Smoking with Grandma is a show that makes personal grief political. The play is about the destruction of the far-flung Hong Kong island refugee community, Tiu Keng Leng. Tiu Keng Leng began its life as a haven for mainland Chinese Kuomintang members and supporters fleeing political persecution in the 1950s. However, in 1996, all remaining inhabitants of the village were evicted by the Hong Kong government. This was apparently so that the Tseung Kwan O New Town development could be built in its place – however, it remains the belief of many that the community was dispensed with in order to appease the incumbent mainland Chinese government, which had the sovereignty of Hong Kong transferred to it in the following year.
The play, which is written and directed by Cathy SK Lam, evokes grief about the destruction of a community as well as the loss of the individuals who populated it. The central character is Maia. She reminisces with us, both about Tiu Keng Leng and about her since deceased grandmother, who was an inhabitant of that community. At one point Maia (played with winning openness and sincerity by Katherine Leung Ki Kwan), moves around the stage in slow circles as images of Tiu Keng Leng and the refugees who lived there are projected onto a curtain backdrop. It is open to interpretation what this movement means but it is hard not to feel that it hints at history repeating itself.
Smoking with Grandma seeks to cut down cultural and language barriers between Grandma (played brilliantly by Angel Sy Chan) and the audience; Chan speaks entirely in Chinese in between smoking from a pipe that emits slow curling hypnotic smoke. What she is saying is translated for us, sometimes by Leung Ki Kwan and sometimes by subtitles. It certainly seems like the play, which shows us the life and personal idiosyncrasies of a woman who was a refugee, is relevant now more than ever at a time in Australia and the world at large when those seeking refuge are consistently denied their humanity.
Smoking with Grandma is running at the Bakehouse Theatre Mainstage until March 10. You can purchase tickets here.