Daniel York Loh
Moongate and Yellow Earth
Arcola Theatre (Studio 2)
What passes as history is rarely a balanced true story; the record depends on who wrote it and the attitudes of the time and some things just get left out. Inevitably, our current commemoration of the centenary of The Great War is not a complete one but has many lacunae. Forgotten tells one of the stories that is usually missing, of the Chinese contribution to allied victory, that of the CLC, the Chinese Labour Corps.
Since the building of the Panamanian Railway, the colonial powers had often recruited labour from China, especially to work on railways and in goldmines, and in 1916 first the French and then the British began to recruit workers in China not as combatants but as support workers, labourers.
Daniel York Loh starts his new play in the battlefield mud, the dead and the wounded visited by an apparition from Chinese Opera, the Miraculous Traveller, who greets the injured man as a gallant warrior and transport all three back in time to their village in China to when they were putting on an amateur performance.
I can’t say how well this worked because I missed it. Some serious rail problems interrupted the rail service, delaying myself and other audience members. We joined the play as village headman Zhang watches the actors: Second Moon, who is playing the Miraculous Traveller, her husband Old Six as the Pilgrim Warrior with Big Dog and Eunuch Lin as an innkeeper and his wife.
The situation in China is rapidly established. Since 1912, China has been a republic. Big Dog’s opium smoking is frowned on, Eunuch Lin, castrated to fit him for a post at the imperial court, has had that future closed to him, the country is on its knees and threatened by famine. This is a peasant society whose crudely colourful language is very expressive but their prospects poor. Talk of foreign employment is tempting: it not only offers pay abroad but ten silver dollars every month to be paid to the family in China.
Old Six (Michael Phong Le), Big Dog (Camille Mallet De Chauny) and Eunuch Lin (Zachary Hing) all sign up, joined by a schoolteacher they call the Professor (Leo Wan), a man more politically aware and eager for reform, and the play follows them to France where they work under bombardment and dig bodies from the mud. The “big noses” as they call Europeans can’t tell one Chinese from another so Big Dog joins the French who treat their Chinese better and works in a munitions factory. In France, snatches of Chinese Opera show them trying to keep up their own spirits and comment on the action while scenes back in China show what happens to Second Moon (Rebecca Boey).
Daniel York Loh has created an interesting set of characters, the Headman (Jon Chew) and Eunuch especially boldly characterised and positively played, but the play is too busy providing factual information to explore individual stories. The opera sequences sit awkwardly. They aren’t like the Beijing and Cantonese styles more familiar to British audiences but based on that of the Maoqiang region but the effect seems too incompetent even for this amateur troupe. That may be intentional but it is not effective and adds to the confusion of the play’s construction.
This is an ambitious and challenging play that seeks to honour the 140,000 labourers of the British CLC and the 200,000 more who served with the French and Russians. It tries to pack too much into its succession of short scenes and, while the descriptive names by which people address each other may be accurate, they make some dialogue seem unnatural, as does the use of friendly obscenities that stick out even though amusing and the meaning of the consciously poetic opera text is decidedly obscure.
This is a simple plot told in a complex way and Kim Pearce’s production doesn’t quite pull it off but its subject does hold the interest. The Chinese Labour Corps is not the only group that has been ignored in most accounts of the Great War but few can have been so literally painted out of history as these men were, as shown in the final scene of Forgotten.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton