The Dao of Unrepresentative British Chinese Experience @ Soho Theatre Review

Larger than life, postmodern, explosive, and chaotic, Daniel York Loh subverts the notion of the typical British Chinese experience in his latest play which premiered in London last week. The last time I felt such awe and excitement about the possibilities of theatre was when I saw Daniel’s last play at the Arcola Theatre, FORGOTTEN 遗忘 (2018).

Initially, one might wonder what more there is to say about identity politics. I myself thought this as we were forced multiple times to listen to all manner of racist slurs that are specifically directed to East and Southeast Asians. I thought to myself, do we really need to cover the same ground again and again? Can we not put our traumas to bed? But then I am rudely reminded on my Instagram feed where news broke yesterday that we live in a world where the Metropolitan Police are able to arrest multiple South Asian individuals for calling other South Asians a “coconut,” the subject clearly remains painfully relevant. So, this is the question the play is asking, what does it mean to be Chinese? And what does Dao mean? There is no straight forward answer to either.

We are jilted from scene to scene, from raging spoken word to mysterious folklore, from musical gig numbers to radio switchboard, nothing is confined, nothing belongs, nothing makes any real narrative sense—at first glance, anyway. As much as we are warned that this is not conventional theatre (giving us reviewers a hard time, although I must confess that I personally enjoy the challenge), there is much sense to be made, even if it takes time to unravel deeper meanings.

Despite the promise to the audience of no linear structure we manage to glean one. This is the personal autobiographical story of a half Chinese, half English boy who is torrentially and incessantly racially abused at school and about his wrought relationship with Chineseness and his place in the world. His memory of coming to Chinatown and feeling a sudden urge to belong after years of trying to erase his Asian-ness hits home. This experience, raw and unapologetically portrayed, resonates with many in the audience who have grappled with similar struggles of identity and belonging.

The political commentary running through the play is satirical and hilarious, sometimes sophisticated but mostly silly and nonsensical. This combination creates a dynamic viewing experience, blending heavy themes with moments of levity that make the play accessible and engaging. The scene with the Christian priest shadow puppet in conversation with the protagonist, for example, was wonderfully executed as the challenger of the definitive story, the bigoted yet also alarmingly perceptive white male – “Your father couldn’t order dim sum from a picture menu”. Daniel’s fearless approach to comedy allow for a nuanced exploration of identity and racism without becoming didactic.

Philosophically, this is the kind of play that leaves you wanting more. I was compelled to buy the play text so that I could continue to permeate in the rich historical, cultural and scientific contexts, the multifaceted stories and many gorgeous metaphors. Daniel’s ability to weave personal narrative with broader philosophical questions makes for a rich tapestry of themes that invite repeated contemplation and discussion which I and the group of friends I attended with absolutely did indulge in on the steps outside of Soho Square long after the play was over.

The Dao of Unrepresentative British Chinese Experience is a testament to the power of theatre to challenge, provoke, and entertain. Daniel York Loh’s absurd exploration of identity, race, and belonging offers a futuristic take on what it means to be British Chinese in a postcolonial era (should we ever get there, free, free Palestine, Sudan and Congo) but also as a taste of where interdisciplinary theatre might go next. It is a play that defies easy categorisation, much like the identities it seeks to represent, and in doing so, it opens up new exciting and radical possibilities. I have much more to say about this play but I, unlike Daniel, will attempt to observe some of the conventions of my format, the review.

Review by Tasnim Siddiqa Amin.

The Dao of Unrepresentative British Chinese Experience is currently showing at Soho Theatre until Saturday 13th July 2024. To find out more about the production, visit here…

Written by Theatrefullstop