Friday, September 14, 2012

Gee Hong’s war

Gee Hong’s war By Imogen Neale | Published on November 3, 2007 | Issue 3521 How a Chinese play helped the New Zealand war effort in Auckland, 1945. It’s a timeless story. A young man is torn between filial responsibilities and patriotic duty. Does he stay at home and look after his aged mother and father? Or does he lace up his boots, pin his country’s flag to his breast and march off to war? The story’s setting could be Prussia, 1756, France, 1915 or United States, 2007. But here’s the twist. It’s 1945 in New Zealand and the story forms the backbone of a Cantonese play, written by a Canton-born immigrant for two Auckland-based Chinese groups hoping to raise money for the New Zealand Patriotic Fund. The play is performed once, in Cantonese, by local Chinese residents, to a capacity crowd at His Majesty’s Theatre, Auckland. The national Chinese population then hovered around 5000, or 0.3 percent of New Zealand’s population. The actors are all male although there are six female parts. The audience, an eclectic mix, includes journalists, locals, prominent businessman Sir Henry Kelleher and Auckland Mayor Sir John Allum. The next day, two local newspapers run laudatory reviews. In one, the reviewer says that that night they envied Cantonese speakers. Remarkable, really, given the level of anti-Chinese prejudice that local Chinese were living with. The highly decorated (QSM and ONZM) Chinese New Zealander Dan Chan was there that night. He had to be: he was the play’s official “Programme Editor, Script Translator and Chinese Calligrapher”. He was also a member of the two groups that had combined to stage the performance: the Dai Tung Music Society and the Auckland branch of the NZ Chinese Association (NZCA). After noting that, at his age, his memory isn’t as good as it used to be, Dan – who recently turned 100 – says that although the play, called Qizhuang Shanhe or Human Integrity and written by N Wai Poi, was assembled over a period of weeks, the decision to give it a public performance was spur of the moment. Indeed, in the play’s programme there is a detailed preface that notes “originally, they [members of Dai Tung Music Society] had no intention of appearing in public performances. We, therefore, hope that the audience will not pass judgement on their dramatic and artistic ability.” Of course their dramatic and artistic ability was exactly what the reviewers focused on. But the society needn’t have worried, with one paper stating that “especially in the group scenes there was a building up of atmosphere and spontaneity rarely seen in European performances” and another commenting: “Special word of praise must be given to the five men who played the women’s parts. So good were they in their impersonation that it was only after perusing the programme that one realised that women were not in the roles.” So, Act 1: China, July 1937. The Japanese claim that there’s been a violent Chinese-led confrontation at Beijing’s Marco Polo Bridge. They also claim that they’re missing a soldier and they’re holding the Chinese authorities responsible. The Japanese become impatient with the ensuing negotiations and bomb the bridge. The carnage that follows leads China’s Generalissimo Chiang to herald a national call to arms. He also issues a statement to the world: “China has reached her last limits of tolerance with the Japanese and must resist the Japanese aggressors to the end … We are combating Japan not for the negative purpose of putting an end to Japanese aggression, but as a means of contributing to a free world order of the future.” Act 2: we meet Chan Gee Hong, the young man about to face the “duty to the state or duty to your parents” dilemma. At his parents’ insistence, duty to the state wins: he’s off to war. To start with, however, his father’s boisterous birthday celebrations take centre stage. Act 3: Gee Hong is wounded and while he’s in hospital he meets Lee E-ha, a friend who has become a Red Cross nurse. Two things happen: they fall in love and Gee Hong’s mother becomes gravely ill. Once again he’s on the horns of a dilemma: to go or to stay? One might well ask why it was decided to stage Human Integrity. Particularly as, in keeping with Chinese theatrical tradition, women couldn’t appear in public displays and thus the female roles had to be played by men. Dan Chan says it was all about raising money for the Patriotic Fund, a government-devised trust of sorts that co-ordinated the public and private sector’s contributions towards the war efforts. Human Integrity‘s programme states a slightly loftier, heartfelt raison d’être: the musicians had volunteered their services to “help alleviate the terrible sufferings of humanity in this world conflict”. As historian James Ng highlights in an essay on early Chinese settlement in New Zealand, it’s not as though local Chinese communities weren’t already making significant financial contributions to the war effort. Indeed, since 1937, the NZCA had been systematically collecting funds to aid China’s war effort against Japan: employers were levied 10 shillings per week and employees two shillings in the pound. Even Chinese children had a levy imposed on their wages. Permitted by the government to send these funds back to China, New Zealand’s Chinese population is said to have raised, if not the highest, then the second highest sum per capita for an overseas Chinese community. Conceivably, however, another motive underpinned the performance of Human Integrity. For, according to Ng’s research, Chinese immigrants here were intensely patriotic towards China. As he says, they believed in the inner strength of China and the Chinese people. Many felt that if only China could once again shine in the eyes of the world Chinese people everywhere could escape ethnic discrimination. Perhaps, then, the underlying intention of the performance was to demonstrate a universality of life story. Which, of course, is right there in its title. NEXT PAGE: Gilbert Wong on the “Zengcheng New Zealanders”.

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