How To Throw A Chinese Funeral – Basement Theatre: October 3, 2023 (Theatre Review)

How to Throw a Chinese Funeral is an immigrant story that asks if the migrant can ever really go home. Told through the travails of one family’s three generations gathering for a funeral, it dives dangerously close to melodrama before emerging as a commentary on the enduring strength of family and women’s place in a Confucian culture.

As a migrant story, the tale is neither fully Chinese nor totally Kiwi. To which culture does the migrant pay full homage, if any? And is family enough, when separated by so many miles?

Writer and director Jill Kwan has navigated the migrant’s challenges herself, so the play is a very personal one. It’s not giving away too many spoilers to say the titular funeral is for the women’s popo (grandmother); that our family’s main characters are all Malysian-Chinese women of the succeeding generations negotiate tradition with what’s contemporary. And that one of the plot arcs involves a mysterious stranger …

The characters are warm and sometimes funny – and oft-times confused and flailing. Why a funeral? Because that’s when emotions are at their most raw, when we get to see most deeply inside a person, and what they’re struggling with.

We see Chinese diaspora (the statuesque Lisa Zhang and Ann An) not fitting in back “home,” if it is home, and with the older generation and the unfamiliar Taoist rituals. Their mother (the too-youthful Yoong Ru Heng), struggling with her health and her own religious objections to the funeral’s rites, struggling to understand her daughters’ modern lives, and they, hers. And her older sister (a staunch Janet Tan), now the matriarch, wrestling with her life-long conflict between her own self, and the duties imposed upon an eldest sibling.

The ensemble cast are all sympathetic, and they all bear secrets – none more so than the mysterious stranger, nobly played by Mustaq Missouri.

A delight throughout is the traditional Chinese/Malay shadow puppetry (design and projection by Darryl Chin). The form is said to have originated in ancient times when a magician promised to raise the spirit of an Emperor’s dead concubine. The spectral feeling remains here, and the elegant use of it to tell the tale of this play’s departed soul is compelling, suggesting layers to the life they are mourning of which they are unaware.

It is always a pleasure to see another new local play. This is Jill Kwan’s first and, like all first works of any kind, it has to bear the weight of everything the creator has ever wanted to say. We do root for all her characters in the challenges she throws at them, only hinted at here, but the story does limp at times and could still do with some tightening. There may be one too many backstories. (A guideline with television writing is that the main character generally stays the same while all around them can change; the reverse is recommended for film (or theatre). Here, change comes to them all!)

Kwan’s play is clearly female-driven, her highlighting that Confucian culture explicitly ignores women, especially in recorded history. (This may or may not be a plot point.) Aimed at young folk from migrant communities and their families, no-one else would feel excluded, and the diverse audience on opening night ended the night’s performance with enthusiastic applause.

You have two weeks in which to see it at the Basement Theatre. Take a parent with you.

Theatre Peter

How to Throw a Chinese Funeral runs at Auckland’s Basement Theatre from October 3-14 with choose-what-you-pay tickets.

Interview here.

Tickets here.