As It Happens

Vancouver's koi-munching otter inspired this playwright to pen a Chinese rock opera

A new opera explores gentrification in Vancouver's Chinatown through the eyes of a man trying to solve a murder while being confronted by the very real news of a notorious otter that is killing the city's prized koi fish.

'The otter kind of represents the gentrification of Chinatown,' says Shon Wong, writer of Tale of the Eastside

Shon Wong is a musician with the rock band Son of James and the creator of the opera Tale of the Eastside Lantern. (Cherry Yuet)


For Shon Wong, inspiration came in the form of a sleek and semi-aquatic assassin. 

Last year, the Vancouver-based musician closely followed the story of an otter that killed nearly half the prized koi fish at the city's Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden.

The discovery prompted the garden to temporarily remove the fish — many of which are decades old — and set about capturing the otter.

It also prompted Wong to finally finish writing an opera he was working on about Vancouver's Chinatown.

"I wanted it to tie into something relevant, the Chinatown today," Wong told As It Happens host Carol Off. "And then, lo and behold, this otter showed up, and I said, 'Whoa, that's it!'"

The original otter that was removed from the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Vancouver. (Sadie Brown/Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden)

It's even more relevant now. On Saturday, the garden pond was temporarily closed again after six more koi turned up dead and an otter sighting was confirmed.

Once again, public opinion is split. When news about the original ravenous otter first made headlines, Wong says two camps of people quickly emerged. 

"What was telling about the story is how many people were picking sides — some people were team koi and some people were team otter," Wong said.

"Some people were saying the otter is a native species, you know what I mean? The koi is not a native species, so too bad for the koi."

A scene from Shon Wong's opera Tale of the Eastside Lantern. (Cherry Yuet)

People picked their team and some even started sporting otter and koi T-shirts to indicate where they stood on the matter.

Meanwhile, Wong realized that the otter-versus-koi drama provided the perfect metaphor and through line for the social issues he wanted to explore in his opera, Tale of the Eastside Lantern

"The koi fish represents the traditions of the Chinese, and the past, and the history," Wong said. "The otter kind of represents the gentrification of Chinatown, which is happening right now with a lot of redevelopment."

This image of an otter was captured at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden in late October when six more koi fish were found dead. A number of other of the prized fish were destroyed by an otter in November 2018. (AquaTerra Environmental)

Beyond addressing issues like gentrification, Wong describes the opera as a murder mystery that follows Jimmy, who lives in Chinatown, as he tries to help a ghost find the person responsible for his murder. 

"This sends him into a wild goose chase throughout Chinatown," Wong said. "Inadvertently, you're getting a history lesson of Chinatown."

When he isn't writing opera, Wong plays in a rock band called Son of James. The play reflects that and features both rock music as well as the more traditional sounds of Chinese opera.

Wong says the playful back-and-forth between a classic and more contemporary approach is intentional.

"We kind of blend the two," Wong said. "Whenever the ghost shows up, he is put into a Chinese opera — but like a fish out of water."

Wong says the relationship between the koi and otter is a recurring symbol throughout the opera.

"The symbolism of what the koi really means, which is the symbolism of power and strength and overcoming all your obstacles in life," Wong said. "The koi represents swimming upstream."

On Friday Nov 1, 2019, six large koi and 74 small koi were removed from the pond for protection from the otter. (AquaTerr Environmental)

The fact the otter and koi are back in the news is good timing for Wong. He is starting to preview the opera and says the reviews after a sold-out Halloween performance were encouraging.

But from what Wong says, it's still hard to know whether the opera will provide some common ground where both team otter and team koi can finally come together. 

Written by John McGill. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson.


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