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Review: SWEET MANDARIN at the Theatre, Sheung Wan Civic Centre

Review: SWEET MANDARIN at the Theatre, Sheung Wan Civic Centre

The production runs from November 11th through 20th

Opened on Friday 11th November 2022 at the Theatre, Sheung Wan Civic Centre, Sweet Mandarin tells the tale of 3 generations of Chinese women and their journey from East to West.

Review: SWEET MANDARIN at the Theatre, Sheung Wan Civic Centre
Photo credit: Keith Hiro

Based on the memoir by Helen Tse, the play is shares the story of so many British Chinese diaspora and their connection to the Chinese restaurant and takeaway industry. This heartwarming and moving piece has a lot of funny, relatable moments throughout, yet at the same time, it reflects on a lot of difficult realities and sacrifices families had to make in order to survive as migrants in a western country, highlighting the ups and downs of life, or the "sweet, sour, bitter and hot" as we say in Chinese.

The play starts in 1925 during the Canton Hong Kong Strike, where we see a young Lily Kwok and her father, making their way to the fragrant harbour in search of a better life. From there on, it transports audiences between locations and decades telling the story of Lily's journey from Guangzhou to England, along with the rise and fall of her restaurant business, Lung Fung. Very early on, we learn of granddaughter Helen's wish to leave behind a successful, legal career and venture into the F&B industry with her sisters, hoping to open a restaurant in honour of their grandmother. Looking to gain the support of her family, Helen unfortunately finds herself in a dilemma. Tensions rise as her parents disapproves of the idea, whilst arguments break out between Helen and her sister. The play follows Helen's quest to opening her own restaurant whilst exploring the history of their family.

Review: SWEET MANDARIN at the Theatre, Sheung Wan Civic Centre
Photo credit: Keith Hiro

The ensemble of six does a brilliant job to bring this play to life. Being a British-born Chinese, chip shop/takeaway kid myself, I recognised so many people I know through those actors and their characters on stage - from the tough business owner, Lily, whose pours her heart and soul into the restaurant only to let her gambling addiction takeover; to Mabel and Eric, the worried parents who want their kids to have a better life, away from the takeaways/restaurants; and Helen, who struggles to get her parents' support with her career change.The cast deliver a very strong performance, and deserve a lot of credit for the production's success.

The performances that deserve a special mention, however, are that of WONG Hiu-Yee and SO Yuk-Fai.

Review: SWEET MANDARIN at the Theatre, Sheung Wan Civic Centre
Photo credit: Keith Hiro

WONG Hiu-Yee, who plays the matriarch Lily Kwok, does a stellar job portraying Lily across the years, seamlessly transitioning between each stage. The highlight for me must be Scene 6, which features Lily and Peter. Despite this may not being a particularly memorable scene for audiences, here, through the monologue, WONG accurately captures the grit and toughness of so many female restaurant/takeaway owners, as well as the loneliness and struggle that comes with the unsociable lifestyle of the job. Those who have been in the industry, will understand it far too well, and WONG's performance here is really convincing.

SO Yuk-Fai's, who plays Helen's father, Eric, was also brilliant.

Review: SWEET MANDARIN at the Theatre, Sheung Wan Civic Centre
Photo credit: Keith Hiro

The frustration and disbelief he delivers upon hearing his daughter's plans is something I'm sure many parents can relate to and understand. Despite the character being a typical Chinese, man of the house with their strict and sometimes stubborn ways, SO's portrayal makes the character very likeable as he does a magnificent job of transitioning between emotions and showing the softer side that most fathers like to keep away from their kids. Getting that balance right is incredibly important and SO does that effortlessly.

The set, designed by SUEN Wing-Kwan, is simple but extremely effective. The large round dinner table that is a distinct feature of traditional Chinese culture is used across scenes, serving multiple purposes, whilst moveable kitchens and television sets are used to create the difference in time and space. In addition, what I really liked was the subtle overhead thread drapes, which changed according to each scene, representing waves, movement and motion. Furthermore, one layer was also used to create a round arch which reminds viewers of the arched pathways that you would find in a traditional chinese courtyard or detail. Not to mention that the circular shape is quite symbolic in chinese culture, SUEN's set design is impressive in that it pays a lot of attention to detail even with a modest set.

This play contained a lot of moments that were so true-to-life, and as an audience member, it brought back a lot of memories for me - the Sunday Chinese school and the never-ending complaints about it; how our parents would spend their day off going to the cash-and-carry or Chinese supermarkets to replenish stock; or how we used to finish school then go straight to the takeaway to help. Even if we weren't allowed in the shop front, we'd be in the kitchen peeling potatoes, cutting up vegetables and beating endless packs of eggs!

Review: SWEET MANDARIN at the Theatre, Sheung Wan Civic Centre
Photo credit: Keith Hiro

The accurate reflection makes us, and other audiences, appreciate how much sacrifice our families made, and the challenges and hardship they faced as chinese migrants in order to provide for their family. Regardless of background, there's something for every audience member, and different people will connect to different themes within this play. It truly is a great piece of theatre and I hope it plays agains in the near future.

Thank you to Helen Tse for documenting and preserving these stories, and thank you to Director WU Hoi-fai, playwright CHEANG Tik-ki and the entire cast and crew of Pants Theatre Production for sharing the story so beautifully.

Review: SWEET MANDARIN at the Theatre, Sheung Wan Civic Centre
Photo credit: Keith Hiro
Review: SWEET MANDARIN at the Theatre, Sheung Wan Civic Centre
Photo credit: Keith Hiro
Review: SWEET MANDARIN at the Theatre, Sheung Wan Civic Centre
Photo credit: Keith Hiro
Review: SWEET MANDARIN at the Theatre, Sheung Wan Civic Centre
Photo credit: Keith Hiro


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