No Foreigners a theatrical study of Chinese malls in Canada

In the Lower Mainland, it's common to see ethnic enclaves where people of the same diaspora congregate to create community. No Foreigners is a theatrical study of the phenomenon that is the Chinese mall.

'It’s meant to put you into the perspective of a foreigner, of 'the other,'' says playwright

A new show at The Cultch, No Foreigners, takes a look at the Chinese mall and what it means for the immigrant community. (The Cultch Theatre)

In the Lower Mainland, it's common to see ethnic enclaves where people of the same diaspora congregate to create community.

No Foreigners, a multimedia production at The Cultch, is a study of the cultural phenomenon that is the Chinese mall in Canada. 

The show's writer, David Yee, grew up in Toronto and said Chinese malls are present in every metropolis to offer a familiar taste of home for Chinese immigrants — from the general atmosphere to shops that sell Chinese goodies.

"[The show is] meant to put you into the perspective of a foreigner, of 'the other,' of the person that's outside of something, which is where these places exist," Yee told On The Coast producer Caroline Chan.

About half of the multimedia production is presented in Cantonese with English subtitles and places the audience in different vignettes inspired by these cultural hubs using live projection, monitors and two performers.

The writer of No Foreigners, David Yee, stands in front of the popular Chinese supermarket, T&T, in Vancouver's Chinatown. (Caroline Chan/CBC)

Yee said these malls offer the Chinese community a space where they can be the majority, which is a factor in the debate over Cantonese signage in Richmond, B.C.

The city discussed bylaws to enforce English-only signs, but decided not to pursue the divisive issue

Yee said that in terms of visibility, having signs on the street clashes with the rest of the community and creates tension with the dominant English-speaking culture. "But when you bring it inside it's so welcome and it's so normalized — it's comforting."

'Sorry, no foreigners'

Yee recalls going into a mall in Richmond and ringing the bell of a storefront that had a Members Only sign. When a woman came to the door, he said he pretended to be a wealthy immigrant who was curious about membership.

"She gave me the up and down and said, 'Sorry, no foreigners,' and closed the door on my face," he said, revealing the inspiration for the show's title.

"I'm half Chinese, half white and I think because of that I don't know what you're going to think of me until you see me. I change depending on the perception of the person who I'm speaking with."

Yee first visited these malls on his own and explored the unique vendors with friends.

One shop, filled with pirated Cantonese movies on DVD, was a weekly stop for Yee. One day, the woman behind the counter asked if he spoke the language. When he told her he didn't — that he just read the subtitles — she offered to teach him a few words.

"I was so struck by how sweet that was and what she was trying to cultivate in me, and the spirit behind that is emblematic to me of a Chinese mall, of the Chinese community in this country."

No Foreigners had its world premiere Thursday at the Cultch and will be playing until Feb. 18.

With files from On The Coast