toured across the world, to Hawai’i, Ireland and China. It has been published, and republished. It is a prescribed text across high schools and tertiary institutions. The show has had a dream run by any yardstick – now including its return to the stage this year as part of the Auckland Writers Festival.

Lynda Chanwai-Earle as Paw Paw in Kā-Shue at the TAHI Festival in 2020. (Photo: Dianna Thomson Photography)

“It’s been really amazing revisiting it,” Chanwai-Earle says. “There’s been such a really lovely response to it, and a desire for people to see it again, It’s the first big theatre piece that I ever wrote, and it’s been such a huge learning curve from that very first iteration back in 1996.”

Even though the show has been performed, in both prescribed and professional contexts, for years, it’s been some time since she’s stepped into those roles herself – 16 years, to be precise. Chanwai-Earle last toured the show to Hawai’i in 2004, and it wasn’t until 2020 when she was asked to put it on its feet again at Wellington’s TAHI festival, which specifically focuses on solo work. 

She jumped at the chance. “Then I thought, ‘Oh God, I hope I still fit the costume!’ If I couldn’t, then I’d have to have another made, because I’ve had two children since then! That was my biggest concern.”

To be performing Kā-Shue again now feels like a celebration for Chanwai-Earle. “I remember back in 1996, there was an absolute dearth of material,” she says. “There wasn’t anything that was actually speaking to our communities, our Chinese-New Zealand communities at the time.”

Lynda Chanwai-Earle as Jackie in Kā-Shue at the TAHI Festival in 2020. (Photo: Dianna Thomson Photography)

The show wasn’t just the first Chinese-New Zealand show that Circa Theatre had premiered, it was the first major debut of a show that focused on the Chinese-New Zealand community in the whole country. Two things were important to Chanwai-Earle: to include as much Cantonese as possible, which was difficult because she didn’t speak it (though she is diligently learning, and the most recent draft incorporates more), and to avoid viewing history through rose-tinted glasses.

“Some of the members of the Chinese community were appalled by the swearing and some of the really in-your-face stuff,” she says. She remembers members of the Chinese Anglican Church walking out because they were offended, and another incident when she performed for the New Zealand Chinese Association.

“They had a big gala evening, I was in between weird flamenco-style dancing and dancers with faux feathers, and then there was me,” she says. She chose to perform Gung Gung, Paw Paw’s husband, a “well-dressed, addicted mahjong gambler” with two other wives and a concubine. Gung Gung is like the rest of the characters in the show: flawed, irreverent, but ultimately extremely likeable. So, you know, human.

It did not go over well. “There was a whole sea of Chinese businessmen looking at me all conservative going, ‘What is this woman doing?’” It was another moment where what she was trying to do with Kā-Shue was lost in translation; the bridge between communities seemed, for a moment, to be one-way. “I don’t want to sanitise our history. I knew that my grandparents would be turning in their graves every time I do the show, but I do it with a huge amount of love. I believe so firmly that if you sanitise history, it’s a form of racism.

“Every single community has warts and all, every single community. I think you pay homage more, you do it with more love, when you’re honest.”

Lynda Chanwai-Earle in Kā-Shue at the TAHI Festival in 2020. (Photo: Dianna Thomson Photography)

That desire not to sanitise history links into Chanwai-Earle’s other career: journalism. In 2001, she was hired to work as a reporter and producer on Asia Down Under, a weekly show running from 1994 to 2011 that covered the stories of the Asian population in New Zealand. She worked there for three years.

In 2011, she became the founding producer of RNZ’s Voices programme, which runs to this day, focusing on the experiences of immigrant New Zealand “beyond the confines of the ‘diversity’ checkbox”. She believes her time as a journalist strengthened the material she’s written, which includes 2008’s Heat, about climate change, and 2011’s Man about the Suitcase, about the real-life murder of a Chinese student, which toured to Beijing and was almost closed down by the government.

“It was a steep learning curve, because I didn’t have a broadcasting degree!” Chanwai-Earle says. “TVNZ and RNZ took me on despite the fact I didn’t have that in my background, but I think the cross-pollination of the two disciplines, journalism and the arts, complements each other in a really good way.”

It also made her recognise that her work as a journalist and her work as an artist serve a similar purpose: to platform unheard voices, to tell unheard stories. “Journalism is a beautiful way of getting to understand people in a deeper, more meaningful way,” she says. “In every single one of my plays since I started working as a journalist, I have been enriched by that experience.”

Lynda Chanwai-Earle in Kā-Shue at the TAHI Festival in 2020. (Photo: Dianna Thomson Photography)

Although Kā-Shue remains the same, with little tweaks from Chanwai-Earle, the context is different. Asian theatre, especially, is bigger than it’s ever been in New Zealand. Companies like Proudly Asian Theatre, Agaram Productions and Prayas Theatre are programmed around the country, to sell-out houses and rave reviews. Auckland Theatre Company’s Scenes from a Yellow Peril was one of the best-received shows by the company in a while. Kā-Shue is now one of many shows that an audience can see in a calendar year that platform the Asian community.

Chanwai-Earle remembers being asked back in 1996 how it felt to be a torchbearer. “It felt bloody lonely. It felt sad. I want to have lots of people around me,” she says. She points to herself performing all the characters, when what she really wanted to do was to be able to cast every character. There were only a tiny handful of Chinese actors working in theatre back then. When she names them, they don’t fill out a full hand – Helene Wong, Leighton Young, Gary Young, herself. 

Where she originally sat closest to Jackie’s age and had to reach back to perform older, Chanwai-Earle now sits in between each character’s age, a bridge and conduit between them. It’s an appropriate shift – in the time since she wrote the show, she’s been a conduit for many people, and communities. 

She’s most excited to perform Paw Paw, the steely-minded, steelier-mouthed grandmother who stubbornly, defiantly, remains in New Zealand despite her husband’s wishes. Paw Paw is an audience favourite as well – even though she has had the hardest life of the characters in the story, she’s also the source of the show’s biggest laughs. 

“She’s such a beautiful character, and she’s so much like my mother now! She’s carrying the family, and there’s so much on her shoulders.”

Kā-Shue continues to exist past Chanwai-Earle though, as it has for the past 26 years. If you’re a Chinese student studying drama, there’s damn few plays that have been published here – even now – where they could find roles that were written with a face like yours, a background that reflected yours, in mind.

“The deepest compliment I’ve ever had was a woman coming up to me and saying, ‘Oh my God, you’re the playwright, you’re Lynda’”, she says. “’I loved your play, it inspired me to become a drama teacher’.

“That’s the goal, right?”

Kā-Shue (Letters Home) will be performed as part of the Auckland Writers Festival with event dates from 24 to 28 August. 

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