Theatre preview: A Taste of Empire deconstructs modern flavours of colonization

Sep 12 2016, 2:56 pm

Modern foodie ties with imperial colonization are scrutinized in A Taste of Empire, opening and closing this weekend at Richmond’s Gateway Theatre. In a combination that pretty much screams Vancouver, Hong Kong transplant Derek Chan performs the play in Cantonese, accompanied by English and Chinese subtitles, all the while cooking a Filipino dish in real time.

Daily Hive spoke to performer and sous chef Derek Chan on this theatrical take of the live cooking show.

Image: Rice and Beans Theatre

Image: Brenda Nicole Kent and Jules Le Masson

Playwright Jovanni Sy originally wrote Empire in Toronto, drawing on his Filipino-Chinese roots and his connection to the nation’s famous stuffed milk fish dish (rellenong bangus). It’s an authenticity that Chan has tried to retain while translating the show into Cantonese. Chan jumped at the opportunity after meeting Sy at a performance of Empire in Vancouver: “I just love it… it’s so rare in theatre that you also get to experience different senses – smell, taste – in such an intimate and playful setting.”

While the idea is to appeal to the large Cantonese-speaking audience in Richmond, Chan wants to show that theatre, just like food, can bring people together.

“[We’re] not catering to just one specific language group. The idea is to include everyone to show that theatre can work across languages and to bring different groups together.”

Chan is no stranger to connecting the cultural dots. Originally born and raised in Hong Kong, the performer experienced first-hand the themes of the play, especially after the island’s 1997 Handover to China (or the ‘Return,’ depending on who you talk to). As a teenager, everyday life was relatively the same. It was only after distancing himself from his hometown, first for a brief stint in Norway, and now a decade into making theatre in Vancouver, does Chan notice the effects of this new form of colonization.

“Things are slowly changing. The Mainland Chinese influence is definitely very visible now, from language to government policies… or you could even say interference in what’s going on now in Hong Kong.”

Image: Rice and Beans Theatre

Image: Brenda Nicole Kent and Jules Le Masson

Similarly, the systems of colonization, which we mostly think of as historical, are still very much intact today. As Empire shows in the context of food preparation, “we import food from all over the world. Companies have factories and processing plants in places they can have cheaper labour. We do take advantage of that [food system] every day – but at what cost? Even myself, it’s easy to forget – because it’s so easy for us.”

So why are Vancouverites so obsessed with food? Chan blithely replies that it’s because “we’re good people… we know how to enjoy life. There’s something about food that really brings you back to your roots, while bringing you forward to share these experiences with new friends.”

For Chan, he’s coming out of the Empire experience both a better global citizen, as well as a better hand in the kitchen.

See also

A Taste of Empire – Rice & Beans Theatre

When: September 15 to 17
Where: Gateway Theatre (Richmond)