When actor and award-winning stage- and screen-writer Michelle Law was 12, she and her mum spent three months in Hong Kong visiting family. One evening her extended family of cousins, aunts and uncles gathered to watch the Miss Hong Kong beauty pageant on TV. Law was riveted. Among the finalists – all Hong Kong natives, she says – was a woman with a clear Australian accent.
Law, a self-described Asian Australian, will never forget the feeling of seeing for the first time someone who looked and sounded like her being recognised for her beauty and talent. But when it came time to respond to questions, the contestant struggled in Cantonese and switched to English. The next round she was eliminated because, Law believes, of her inability to speak fluent Cantonese.
“As a young person growing up in regional Queensland, I already felt very displaced. Then I found someone like me and there was a place for her. And then there wasn’t. After that I thought, ‘So I don’t actually belong anywhere.’”
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As a teen Law went on to enter local shopping-centre beauty pageants. “I’d win ‘best personality’, which in hindsight was cool, but at the time I wanted to be recognised for being a pretty girl. So I was always searching for where I could be acknowledged as being accepted or regarded as someone who is representative of beauty in Australia.”
The struggle for self-acceptance and the need for connection is the driving force of her new play, Miss Peony, which Law describes as “a magical realist comedy”. It centres around Lily (played by Law), an “assimilated ABC, or Australian-born Chinese”, who has grown up with a traditional Chinese upbringing courtesy of her grandmother, a former Honk Kong beauty queen and leading member of the Chinese community in Sydney. Lying on her deathbed she makes Lily promise she’ll enter the Miss Peony beauty pageant – and when Lily refuses, her grandmother returns from the dead to haunt her until she fulfills the promise.
“It’s a lot of fun, there’s a lot of dance, and it’s performance-heavy because it’s a show within a show,” says Law. “I like to think of it as a cross between Miss Congeniality and The Joy Luck Club.”
It’s worth noting that Miss Peony boasts a six-strong cast of Asian-Australian actors, still too rare a sight on our stages, while the show is directed by Courtney Stewart, artistic director at Brisbane’s La Boite, who is fourth-generation ABC.
While Law says Miss Peony is loosely reflective of her own upbringing (her family’s story was related with touching humour in SBS series The Family Law, written by brother Benjamin Law), she is more closely aligned with her Chinese culture than the play’s lead character. “My mum always instilled in me that being Chinese is something to be really proud of,” says Law.
Miss Peony will be spoken and surtitled in three languages – English, Mandarin and Cantonese. Law says it is a gift to her grandmother, who has loyally seen her previous works but never understood a word.
“People like my grandmother came to see my first play and after watching it said, ‘You know I thought it was great – people were engaging with it, and I’m really proud – but I didn’t understand a word.’ That was heartbreaking.”
Miss Peony also reflects a determined effort by Law to make Australian theatre more inclusive, pointing out that many audience members who saw her debut play – the sold-out, critically acclaimed Single Asian Female – were visiting the theatre for the first time.
“Most theatre in Australia is about white culture, so if you’re someone who doesn’t come from those communities and already feels quite excluded because you can’t speak the language, [then I hope] this production will change that and make the theatre a space where you feel you belong.”
We are slowly seeing more Asian-Australian stories on our stages, thanks largely to organisations like Contemporary Asian Australian Performance, the only professional arts company dedicated to producing contemporary Asian-Australian work, while mainstream companies have produced plays such as Laurinda (Melbourne Theatre Company) and Anchuli Felicia King’s White Pearl and The Poison of Polygamy (co-produced by La Boite and currently playing with the Sydney Theatre Company).
But Law says there is long way to go before this significant part of our population feels that they are welcome in theatres, and that their own stories – Australian stories – matter.
“A way to advance that at a quicker rate is for companies to recognise, whether it’s an Asian-Australian story or a Middle Eastern-Australian story, those are Australian stories … they are part of this nation’s fabric and should be treated as such.”
Miss Peony plays at Belvoir St Theatre until July 29 before touring Melbourne, Canberra, Wollongong and Geelong.