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Breaking down stereotypes

Ka-Shue (Letters Home) is a story of love, laughter and loss, and spans one hundred years through the eyes of a Chinese family struggling to settle in Aotearoa.

“It's not a nostalgic or romantic look back in time,” says playwright, director and performer Lynda Chanwai-Earle.

“I am not sanitising history . . . and I'm certainly not hiding the warts and all that was within the Chinese community as it was trying very hard to fight the stigma.”

Ka-Shue was first performed by Chanwai-Earle with collaborator James Littlewood in 1996 at Circa Theatre in Wellington.

When the play first came out, Chanwai-Earle says it offended some Chinese New Zealanders who thought she shouldn't “air dirty laundry”.

Since then, the play has been celebrated and performed for decades. Ka-Shue is taught at schools and universities throughout New Zealand, even as far away as the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa.

Ka-Shue is a performance “close to the bone” for Chanwai-Earle.

“I am a poll tax descendant. My great-grandfather Dong Chanwai arrived in Wellington in 1907,” Chanwai-Earle says.

“My mother was just a baby when she and my Po-po (maternal grandmother) fled the Sino-Japanese invasion to become refugees on board the MS Wanganella bound for Wellington.

“Ka-Shue is a fictionalised account of my own Chinese family, the Dong clan of Bak-Chuen, Poon-Yue County, Canton.”

The play winds through three generations of the Leung family as they travel through time and over oceans — The Second World War, the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, the poll tax in New Zealand, £100 levied against Chinese migrants from 1883 to 1944.

Chanwai-Earle takes on the five characters as they battle through one hundred years of struggles.

Chanwai-Earle's real family faced more difficulties than just racism.

“One of the things my mother rebelled against was feeling suffocated within the Chinese community.

“They stuck to each other, they stuck to their own. Everybody knew what you were up to.

“You were bringing shame to the family if you were hanging out with a poor, white Pāhekā or gweilo (Cantonese term for a westerner) . . .”

Unfortunately for her grandparents, her mother didn't do as the Chinese community expected.

“She didn't marry the rich Chinese businessman that my grandparents would have preferred.”

Instead, her mother met a Pāhekā man at Victoria University and fell in love.

“Life is messy. People's relationships are messy.

“Human relationships are messy. I'm trying to break down the stereotypes, but sometimes I'm using those stereotypes with a bit of self-directed irony, playing with them and commenting on them.”

Ka-Shue is showing at Lawson Field Theatre as part of Te Tairawhiti Arts Festival tomorrow night. Tickets are sold out.

LETTERS HOME: Ka-Shue, by playwright, director and performer Lynda Chanwai-Earle, details the life of a Chinese family struggling to settle in New Zealand. Picture by Dianna Thomson Photography