Talking Single Asian Female with Hsiao-Ling Teng

Michelle Law’s debut play Single Asian Female will transport audiences to the Sunshine Coast, inside the world of the Wong family.

The play focuses on the lives of 3 Asian women living in Australia, and the struggles with modernity and maintaining their culture outside of their homeland. The play is a hilarious and witty analysis of gender and race in contemporary Australia, topics that are relevant as ever in 2019. 

Following sold out seasons at both Sydney’s Belvior Theatre and Brisbane’s La Boite Theatre Company, the play will be presented as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Fairfax Studio.

Hsiao-Ling Tang | Photo by Dylan Evans

In the role of Pearl, the matriarch, is Hsiao-Ling Tang, an incredibly accomplished stage and screen actor. Some of her previous stage credits include First Asylum and Lysa and the Freeborn Dames for La Boite Theatre; Rice (Griffin Theatre/Queensland Theatre), and both previous runs of Single Asian Female. On screen she has been featured in All Saints, H2O Just Add Water and Sea Patrol, as well as the feature film Tempted alongside Virginia Madsen and Jason Momoa. Ahead of it’s opening, I spoke with Hsiao-Ling about the importance of the play and her personal connection to it.

Why do you think it is important to tell stories like that of Single Asian Female?  

It’s all about representation; giving a different perspective that is just as valid, important and interesting as what we are usually fed. Simply presenting true experiences, people and relationships of strong diverse women is important and unfortunately we haven’t had much of a voice in mainstream theatre. These Asian-Australian women are a part of everyday life in our modern society. They need to have their stories told and included; if we truly want a diverse and inclusive reflection of our communities. For young Asian-Australian women to be able to see themselves or their families represented on stage, identify with it deeply and feel seen and heard gives them power and a voice for the future.

Photo by Daniel Boud

Do you think theatre has changed in the last decade in terms of female and cultural representation? How so? 

I think very slowly in the last decade I have seen glimmers of change towards more female and cultural representation, but definitely in the last few years there has been a massive shift in attitude and thinking.  I feel an acceptance of seeing such representation on the world’s political stage has edged things forward for society to be more open to it.  Female political leaders and spokeswomen of colour showing their strength and intelligence.  Obviously the “me too” movement has also created a huge change in not only the artistic community but in every part of society all over the world.  Well, at least the first world. Single Asian Female was one of the first Asian-Australian stories to be told on the main stage back in 2017.  I’ve been working as an actor in this industry for over 20yrs and it is the first time I’ve played a three dimensional, lead character of my own Chinese background set in Australia, telling a story that is part of my own identity.  My working history is a stereotypical line-up of refugees, laundry women, prostitutes, servants etc, kowtowing to the white male in what is almost always the typical patriarchal story.  There are people driving this new movement for diversity in Australian film, tv and theatre.  Such as Annette Shun Wah and Michelle Law.  They’ve worked hard to forge a reputation in mainstream platforms. Speaking up and for diversity. Annette through (CAAP) has built programs especially designed for mainstream companies such as the state theatre companies, to have the opportunity to include diversity into all aspects of their team.  Production, directorial cadetships, writing workshops, actors.  I think the more opportunity we get to have our voice heard, the more we will see it represented in our film, tv and theatre if we continue to create the work behind the scenes.

Tell me a bit about your role as Pearl?  

Pearl is the migrant matriarch of the Wong family. She has moved to Australia for what she thought would be a better life to raise a family. She has been wronged by her husband who she has recently divorced and struggles to keep her ties happily intact with her two Australian-born daughters. She is also hiding a secret that threatens to tear her and her daughters apart. She is hilarious and strong, resilient and loving, still trying to find her place.

Photo by Daniel Boud

Do you relate to the show?

I absolutely relate to this show. So many of the lines are verbatim of what my parents would say to me as a child.  I actually identify mostly with both of the daughters Zoe and Mei.  Being Australian born myself, with a migrant mother.  Fighting against my parents cultural upbringing and just wanting to fit into to white Australia.  Dating in Australia and the innuendos and connotations that you face just because of the way I look.  The expectations from men who believe I would be or behave in a certain manner because I am Chinese.  The expectations of my parents and what they consider is success after all the sacrifices they made to give me the best opportunity.  My playing of Pearl is a culmination of both of my parents and all my crazy Malaysian aunties.

What makes Single Asian Female different to other plays?  

As previously mentioned, it tells the story of 3 strong Asian-Australian women. Showing their relationship with their family, set in their home.  I don’t believe this has been done previously on a Mainstage in Australia.  Secondly it has karaoke, dancing, sexual themes, mild violence, coarse language, other languages, different theatrical conventions, cross-dressing, political content. What other play combines all of that?

What can audiences expect from the play?

It is so cleverly written that it touches on a huge amount of different politics and issues in a way that is inviting and surprising through humour.  The audience is unwittingly taken on this rollercoaster ride of emotions following the heart and soul of the Wong women, but at the same time are given an education on sexism, racism, cultural appropriation, government policies and laws and more.  The issues are presented and dissected so subtlety that you don’t even realise you’ve been schooled, until you get home and can’t stop thinking about it all and discussing with your friends.  Also it has “the best curtain call, you’ve ever seen” quoted by many longstanding thespians.  It’s a great night out.

Arts Centre Melbourne and Asia TOPA present LA Boite’s Single Asian Female from April 3rd-21st. For tickets and more information, please visit the Arts Centre Melbourne website.

Gabi Bergman

Gabi Bergman is a Melbourne-based performer and educator. She holds a Double Arts degree in Theatre Studies and Film/Screen Studies and a Master of Teaching (Secondary Education). Gabi has always been an avid lover of theatre, specifically musicals, and spends way too much money than she’d like to admit on tickets. Her most prized possession is her crate of theatre programs.

Gabi Bergman

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