Playwright imagines family myths in Xiamen

Playwright and director, actor, and co-founder of Proudly Asian Theatre, Chye-Ling Huang, shares insights from her three-month residency at the Chinese European Arts Centre Residence in Xiamen, China. During her residency, Chye-Ling dedicated her creative energies to crafting "Black Tree Bridge," an exploration of the familial myths intertwined with her ancestral village in Zhangzhou, just a half-hour's drive from Xiamen.

Watch a slideshow of images from Chye-Ling's time in Xiamen (Photos: Sean Wang and May Lee)

What attracted you to the residency in Xiamen?

I was drawn to the residency in Xiamen as it was where my Kong Kong (Grandfather) grew up before immigrating to Malaysia during some political turmoil. My extended family still live in the village in Jiaomei, Zhangzhou, which is about half an hour from where I was staying in Xiamen.

China has always sparked creativity given my background, and I was inspired by my previous experience on the Asia New Zealand Foundation arts practitioners tour, which included visiting Shanghai and Beijing.

I was keen for the opportunity to actually live in China for a decent amount of time, and the residency was so wonderfully open that it felt like I could really reflect any experience I had there.

Was it your first time in the city? What was your experience like?

I had been there once in 2016 for a few days only. This time it was summer for the entire time I was there - 30 degrees on average every day. It’s considered a small city, but for me it was sprawling and there was heaps to cover.

Although it’s a beach town and the attitudes there are considered ‘go with the flow’, it was lively, bustling and super crowded with tourists from other parts of China, which was very fun.

It’s not an international hub, which had pros and cons; immersion in Chinese culture and language being one of them.

I found it gorgeous, with windy alleyways, beaches, heaps of greenery (including a massive botanical gardens) and mountains in the middle of Xiamen Island (on which much of the city is located). It’s known as a café city too, which was heavenly for me as a writer, with many places open late.

What did you work on during the residency?

During the residency, I focused on rewriting a play called Black Tree Bridge. This play, conceived in 2014, was based on family myths around the real-life village in Zhangzhou.

Chye-Ling standing on a set of shadows, lit by neon light

Chye-Ling: "Residencies are the holy grail of time and space for exploration and growth..."

Being on the ground allowed me to explore symbols and aesthetics in reality and play with the idea of conflated meaning that springs from the quest to find ownership or a solidity in culture.

How did attending the residency contribute to the development of your work?

Attending the residency in Xiamen led to an almost complete rewrite of the play. Being in close proximity to the village where my family originated, there was a tangible sense of reality and myth converging as one.

At the same time, I was experiencing the city anew for myself; all the frustrating and mundane parts of making new connections and learning how to live in China without much grasp of the language.

The journey of my relationship to China and being Chinese actually clashed a lot with the narrative of the play, which was a big challenge, but it ultimately created great boundaries for the previously sprawling work.

Did you collaborate with local artists?

Yes! I found a team of four students from ICI, the design college in Zhangzhou. They took on the physical installation aspect of the work that was presented at the gallery. I was able to shape their interpretations of theme toward what the physical set might look like for this version of the play.

A young man talking to Chye-Ling  with two others listening on

A group of students from a local design college helped Chye-Ling with installation representations of her play Black Tree Bridge

We ended up with four ‘sets’ representing aspects of the play. The transformation of lineage into legend and myths from local perspective were key themes that were translated visually and also folded into the writing itself.

I wasn’t expecting to work with students, but I have to say, they were awesome. They were so fresh to theatre, but really flexible, totally brave and remarkably generous.

I also worked with two professional animators, Zha Zha and Chen Yi, on a looping animation that depicted a contemporary myth, as well as a group of actors who opened the exhibition with a rehearsed reading, and of course May Lee the curator who was my bounce-board at every step.

The artists interpretations of the story made it real and totally opened up the world of the play to me on tangible and philosophical levels. We became close despite some language barriers, and I’d love to work with them again.

What is the theater scene like in Xiamen?

Not huge, I have to say! The arts scene there leans toward fine art, installation and painting.

The artists there were always eager to spend time, have a meal and show you around their studios; I had so many awesome visits that would end up becoming group daytrips as other artists would also want to tag along.

The actors who gave their time to the opening of the exhibition were found through a comedy producer who took me to a sketch show. It was quite cool to be able to offer something to the artists I worked with who had never worked in theatre.

Why are residencies like this important? How do they help artists explore ideas and gain new perspectives?

Residencies are the holy grail of time and space for exploration and growth, but also a hard look inwards at what drives your work when you’re outside the pressure of your daily grind.

Collaborating with local artists gives you fresh perspectives and new frames, and being a nobody in a city that doesn’t really cater to Westerners really de-centres the ego in an awesome way.

Three people on stage holding a net over a man lying on the ground

Chye-Ling "It was really all about the people in the end, and the collaborating artists were such a gift."

On this residency, I definitely felt the constant failure of communication but when the successes came, they were so hard earned and surprising I really was able to let them resonate.

I think gaining a broader understanding of the world is crucial to our holistic connection with each other as humans, and when you can communicate that through your work or process, barriers are broken down, and it feels possible to transcend an ‘us v them’ mindset.

It was really all about the people in the end, and the collaborating artists were such a gift. I’m really grateful for this experience and I would absolutely love to go back soon.

The Foundation's arts programme aims to bring Asia into the mainstream of New Zealand arts by inspiring New Zealand arts professionals to grow their connections and knowledge of Asia. It also supports the presentation of Asian arts in partnership with New Zealand arts organisations and events.

Our Arts Practitioners Fund provides support for experiential opportunities for individual New Zealand-based arts practitioners to deepen artistic and professional connections with Asia, including residencies, work placements, research tours and exchanges.