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Interview with the playwright Amy Ng on cultural taboos, rebranding towns and the world premiere of her first full length play

 

        SHANGRI-LA by Amy Ng

      Finborough Theatre 12 July to 6 August 2016

 

Meeting Amy Ng for the first time, we shake hands a little formally before getting straight to the question of cultural differences and a line from her play “— What are taboos but lines drawn in the sand?”  This has a special relevance to her understanding of shifting cultures.

“Having lived in so many different countries, taboos are a man-made invention.  Taboos feel like they're from time immemorial but they’re so not.  Every generation changes.”

For Victorians sex was taboo but death wasn’t and now it’s the other way around.  Ng has personal experience of this.  When her father in law died, she saw people “crossing the street in order to avoid speaking to my mother-in-law.” These taboos manifest themselves in different forms as Ng told me: “In Japan death and sex are not taboo and I found this fascinating.  Their cemeteries are in the middle of town and sex toys are arranged right next to the children’s toys in department stores.”  

 

The play is about tourists going to Tibet and breaking other people’s taboos for their own journey or quest for enlightenment. Ng goes into more depth:

“People are more uninhibited about lots of things — sex is the big one, of course, when they go abroad because they won’t be caught, but also they are out of their own culture and the norms governing it.  The natives are so much ‘the Other’ that their taboos don’t appear to matter as much as yours.”  

Ng is from Hong Kong and has lived in London for seven years.  Her brother ran a tourism company in Hong Kong and it was her experience of helping him in his business that gave her the idea for the play.

“He flew me in to talk to his clients, to be an expert in Tibet.   He was a management consultant who set up the first national park in the Himalayas.  Nothing quite went according to plan.  He left eight years later quite disillusioned.”

There’s a connection here with other National Parks such as Yosemite in California.  The indigenous people were told they could no longer fish.  They cannot do their ancestral thing because its protected now.

 

Ng herself is quietly spoken, with a neatly groomed appearance and an engaging manner.  She speaks honestly about her writing and how much is fact and how much is fiction.

“I started from real stories but it’s got further away from the facts.  The characters are composites of people I’ve met.”  Then she confides that she’s “a bit worried”.   Her brother wanted to fly some of these guys in (on whom the play was partially based) to watch the play.  She just said ‘”NO” because there’s little pure invention: “I just rearranged facts, and compressed time lines”.

Ng explains that in the play the protagonist has problems to solve: “She imagines that travelling to a mythical paradise will magically solve her problems, but she doesn’t realise how much havoc her presence creates because of the multipliers of wealth and geo-political power.’

 

The background to the play follows on from the 1939 film ‘Lost Horizon’ in which a plane crash delivers a group of people to the secluded land of Shangri-La – a utopian ideal.  Set in the foothills of the Himalayas, this place is a fictional town in the novel by James Hilton.   However, in the nineties several towns competed to change their name to Shangri-la for the purposes of developing their tourist trade.  

As Ng points out: “It’s a name dreamed up by an English writer which has now been adopted by a real town. It has succeeded in pulling in tourists but so much has been destroyed that it would probably have been better not to have been renamed.”

 

This raises the question of whether the Tibetan town chose to rename itself to keep pace with the changes to the region or to create those changes.  

Ng’s thoughts are that she “would like to believe there is a unique way for each culture to modernise — modernisation doesn’t mean Westernisation.”

One of the fallacies of sustainable tourism is that people must keep their traditions, for example not have mobile phones but as Ng says “there is a kind of condescension to say they cannot have these things.”

“If people have enough agency in their lives, they will find a way to modernise” The argument is that sometimes this happens too fast.  Ng continues to explain: “A town may be isolated, it takes 30 hours by bus, yaks and rough tracks then suddenly its within 2 hours flying time of Hong Kong.  It’s the speed of change which causes the problem.  It’s too overwhelming, people need time to assimilate change.”  It’s a top down thing. It will make some very rich, but the major beneficiaries are not the local people.  There are obviously investors who make money.

It’s Ng view that “it’s sad going from herding yaks to selling souvenirs made in faraway factories.”

 

As Ng has been living in Herne Hill, and has children at a school here, she has seen some parallels to the play’s themes.  “Ten years ago, grand old house were little bitty flats and now yuppies have moved in, there are posh cafes.  Most of Herne Hill is owned by Dulwich Estate (the charitable trust behind Dulwich College); a lot of independent shops have been driven out and are now empty because they want posher shops to come in.  Now they want to build on the state school’s only playing field.  This angers local people and is depressing because they feel powerless.  These institutions always get their way in the end.”   Although it’s not the same as fighting the Chinese government and foreign investors, it’s on the same spectrum.

