I’ll bet you an ethnically neutral $100 bill that at this very moment, in a university library somewhere in this great country, a theatre student is working away on an academic paper about the use of inexplicable time travel in plays by Chinese Canadians.
The progenitor of this theatrical trend is probably Leon Aureus’s entertaining 2004 play Banana Boys, based on Terry Woo’s novel about five twentysomething Chinese Canadians, one of whom has an unorthodox relationship with the space-time continuum.
Then there was David Yee’s 2009 Governor-General’s Award-nominated noir Lady in the Red Dress, whose titular character was a time-shifting assassin eking out revenge for the head tax.
Now comes Hiding Words (for you), Gein Wong’s new play in which a Chinese Canadian in the 21st century communicates with a Chinese teenager in 19th-century Guangzhou with the help of nushu.
Who or what is nushu? Well, it’s a single-sex system of writing employed by Chinese women as far back at least the 13th century.
At times when they were forbidden to have a formal education, women used it to secretly send missives and poems to each other – often by incorporating sentences into fans or embroidering them into handkerchiefs.
Part of Hiding Words takes place in 1850s China, where young Wing-Yin (an overly spunky Rebecca Applebaum) learns the language from her mother, Mei-Kong (Susan Lock), who has been sewing messages in support of the Taiping Rebellion.
Mei-Kong’s treason is doubly dangerous, because not only might the Qing Dynasty officials catch on, but so might her husband, Keung-Do (the enjoyable John Ng), one of those stereotypically sexist males who appear in historical dramas and immediately ask why the floor is dirty and where dinner is in a single sentence.
Meanwhile, a century and a half later in modern-day Vancouver, Grace (a bland Stephanie Jung) is being questioned by an RCMP agent (Richard Lee), who suspects that she may be involved in a cyber-terrorist plot.
Grace denies knowing anything about it, but her nameless interrogator has Internet records and photographic evidence of her with some shady characters on a recent trip to Hong Kong.
From her cell, Grace commiserates with Wing-Yin through nushu – here personified by, hey whattaya know, a lady in a red dress (Soomi Kim).
In her long-sleeved gown, she prances about on the S-shaped set transmitting messages from the past to the present as showers of projected Chinese characters rain down from a pair of silk curtains on either side of her.
If a dancing language sounds a tad ridiculous to you, it’s actually one of the only things in Hiding Words that works. Little else really clicks.
Wing-Yin’s civil-war story is dully predictable and told through drab dialogue, while Grace’s contemporary trajectory gradually dissolves into incoherence.
In the second act, a little life gets injected into the proceedings when Grace somehow teleports out of Vancouver to Hong Kong, where she encounters a performance artist named Blackberry (Traci Kato-Kiriyama) and a terrible Cantonese rapper named MC Yeung (Ng again).
But nushu’s long sleeves are not the only things left dangling – there is zilch in the way of dramatic payoff in the present, just an overly earnest final speech about the importance of speaking up.
Perhaps it’s time to put time travel aside – or, at least, teach audience members the trick, so that the final curtain doesn’t take so excruciatingly long to arrive.