Yang/Young//杨 is a brand-new Gen-Z coming-of-age story with a Kiwi-Asian twist, part of Auckland Theatre Company’s Here & Now Festival. Co-writer Sherry Zhang reflects on writing her first play.
I never thought I’d write a play. In a scene that puts High School Musical’s Troy Bolton to shame, I chose the rowing team over the high school musical in Year 12. Maybe no one really sets out to write a play. There are far superior… sexier writing jobs out there. Author, poet, journalist, copywriter? Hot. But a playwright? Messy, emotional creatures!
Nuanzhi Zheng, my co-writer, is to blame. Though to be honest, I don’t think she ever set out to write a play either.
I met her three years ago participating in the 2017 season of Other [chinese], a live documentary theatre show at Q Theatre on being Chinese in Aotearoa. We both thought the other was hilarious. We liked the same films – Lady Bird and Easy A. We bonded over the painful and tender connections we held with our mothers. As these are apparently the only three things needed to cement a friendship, we ended up hanging out even after the show ended.
As we turned 20, we couldn’t stop overanalysing our own coming of age, and the fact we never saw faces like ours, voices like ours or stories like ours reflected back.
So we started dreaming up the characters who later become Qiu Ju Yang and Poppy Young, our darling protagonists of Yang/Young/杨. We drew outfits for them. Made playlists for them. We interviewed our friends and asked them about their time in high school. We split Qiu Ju and Poppy between us, so our own distinct storytelling style became embedded in each character’s voice. It’s your classic coming-of-age story, but from a queer, Chinese-New Zealander lens, and intersected with surreal fantasy elements – two separate but intertwining storylines, with family and friendship at their core.
At first Qiu Ju seems like your typical “perfect” Chinese daughter. She’s quiet, obedient, takes care of her grandma and plays the clarinet in the school orchestra. But she’s wrestling with her sexuality, her desires for something else and frustrations at being boxed in. It’s not your usual coming out story, because not all of us can Love, Simon it: hug our parents and be chill. It’s not about finding the perfect girl to fix everything, but realising you’ve always been enough.
Poppy, on the other hand, is your classic “it” girl. She’s popular, dating the golden boy, and a spoken-word poet. As an ex-spoken-word poet, I can’t imagine what’s more cream of the crop when it comes to high school social hierarchy. However, when her boyfriend breaks up with her, she starts spiralling and does the terrible teenage things we’ve all done when heartbroken. And through her search for validation and connection, she finds it at home where it’s always been.
Despite our broken smattering of Mandarin and Shanghainese, we knew our story needed to be trilingual. To weave in between the languages, just like the way our families raised us in their mother tongue in Tāmaki Makaurau. Some of the scenes we wrote separately in our bedrooms. Other scenes were loud yelling and devising affairs, us bantering off each other.
Writing can often feel lonely, but co-writing meant it always felt like a conversation. We were generous and constructive in the criticism of each other’s writing. I could trust Nuanzhi to tell me if a line didn’t land right, wasn’t funny, or just kinda redundant. And boy, did she. Our writing partnership didn’t just appear from day one. It took a year of not writing and just eating at BBQ Duck Cafe, talking about our teenage angst, and going to art together to figure it out.
In the four years since we started writing the play, a lot has changed.
At first, it was going to be a super-small, low-budget, two-person show. All other characters were represented by props. We’re both still surprised Timothée Chalamet is now a real boy, rather than a face on a broomstick. Our dramaturg Nathan Joe became our director. Our storytelling family grew larger, with a cast of gorgeous, funny, warm and intelligent young actors brought on by Auckland Theatre Company’s Here & Now Festival. We’ve got lighting, sound, design and stage managers!
And in those four years, the landscape for Asian creatives has also changed.
Proudly Asian Theatre has always been pushing for Asian storytelling excellence. They were the ones who advocated for us to be in the room with ATC, and their collaboration with ATC on Single Asian Female brought us one of the first east Asian main-stage plays in Auckland a few months ago.
Creamerie graced our TV screens. We finally got our first Filipino nurse on Shortland Street. Recently, the first anthology of Asian New Zealand writing, A Clear Dawn, was released. The tide is turning, and we’ve had enough of being side characters.
Look, even I’ve come a long way. When I was five, I only wrote stories about white girls with blonde hair. Because that’s what I thought stories were. But in the last four years, we’ve also had a global pandemic. My grandma passed away in China, and I couldn’t attend her funeral due to travel restrictions. Anti-Asian hate has been on the rise, from everyday racism to real violence. There are questions within the community about colourism, privilege, racism and queerphobia.
There are so many voices, stories and perspectives. There is so much more mahi to be done.
It’s been overwhelming watching a world we’ve been chipping away at for the last few years come alive. Sure, we thought we were funny. But it’s another thing sharing it with our cast and crew, and seeing them laugh, grow quiet, cry, and laugh again from our words. It’s going to be so much seeing a room of strangers resonate with our stories of growing up in Tāmaki Makaurau.
The play is a mash-up of our diary entries, dreams, fears, fantasies and hopes for our generation and the next. It’s a love letter to our parents and grandparents who raised us. And it’s a reckoning of our whakapapa, our ancestors, who we’ll always hold in our storytelling.
It’s a celebration of our community. Giving aroha to our best messy teenage selves.
Sherry Zhang is co-writer of Yang/Young/杨, part of Auckland Theatre Company’s Here & Now Festival, on at Basement Theatre July 23-30.