This gentrification is happening In London all the time.  Ng laughs at the irony and wonders whether “Kilburn will become North Notting Hill” just as West Hampstead is now associated with Hampstead, and West Kensington with South Kensington.  Ng tells me about Peckham Rye where the fashionable corner is called Bellingdon Village.  “Here on one street there are chocolatiers with handmade chocolate truffles, round the corner pound shops and Caribbean supermarkets.  Houses have gone up 3 times in price.”  There is gentrification of many other places such as Staines to Staines-upon-Thames and Clapham which is now pronounced Cla’ham.  Nine Elms in Battersea is next with the building of the new American Embassy.

 

The importance of language reminds Ng of the play by Brian Friel, Translations, in which Irish place names are changed by the English, with the Irish losing their cultural identity in the process.  The play has been useful for other reasons as they have used it during the rehearsal process.  According to Ng its “logistical”.    When speaking in Chinese, Tibetan and English they are referencing Friel on how to do this theatrically.  

This is a reminder that Ng is a new playwright and this is her first full length play.   She is constantly changing text when things aren’t clear to the actors.  Part of her role in the rehearsal room has been to explain the back stories to make things land more — for example, the actors had not realised that the name of Shangri-La had been won in a competition in the 1990s.  She has also been working collaboratively with director Charlotte Westenra on practical script edits, such as allowing the actors time to change.  

Ng has learned much about the process: “It’s Important to understand your place.  The director is the interface with the actors and I’m asked for background knowledge: what does this line mean?  I don’t say it to the actors because Charlie wants them to discover it for themselves.  We talk a lot at the end of the day about whether things need changing.  I’m also quite involved in producing, for example marketing to the Chinese community.”

We also discussed other creatives working on the show.  

 

Composer Ruth Chan is an East Asian composer.  She’s been working on it for two weeks bringing traditional Chinese instruments and orchestras to be used during scene changes.  

The protagonist is Naxi, a tribe famous for their music, so Nai music has been incorporated into the score.   The designer is based in Hong Kong and he’s just graduating from the Royal College of Drama in Wales having already worked a lot in Hong Kong. Ng “really didn’t want red lanterns” and what she likes about Yatkwan Wong’s designs is that they are: “Modern and abstract.   He’s been inspired by a yurt, it’s really abstract as in my stage directions (a tree a yurt and wings) He’s using the height of the Finborough space”.

 

Considerable research has gone into the play.  Ng herself is a historian with a research interest in multinational empires, imperial decline, and nationality conflict. She believes that it’s not as simple as one culture imposing itself on another for its own selfish consumption.   “There are moments of genuine contact in the play. In rebranding there are always winners and losers.  In Shangri-La there are locals who have hugely benefited; maybe in the long term there’s a turning point.  But in the short term it has aggravated inequality and it’s the same in London.”  

They are partnering with Tourism Concern, a charity devoted to sustainable travel who are showing a documentary ‘Framing the Other,’ about the ethics and sensibilities involved in photographing other cultures, post-show on Thursday 21st and Friday 22ndJuly.  

Other important issues in the play include food security for the Tibetan people.  In one example, subsistence Tibetan farmers have now switched to growing Cabernet Sauvignon grapes for red wine production.   Ng explains “they used to grow crops, but now prime sites are being used for growing grapes on the steep slopes which are ideal for it.  But they are so heavily farmed, and need so many pesticides that the land can no longer be used for traditional crops. Moët Hennessy is bringing out a red wine from grapes grown in Shangri-La, priced at $300 a bottle!”

 

Amy Ng was chatting with Heather Jeffery, Editor of London Pub Theatres Magazine

 

SHANGRI-LA by Amy Ng

FINBOROUGH THEATRE

12th July to 6TH August

Box Office 0844 847 1652  

Book online at www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk  

SHANGRI-LA by Amy Ng

Directed by Charlotte Westenra. Presented by Matthew Schmolle in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre and Yellow Earth Theatre.

 

FINBOROUGH THEATRE 118 Finborough Road, London SW10 9ED

12th July to 6TH August

Box Office 0844 847 1652  

Book online at www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk  

 

“You like your minorities like your pandas – picturesque, cuddly, endangered, helpless.  But I refuse to be a panda.  I refuse to go extinct.  I want to live, to live well, to live like them, and if I have to – — Break a few taboos?  

… What are taboos but lines drawn in the sand?”

 

 

 

 

Shangri-La is Amy Ng's first full length play. It was developed at the Tricycle Theatre and received a staged reading at Vibrant 2014 - A Festival of Finborough Playwrights. It is directed by acclaimed director Charlotte Westenra.

 

Playwright Amy Ng trained on the Royal Court Theatre's Critical Mass Programme and the British East Asian Writers' group supported by The Young Vic. Short plays include Special Occasions (St. James Theatre and Arcola Theatre) and A Little Night Music (Bread and Roses Theatre and The Space). Staged readings include Acceptance as part of Vibrant 2015 - A Festival of Finborough Playwrights. Prelude to a Feast won the Oxford University Film Foundation competition for Best Short Screenplay. Amy is also a historian with a research interest in multinational empires, imperial decline, and nationality conflict, and the author of Nationalism and Political Liberty (Oxford University Press)

 

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