When asked whether she’d rather have fried chicken or fried rice Alice Canton replies, “Definitely fried chicken, but deep fried squid at yum cha takes it every time.”
If you’ve ever eaten friend squid, then you’ll know exactly what she means.
The actress of Chinese and Pakeha descent is premiering her devised solo show, White/ Other at Auckland’s Basement Theatre this April, a production with themes centred around her dual identities.
Canton has been seeding the project over a six-month period using images, anecdotes, poetry and academic discourse as a springboard, working with Alice Te Punga Sommerville over the latter part of the process to explore her ideas in literary form.
Looking at both sides of her bi-cultural coin was first a process of deconstructing what it means to be part of a white hegemonic system—an invisible racial hierarchy where white is ultimately on top.
“With that comes all the really crude internalized issues around privilege and prejudice,” she says. “It’s deeply uncomfortable and confrontational and then there is the knowledge that perhaps I am a part of this problem that contributes to inequality.”
For Alice, the biggest challenge has been investigating her Chinese side.
“I have had to re-open wounds around identity and misrepresentation. [There are] issues around invisibility and I have had to explore some deep-seated insecurities about being a perpetual foreigner in my home.”
Canton’s father is Pakeha and her mother is Chinese. They met in Borneo in the 1960s and decided to settle in New Zealand rather than Malaysia—a multi-cultural and multi-lingual country known to be a progressive environment for a bi-cultural family. Their decision to move was based on social and political restrictions in Malaysia that her parents felt would be crippling for their children.
But making the transition to New Zealand came with intense isolation for her mother who arrived here without any other family to call on.
“We grew up in the West Coast in the 80’s and 90’s with no other Chinese people around, so we didn’t feel particularly welcomed. Dad’s side are solid Anglo-centric farming stock and we’ve always had a strong connection to that Pakeha whakapapa,” says Canton.
Dad’s side are solid Anglo-centric farming stock and we’ve always had a strong connection to that Pakeha whakapapa.”
Coming to terms with her mixed heritage has been painful at times, especially considering that she didn’t grow up bilingually—her mother spoke Hakka but wasn’t encouraged to speak the language in New Zealand. For Alice, that has caused a feeling of loss—something that might have connected her more strongly to her Chinese roots.
“We had a classic hybrid upbringing of Chinese superstition, pork flavored everything, no shoes in the house and saving-face politeness, mixed with Pakeha education, language, and entitlement.”
That, she says, was the perfect mix of alien and privilege.
Alice is currently based in Auckland: a multicultural city with a concentrated population of ethnic Asian communities. It’s a place where she feels comfortable being among other Asian and Eurasian faces.
She has already been part of a collaborative theatre project where Asians have been the majority and says that there has been a noticeable push for businesses and other organisations to be inclusive and culturally diverse.
Working on a solo show can be rewarding and challenging; without other performers on stage it’s a case of finding your own way back if you lose your lines with minimal lighting and sound cues to drive you through to the finish line—the essence of what makes solo performance so powerful.
Canton has successfully performed her previous solo production, ‘Orangutan,’ to a sold-out audience and says she loves this form of theatre because it enables creative opportunities and the pure development of a relationship between the performer and audience.
“Solo work is deceptive because you never really make the work entirely on your own, or at least, you shouldn’t.”
Alice is in her final weeks of rehearsal for what she describes as an epic, stylized physical show that reads more like a surreal novel and includes projection, a drum kit, microphones, dance, poetry and direct address.
While Canton has been exploring personal terrain with her two identities, what could be said of the actress is that maybe its her inherent Chinese traits and determination that are driving her through to opening night curtain call.
“I live by the motto that I’ll sleep when I’m dead, and since no one will work harder on the show than me, I’m the only person who’ll let myself down…that comforts me and keeps me up at night!”
White/Other runs from 12-21 April. To find out more about the show head to the Basement Theatre website.
All images supplied.