Yang Sing Restaurant, Princess Street, Manchester; Thursday 14th March, 2019
Tell us about the Chinese community.
As if there was just one.
When there are so many.
So many different places we come from.
So many different places … to call home.
From Fuzhou, Harbin, Tai Po and Foshan in the east to the likes of Harehills, Morley, Pannal, Ancoats and Selly Oak in the west; in 2014 writers Mary Cooper and MW Sun gathered real-life stories from Chinese communities throughout the North of England in order to create From Shore To Shore – an epic tale of migration and resettlement, awe-inspiring stories spanning decades, continents and cultures.
The choice of venue couldn’t have been more apt for the spectacle about to unfold: the Yang Sing restaurant on Princess Street began life as a small family-run enterprise in the 1970s; four decades later it is a bricks-and-mortar Mancunian institution – second only to the great paifang arch as the most instantly recognisable icon of Manchester’s Chinatown.
And that seems to be the central theme of the show: epic tales of ordinary people overcoming seemingly insurmountable adversity to achieve incredible things.
The play is formed of three, separate stories running side-by-side – each tale probably being strong enough to be spun into a separate performance in its own right. The action jumps around from one to another with most performers delivering multiple roles, but the transitions are sharp and precise, at no point is there confusion caused by muddled crossovers.
Leading character in proceedings seems to be Cheung Wing (Ozzie Yue) – but leading only in the sense that he commands an impressively authoritative stage presence. Presented as an elderly man struggling to get around with his walking stick, Wing is every bit the wise old gent who’s seen and heard it all. His is an extraordinarily sad story of separation from family, forced labour as a young boy, escape from war, and eventually the relative stability of settlement in the English restaurant trade.
Equally astonishing is the story of Yi Di (Luna Dai) – a young Chinese woman facing harsh and sustained subjugation as a direct consequence of China’s strict one child policy introduced in the 1970s. There is a bleak and incredibly powerful moment when the young Yi Di dreams big, only to be told that girls will only ever be loved by their father if they’re top of their class. Suddenly the western world’s statistical fawning over Chinese pupils outperforming all other ethnic groups in schools seems to take on a very human and deeply troubling new dimension.
Mei Lan (Michelle Yim) makes up the third of the main characters, born and raised in Leeds she is immersed not only in her own personal struggles but also a plethora of problems caused by the legacy of her immigrant parents’ shortcomings. As with the other characters, tiny details deliver enormous emotional blows: none more so than a desperately sad explanation of how no one will ever go to a parents’ evening to see how she’s getting on at school because there is literally no one else to run the shop.
There is one other significant factor in this performance which really is the most obvious of Chinese cultural cliches: food. But in this instance it works, and it works really well, adding a completely new dimension to the theatrical experience.
The performance actually begins with the serving of a warm bowl of hot and sour soup – a tongue-numbing blend of tofu, beansprouts, shitake mushrooms and peas, all suspended in a thick, sticky broth laced with sweet chilli sauce. The sweet, tangy flavours linger for much of the main acting performance, after which a main course is served.
The serving of soup before the performance begins seems to be quite symbolic. Throughout the plot characters are yearning for soup: winter melon soup is mentioned, as is soup made from roots and bark with good vegetables. At one point Cheung Wing talks of a good soup giving him hope, even though what he really dreams of is dim sum and steamed buns.
And it’s no surprise that the fates of the three main characters are eventually intertwined by the North of England’s Chinese restaurant trade. The ending is beautiful: the three stories are kept apart till the very end and so when they do eventually merge it makes for a pleasing and delightful surprise.
Delivered in English as well as Mandarin and Cantonese, From Shore To Shore is a wonderfully satisfying saga that is both believable and insightful thanks to the universally appealing exploration of the notion of unexpected winners going from rags to riches, from famine to feast. The multilingual script needed no extra translation, body language and facial expressions were so good that it was obvious what emotion and expression was being communicated.
From Shore To Shore is a beautifully written and delightfully presented theatrical experience which delivers a full-blown play alongside a full Chinese meal. And it’s not just any old play, this feels like much more than a story about the Chinese community. Some of the most obvious and superficial cultural cliches are opened right up and exposed, the result is multiple insights that truly get to the human story that lies underneath.
There’s usually always an intriguing story hidden behind cultural cliches and stereotypes – From Shore To Shore feels as if it is definitely telling it.
Photography: Lee Baxter
|Visual pleasure||Set entirely in a private room within the Yang Sing restaurant, dining tables were cleared away just enough to create a viable performance space which very rarely failed to give the same visual experience that a conventional theatre space might. Plenty of props and costume changes still took place, hence the visual aspects never seemed compromised.||4|
|Auditory pleasure||The audience took to their seats with live music being played by a pianist and the live accompaniment continued throughout the show. Felt so much more intimate to have the music played live rather than to have it played through speakers, which would have been the more obvious solution.||5|
|Architecture & Theme||Brilliant piece of writing with three separate stories that are each good enough to stand on their own. The fusion of a restaurant meal and a full-blown play did work, the two concepts definitely felt merged rather than separate pleasures running side by side.||4|
|Artistic delivery||Fantastic acting performances from all the players, each switching between characters / accents multiple times and yet still continuing to deliver near-flawless performances.||4|
|Overall impact||The stories being told are ultimately quite sad yet the outcomes for each character are good. Feels as if each character has so much more to still tell. Ultimately this is a fantastic night of entertainment, an excellent meal combined with a genuinely fine piece of theatre.||5|
|0||Detrimental – This aspect of the performance was so bad that it made the overall experience worse|
|1||Weak – This aspect of the performance was poor|
|2||Adequate – This aspect of the performance was perfectly acceptable, though nothing special|
|3||Good – This aspect of the performance was above average, it pleased in some way|
|4||Excellent – This aspect of the performance was much better than normal, it was impressive|
|5||Awe-inspiring – This aspect of the performance was exceptional, new boundaries were pushed.|