Displaced by Soyung Lee is the documentation of a performance on the subject of dubbing different languages to explore the concept of social identities. I don’t really understand yet why it touches me so much – of course because it points to communities of people of different backgrounds, different languages, doing things together (Cantonese, English, Mandarin, and Tagalog) – it points to a place where English is not dominant.
Also because it’s made by amateurs and professionals, because it has a beautiful text at its base and because it talks about a very actual condition – the displacement – in a way we can all feel – because it unites me with them, with exiles, refugees, – and because it’s performance, cinema and theater all at once, it’s hybrid.
After having written a short entrance about the project on my e-stranger blog, I wrote Soyung an email with some questions. It was very interesting to read more about the background of her project and so I asked her if I could publish a slightly edited version of our exchange here.
AA: You announce the video on your website as documentation of a performance, but you edited the footing, so, in my opinion it became a video on its own – how do you see this?
SL: Yes, though it was a live performance, I wanted it, from the beginning when I was still planning the project, to also function as a video piece. Hence, I discussed how to document it with the cameraman, Benny, and we edited the multi-camera shots together. The length of the performance didn’t change much – the whole performance was about 11 to 12 min including short pauses between the scenes. I also thought about shooting the whole thing as a video series instead of a performance series, in which case, I could have controlled the details better by reshooting. But in the end, I preferred to try live dubbing when the performers speak in front of the audience.
For this piece, I didn’t change or edit too much since I wanted to keep the original flow of the performance. Usually, I take a much longer time editing and changing the order and playing with the rhythm when it’s video.
AA: Was the performance done in front of a public? As in theater? Is it something you would repeat?
SL: It was done in Cattle Depot Artist Village in Hong Kong in front of about 40-50 people. This site is a former cattle slaughter and under the care of the HK government. The residency (Videotage Fuse Residency) office was inside the village, and the first day I visited, I loved the backdrop of this setting.
I would like to repeat this performance, possibly in a theater, but with some changes in the script since this one is particularly related to Hong Kong’s current situations (see a bit further in this exchange), possibly in another country with diverse cultural codes.
AA: The numbers with the music, cuts up the performance in parts, makes it existing out of different scenes and so the result gets something from theater or cinema too – was there an equivalent in the performance or was the performance one event and did you change, edit it like this it later?
SL: I continue to experiment on how to incorporate or put layers that relate to cinema, theater, and performance in a single piece.
I’m interested in mixing professionals and non-professionals (usually migrant workers or minority groups) for I want the social misfits to be performers (not subjects) in my work.
AA: And why numbers?
SL: It might have been one of the easiest choices, I think now. The script was written in 7 scenes. I do however think that I could have maybe used dates or other time breaks in between the scenes. Something to consider for the next piece.
AA: Why did you choose these particular languages? Because that’s what the performers spoke? And – did they all understand the four languages?
SL: I used Cantonese (that’s what the male actor, Donald, spoke) because it’s the main language Hong Kong people use. They are under the heavy pressure from China to use Mandarin in schools, so, people are afraid to lose Cantonese. The Filipino ladies – Marita, Merz, and Ever – who are domestic helpers in HK spoke Tagalog which is the most largely used language in the Philippines. The Hong Kong actress, Cha, spoke Mandarin for some of the lines as she also speaks Mandarin reflecting HK’s current language shift from Cantonese and English to Mandarin. The Canadian performer, Kristy lives already for eight years in Hong Kong and works in Hong Kong Disneyland performing as Disney characters (usually princesses). Though she’s more interested in doing non-commercial performances, because of her visa. I very much enjoyed collaborating with all of them.
They didn’t understand all four languages and neither did I. All the meetings and workshops were held in English. I also discovered that written Cantonese and spoken Cantonese are quite different, so the subtitles and the spoken Cantonese were two different versions of translation.
AA: I adore your text, it’s strangeness, “directness”, emotion, humanity – just very curious – How, when did you write it? Do you write more? Can I find something more …
SL: Thank you. My residency period lasted about 2 and a half month, and I wrote the script after a month of researching in Hong Kong. There are about 320,000 domestic workers in Hong Kong (around 3 percent of Hong Kong’s population in 2013, according to South China Morning Post). Filipinos are the largest number reported to be the 50 percent of them. On the weekends, when they’re off work, they are out in parks and near subway stations because they need to be (or like to be) out of the houses when the families stay together. These ladies take care of the babies, house chores, and sometimes teach English to young kids. I also went to some interesting places in Hong Kong, such as horse races where majority of the crowd watching games seemed to be 50 and above white male and a couple of small islands where the local natives and foreigners live together. All of these scenes registered in mind before I started writing.
