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From Governor-General Award-winning playwright David Yee, the topical 2018 play No Foreigners is a collaboration between Vancouver’s interdisciplinary collective Hong Kong Exile and fu-GEN Theatre. The multimedia performance examines North American Chinese shopping malls as spaces of cultural community and clash. In advance of the play’s Toronto premiere at the Theatre Centre, with a run in Burnaby, B.C., to follow, the Toronto-raised Scottish-Chinese Canadian Yee spoke to The Globe and Mail.

The play was inspired by an experience David Yee had at a Chinese mall in Richmond, British Columbia.

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The presentation of No Foreigners is unique. Can you describe it?

It’s a meditation on culture and culture capital, using the framework of Chinese malls, as told through a digital apparatus, using digital cameras and a bevy of digital screens and projections and miniatures. It’s hyper-modern, in terms of a traditional live performances

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The play was inspired by an incident at a Chinese mall in Vancouver, is that correct?

Richmond, B.C., actually. And first, I have to say the incident was not emblematic of the Chinese mall experience, which is about community and a little bit of home, linguistically and commercially. The experience I had was an outlier, which is why it sparked my interest and a good deal of the tension of the show. We were in a Chinese mall, where there was a store with high-end bags in the window. The store was open, but the door was locked. When the lady finally answered the door, she just looked me up and down and said, “Sorry, no foreigners," and closed the door in my face.

No foreigners, what did she mean by that?

She meant people who weren’t Chinese, I believe. But that’s the central question of the show. What made me a foreigner? Because I’m Canadian? Because I’m half and could be white-passing? What about me said “foreigner” to her? This show, in part, is an investigation of that tension.

Expressions of nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise. How will your play resonate?

The play will resonate differently, globally, and relative to anyone’s own experience of being from another place and how welcome one feels. My girlfriend is Chinese-Canadian. Literally yesterday at a Toronto Dollarama, she was told to go back to her country. We’re living in a time where there’s no compassion anymore. We feel more and more unwelcome.

How is this trend playing out in the Chinese malls?

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They’re disappearing. When I was a kid, they were bustling. What we’re examining is why these places are disappearing, and what is the significance of them, and why they were built in the first place. Where does one get that sense of community now? There’s a nostalgia involved, as well.

You seem to be mourning the loss, but there are those who will say the loss of the malls is due to assimilation and that it’s a healthy thing.

Sure, the cultural majority looks at these places and asks what people are hiding behind there. They wonder why they can’t understand it, and why it frightens them. But I would argue that Chinese malls, and places like them, are a place to celebrate, not hide. If we stop looking at these things through a lens of assimilation and start looking at them through a lens of celebration, we’ll be better off. We can have all of these things and be a unified society. I think that, instead of stomping out the things that make us specific and unique, we should be searching for them.

No Foreigners is at the Theatre Centre, Toronto, to Sept. 29; Shadbolt Centre for the Arts, Burnaby, B.C., Oct. 9 to 12.

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