How this evolving performance about second-generation Chinese Canadians is changing its creators

As En Lai Mah and Jasmine Chen work on The Mother Tongue Project, they find themselves — and the piece — growing.

As En Lai Mah and Jasmine Chen work on The Mother Tongue Project, they find themselves and the piece growing

Polaroids of En Lai Mah and Jasmine Chen. (Graham Isador)

Like most children of immigrants, when theatre artists En Lai Mah and Jasmine Chen were growing up, they each had to navigate the expectations of Western society — and the pressures of conformity — while attempting to retain their cultural roots. For years, it was a delicate balance between forging their own identities and recognizing where they came from. The pair wanted to explore their relationships to their heritage as second-generation Chinese Canadians in a multidisciplinary performance piece built from interviews with their parents, exploring the similarities and differences between their upbringings and giving them an opportunity to dig deep into their family stories. But what Mah and Chen didn't expect is that the project would expand over three years, several incarnations and workshops across Canada.

"With our questions, we started to unlock doors we didn't know existed," Chen tells CBC Arts. "It's no secret that often in Chinese culture, when bad things happen, we don't talk about it. But with this silence comes unspoken trauma that gets passed down from parent to child. We wanted to break that cycle. In our interviews, our parents opened up to us in a way that we couldn't have anticipated. They were surprised to be sharing their personal experiences with us. Their triumphs and losses were now being witnessed and documented by their children — and the result was truly transformative."

"My father seems happy that I have an interest in looking back," adds Mah, "that I have chosen to ask and chosen to understand him."

Over several interviews they were given a wealth of information: the major historic and cultural events that shaped their family trajectories; how trauma can follow you despite physically leaving a place; the challenges, big and small, of raising children in a different cultural climate. Initially the artists tried to fit the tales into a linear framework, creating a beginning/middle/end narrative structure that incorporated the major elements of Mah and Chen's family stories. They dubbed the show The Mother Tongue Project. But after the show's first public reading, they found that a straightforward approach wasn't fully demonstrating the emotional journeys the families had undertaken.

"There are whole histories that we're trying to communicate," explains Chen. "Trying to fit those histories into Western storytelling modalities didn't achieve the kind of resonance we had hoped for. We realized it's not just about which stories we tell, but how we tell them. Part of being diasporic artists means discovering what it is to tell stories in our own intercultural way. Each time we return to the material, it evolves, because we ourselves are changing through the work."

En Lai Mah and Jasmine Chen. (Graham Isador)

With the next incarnation of the piece, Mah and Chen tried to look at the essential elements of the interviews as a jumping off point. For Chen, that was an attempt to relearn the Mandarin songs from her childhood, asking her mother to teach them to her again. For Mah, it was examining his family's shared love of martial arts. The performer grew up learning Kung Fu in his living room, an enthusiastic student to his father, but he realized that he had never asked him why he was being taught. From there they incorporated elements of movement, dialogue, video projection, music and martial arts — ultimately bringing the current version of The Mother Tongue Project to life.

"For me, a lack of understanding my father's first language has always been a gaping hole, yet the physical language of Kung Fu is where I can meet him," says Mah. "In that, I attempt to understand how I come to exist in circumstances that I do, as the child of an immigrant to this country. Being able to bring those elements to the stage really grounded the show in a new way."

"I was really aware of how immigrant stories are usually represented and I want us to be as specific as possible," says Chen. "It's not only about how hard it was for our parents moving here — it's about how our grandparents went through war and famine. All of that gets carried down unconsciously through the generations, and exploring that takes many forms."

Polaroids of En Lai Mah. (Graham Isador)

Chen and Mah will continue to work on the multidisciplinary piece over the next few months, with the hope of a full theatrical run coming sometime in 2020. While the show is sure to grow, for both the performers and their initial audience The Mother Tongue Project has been a thoughtful and heartfelt reflection on the everyday realities of cultural legacy.

"In a theatrical form, The Mother Tongue Project has a way of evoking a shared experience," says Mah. "The particulars of our family stories are rooted in Chinese culture, yet people of a variety of cultural backgrounds seem to find their own stories come to mind. A spark is ignited and it compels the audience to ask the question, 'How did I get here?'"

"We hope that by sharing our stories, we'll encourage more people to talk to their elders," adds Chen. "Time is limited. If you can, ask. Every choice made by our elders has shaped who we are today, and for that I am extremely grateful."

About the Author

Graham Isador is a writer and theatre creator based out of Toronto. He trained as a part of the playwright unit at Soulpepper Theatre. Isador's work has appeared at VICE, The Risk Podcast, and the punk rock satire site The Hard Times, among other places.