by Al Campbell
VANCOUVER, Nov. 26 (Xinhua) -- A bit of Chinese history, that of the Canadian variety, is about to be told in Vancouver starting Friday with a new musical play chronicling the lives of early Chinese settlers in a country that wasn't exactly rolling out the welcoming mat for people that were essentially viewed as aliens.
The Red Letters, a two-act play by Alan Bau, narrates the struggles of early Chinese in Canada in a society where they faced extreme racism and exclusion through a series of government policies that tore apart many families.
The play comes four years after the Canadian government formally apologized in 2006 for the country's racist practices of the early 20th century. At the time, Chinese immigrants were charged a 500-Canadian-dollar head tax to enter the country, a huge sum in the day, and were the only group levied with such a charge.
To add to insult, the Exclusion Act of 1923 effectively banned all forms of Chinese immigration to the country, effectively tearing apart thousands of families who could not be reunited. After recognizing the contributions of Chinese during the Second World War, Canada repealed the act in 1947.
Set in 1922, Red Letters puts Shen, the play's young protagonist, right in the thick of the racist times of the era. As a young farmer in a Guangdong village who is about to marry his childhood sweetheart Mei, Shen dreams of a family and providing a better life for them -- all his dreams can be answered with a move to Canada, the so-called "Gold Mountain" where fortunes are made.
After securing his ticket to Vancouver through a series of loans from his parents, in-laws and the villagers he has grown up with, the young Shen arrives to a job waiting for him in a Chinese laundry of essentially long hours of menial work and more hardship in a strange land. With his new bride pregnant back home, his sense of alienation is even more pronounced in his strange new homeland.
Alvin Tran, an ethnic Chinese whose parents are from Cambodia, plays the lead character. With his own family having escaped the mayhem of the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, the 21-year-old actor says he can relate to the struggle faced by the young migrant.
He hoped that play, which features seven actors, six of them Chinese, would be something the new Chinese immigrants to Canada could learn from.
"I think it is great for them (new Chinese immigrants) to see what we have achieved and done because over the years you can really see how the Chinese have made a huge impact on Canadian history, like we built the railroad. It's a big thing," he said.
"We do have lots of history here and this is one of the big stories that need to be told," he added.
Joyce Lam, the play's producer, said the production had been four years in the making. When the Canadian government formally apologized in 2006 for the head tax, it also announced funding would be available to publicize what had happen. As the only theater company showing history through performing art, the Vancouver Asian Canadian Theater received a grant to stage the play in Vancouver, the neighboring suburb of Richmond and Victoria through mid January.
The play is being presented in English with Mandarin subtitles.
"Red Letters is about a significant historical event in Canada. It's about the Chinese head tax and the immigration laws of 1923 when Chinese people were restricted from entering Canada," said Lam, whose own grandfather was separated from his family.
Lam added Bau's original script was only 10 pages, but was later expanded when writer Kathy Leung was brought in to extend the script into a full production.
"I knew that this was a significant event and this was a chance to show history through performing arts and make people experience what the laws did to the Chinese people, not so much that they would know about the Exclusion Act or the Humiliation Day was July 1, 1923, but to feel the impact and the hardship that tore families apart because of being separated by law," said Lam.