Korea is a developed country especially in terms of technology and fast wiring system of the Internet, but we are not quite multi-cultured. Most people speak Korean only, and though there are foreigners and migrant workers, they are not strongly recognizable as a part of Korean culture yet. Similarly, in Korea, people understand the concept of minority but most people don’t seem to capture how it feels to be a minority.
In such cities as Hong Kong, there are more layers in culture and languages, and that inspired me to write this piece.(1)
I also wanted to adapt a few lines from internationally popular novels and plays originally written in Chinese, Russian, and English. (2)
For other writings, I do write usually related to my video pieces or to the research projects. The last script I’ve written for the piece, “Fortress,” was more abstractly written in the very beginning with blank spaces for the actors to fill in. After several meetings and workshops, I added more lines and guidelines but still, the scenes that each actor talked about the idea of dream home and death are filmed with their improvised lines. A few of my colleagues, to whom I sent the original text, liked the first draft of the script, but I wanted to have the actors tell their own concept of “home” in their style of talking.
AA: Could you have made this piece before the internet area, before we all got connected by technology?
SL: I think, since you’ve asked this question, I started realizing how the Internet might have influenced making this piece because before this new era of viewing so much contents of media by streaming or downloading via youtube, vimeo, etc, translating languages and discovering media contents were much slower, and the multi-culture or multi-languages didn’t seem to happen simultaneously. Nowadays, we seem to be more okay with hearing different languages and became familiar with sounds of different languages other than our own or English(or Latin based languages). At the same time, an older media technique which is still quite commonly used such as dubbing technique became more intriguing for me in a sense why and how we can still use it as well as how we can distort such techniques for provoking different kinds discussions as what’s hidden in cracks and pausing moments.
(1) AA: I have a very personal question : Why are you so interested in the exile, the minority? Are you part of one?
SL: I went to the US when I was 14 and lived there for about 10 years as a minority. That was a big jump from a relatively comfortable identity to a very conflicted and confused one. I also had conversations with my Korean-American cousins and other minority friends about being misfits in communities. Then, I lived in London for about 6 months and returned to Korea. When I returned to where I once believed home, there were some other uneasiness in culture that I encountered. Spending a couple of years doing a research-based project on Korean diasporas in Central Asia also made me think a lot about resettlement. Though there are disturbing experiences and conflicts I sometimes include or mention in the work, my direction is towards the possibilities in migration and resettlement in the history of diasporas. The possibilities of sewing the conflicting identities together interest me and inspire some of the projects I’ve been working on and plan to produce.
(2) AA: In your text I only recognized Gertrud Stein and maybe something Shakespearean. The phrase of “the children never having eaten men” struck me as a citation too, but ….
SL: The plays and novels I used for the texts are: Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, Diary of a Madman by Nikolai V. Gogol, and A Madman’s Diary by Lu Xun.
“Deny thy father and refuse thy name; or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, and I’ll no longer be a (Ponce)(3). ’Tis but thy name that is my enemy; thou art thyself, though not a (Chun)(3). What’s (Chun)(3)? It is nor hand, nor foot, nor arm, nor face, nor any other part belonging to a man. O, be some other name!”
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet… doff thy name, and for that name which is no part of thee Take all myself.”
(Quoted from: Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, Act II Scene II)
“I have discovered that China and Spain are really one and the same country, and it’s only ignorance that leads people to think that they’re two different nations. If you don’t believe me, then try and write ‘Spain’ and you’ll end up writing ‘China’.”
(Quoted from: Diary of a Madman by Nikolai V. Gogol, p.193 in Madrid, 30th Februarius)
“Perhaps there are still children who have not eaten men?”
“Save the children…”
(Quoted from: A Madman’s Diary by Lu Xun)
I adapted from the writers who are internationally popular in literature and theatre and from the countries that are largely influential to Asian culture, so some people (especially from the theatre background) can acknowledge them. The universality and adaptability of the performance was also important when I wrote the script.
The balcony scene of the Romeo and Juliet was adapted because I had an interesting discussion with some Hong Kong friends and the Canadian performer, Kristy, about the names in Hong Kong. Since Hong Kong used to be a British colony, most people have English names. Some of them are typical or old English names, but some of the names are direct and unique such as “Emotion, Dream,” etc. Now the young generations in HK are fighting for democracy against pro-China government, and as a foreigner, the complexity of their culture even in the names seemed very interesting.
(3) AA: What is in the names Chun and Ponce that is interesting to you, what do they mean?
SL: I wanted to use one of the most popular Chinese or Cantonese last names, and Chun was one of them. Ponce is the last name of Merz, one of the Filipino performers, who starts dubbing the first line of the balcony scene.
AA: Thank you so much Soyung for this generous and insightful conversation.