Monday, November 29, 2010

A tale of a Chinese place nearly lost to time

Singaporean actor Aw Yeong Peng Mun stars as Crimson in Jade in the Coal, a bilingual play set in the lost Chinatown of Cumberland, B.C. Michael Ford photograph.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 29, 2010


They came from a distant land, carving a townsite from a Vancouver Island forest.

Segregated by law and practice, a Chinatown rose on swampland on the edge of Cumberland, a coal-mining town. The neighbourhood had a garage and a laundry, a bakery and a barber shop, green grocers and dry-good stores, churches and dens of iniquity. Wooden boardwalks lined streets with names like Sing Chong and Hai Gai.

Cumberland a century ago was large enough to support rival 400-seat opera houses. The attractions included traveling troupes of Cantonese opera performers who entertained miners and railway workers.

Today, all that remains of Chinatown is Jumbo’s Cabin, a shack last occupied more than four decades ago by Hor Sue Mah, a man of prodigious strength and a memorable nickname. He was Chinatown’s last resident.

The forest now reclaims land still littered with evidence of habitation — bottles, pieces of broken ceramics, lumps of coal.

“There’s still so many traces in the soil,” said Heidi Specht, an actor who has made pilgrimages to the townsite. “A place is gone, but memory remains.”

Ms. Specht found in the lost Chinatown the inspiration for a ghost story.

The result is Jade in the Coal, an innovative play performed in Chinese and English that is in production until Dec. 4 at the Frederic Wood Theatre in Vancouver.

The play, written by Paul Yee, who has won a Governor General’s award for children’s literature, is the result of a two-year collaboration among Mr. Yee as writer, Ms. Specht as director, Jin Zhang as composer, actors from three lands, and the musicians.

The play features the Guangdong Cantonese Opera Academy First Troupe from China, as well as Singaporean actor Aw Yeong Peng Mun, an internationally-renowned actor who is one of the last of the nan hua dan, a male performer who specializes in female roles.

“In the opera, it was men who played female roles at that time,” Ms. Specht said. “Women were banned from performing. The male who played the female would be like a sex symbol in a town where there are no women.”

Jade in the Coal tells the story of a Cantonese troupe inaugurating an opera house in rough-and-tumble Cumberland. A tour of the coal mines leads to the lead actor being possessed by the ghosts of miners killed in an explosion a year earlier.

“Our protagonist is a character who’s torn,” she said. “She was born in Canada and torn between tradition and being influenced by the white community, trying to fit in, caught between two value systems, eastern and western philosophies.”

Musicians perform on dizi (flute), xiao (flute), suona (oboe), erhu (two-string fiddle), gaohu (another two-string instrument), yangqin (dulcimer), as well as saxophone and percussion instruments.

An actor herself, the 44-year-old Specht has long wondered what the actors from China who performed here more than a century ago thought of life in small, rough towns like Cumberland.

“It’s such a contrast — the bleak lives of the coal miners with the rich colour and the love stories of the opera,” she said.

She researched the visiting troupes at the archives in Victoria and Vancouver, where competing theatres attracted large audiences. A rare contemporary account by a Caucasian witness described music that was “an awful racket” and dialogue that sounded like “an endless ‘gobble, gobble, gobble.’ ”

The play, a co-production of Theatre at UBC and Pangaea Arts, premiered last week. If funding can be found, the director hopes to take the production to Vancouver Island in the future.

On Sunday, the elders who as children lived in Cumberland’s Chinatown were to attend the play in Vancouver. Before the performance, they were to be interviewed about their memories of a place where fragments found in the soil hint at a once-thriving community. The interviews are to be recorded before being sent to the museum in Cumberland and the archives in Hong Kong, preserving for posterity tales of a place nearly lost to time.

A ramshackle Chinatown emerged on swampland on the edge of the Vancouver Island coal-mining village of Cumberland, B.C. Photograph courtesy of the Cumberlabd Museum.

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