Little known piece of Canadian history comes alive in new play

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Few Canadians will probably know that in the 1900s Cantonese opera troupes routinely traveled to Canada to help relieve the hardships of Chinese labourers working in the coal mines.  What may be even more surprising is to know the tiny village of Cumberland on Vancouver Island was home to two 400 seat opera houses and home to one of North America’s largest Chinatowns.  It is against this little known piece of Canadian history that Governor General’s Award winning gay author Paul Yee sets his new play, Jade in the Coal, the result of a cross cultural and artistic collaboration between Canada and China two years in the making.

Paul YeeHaving just arrived in Vancouver to begin rehearsals for the show’s run at UBC’s Frederic Wood Theatre beginning November 24th through December 4th, playwright Paul Yee (pictured right) talks to us about Jade in the Coal and mounting a production combining theatre traditions from the West and East.

Tell us about Jade in the Coal – what can audiences expect?

Expect a journey into B.C.’s past, to 1900, to the coal-mining town of Cumberland on Vancouver Island. Expect a window into the East, West and in-between. Audiences will encounter coal miners, Cantonese opera, and westernized Chinese residents struggling with love and duty. Expect to see an authentic nan-hua-dan, a male opera artist who performs female roles on stage.  In pre-modern China, all opera roles were played by men.  

Where did the impetus come for this particular story?

Heidi Specht of Vancouver’s Pangaea Arts commissioned the play. She had two conditions:  the play had to occur in Cumberland, which once had a thriving Chinatown, and the play had to have Cantonese opera, because opera troupes toured the region at that time.

As a child, I had seen lots of Cantonese opera – my family thought I could learn the Chinese language that way – so I was familiar with the music and conventions of the art form.  I had researched coal-mining for another book, so I knew the setting. When we started playing with stories, we wanted our characters to be fully engaged with Cumberland’s worlds of coal-mining, Chinatown, and family lives. And our play was to be as historically accurate as possible. 

How did the relationship with Guangdong Cantonese Opera Academy First Troupe come about? 

A while ago, Pangaea Arts worked with a choreographer from China who had also been an opera artist. She had worked alongside the actor who now headed the Guangdong Cantonese Opera Academy First Troupe. So she introduced Pangaea to GCOAFT.  Heidi then visited Guangzhou to audition actors, to look for costumes, and find a librettist for the opera that is imbedded in the play.

What has been the process like in uniting the Canadian and Asian artists?

Tricky but hugely beneficial. Tricky because we needed translators to make the rehearsals work.  Tricky because there were rules and nuances to Cantonese opera that we didn’t know about. (It’s like the western theatre prohibition against mentioning “Macbeth.”) But beneficial because as professionals, the Canadian and Asian actors were all eager to see how theatre worked in two different traditions. And all the actors keenly wanted this production, which was ground-breaking in its attempts to merge East and West, to become a success.

The production combines a wide variety of styles including singing, mime, martial arts & acrobatics – why such a variety of styles?

Because the variety reflects the true nature of Cantonese opera.  Traditionally, this art form was often performed on outdoor stages to varied audiences that included peasants and illiterates.  So music and dramatic staging all helped to tell the stories as clearly as possible.

What do you hope audience take away with them from Jade in the Coal?

They should feel the passion and emotions that inspired and sustained life in an immigrant community during tough times.  They should see how music and stories transcend time and divisive boundaries.

Jade in the Coal
Frederic Wood Theatre, UBC
24 November – 5 December 2010

In 1900, the brutal hardship and homesickness of Chinese coal miners in Cumberland, BC is relieved by the arrival of a touring Cantonese Opera troupe. As the actors rehearse, the mine’s ghosts begin to stir. Professional Canadian theatre artists and world class Cantonese opera performers from China and Singapore collaborate in this original play by award-winning writer/historian Paul Yee. Visit for tickets and information.

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