Written by Michelle Law and directed by Courtney Stewart, presented by Arts Centre Melbourne in association with AsiaTOPA, Belvoir St Theatre & Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Miss Peony is a great combination of every aspect I could think of; a great balance of comedy, touching moments, a clever dab into cultural and political differences, and a great use of the three different languages.
I truthfully didn’t really know what I was walking into when I first heard about Miss Peony. Beauty pageant, haunted by the ghost of grandma, Asian representation, and a show with three languages I grew up hearing; it was enough to perk up my interest.
The story follows Lily (Stephanie Jack) being haunted by her dead grandma Por Por/Adeline Yu (Gabrielle Chan) to fulfill her death wish and compete in the Australian Chinese beauty contest, Miss Peony. No matter what Lily does, her grandma won’t take no for an answer, and against her will, Lily embarks on a journey which will change her view on life and build relations she never would have thought of.
Lily Fung, our main protagonist, is half-Chinese Australian and is described in the show as a ‘banana’, hesitant to appreciate and be proud of her Chinese background. I personally went to school with a lot of people that felt the same growing up. There was a stigma against a Chinese upbringing, and it made me remember that, for years during my own childhood, I too had an issue with proudly calling myself Chinese.
Lily’s relationship with her grandmother is also not the greatest due to the stereotypical Asian expectations and constant pressures. Por Por/Adeline Yu gives a great insight of the gap between Western and Eastern culture, and how much can slip away if immigrants aren’t adapting to change from moving to another country. So, I loved watching the dynamics between Lily and Por Por shift and transform throughout the production. It was very heartwarming and true to reality as many first-generation Asian children can only understand the thought process of their parents and grandparents later in life.
Joy Kwan (Shirong Wu), the Taiwanese representation and Marcy (Deborah Faye Lee), the Shanghainese businesswoman, brought such fun additions to the show, complete with opposing cultural clashes. Zhen Hua (Jeffrey Liu) is amazing as the only male character in the show as producer of the beauty pageant and I loved his beautiful rendition of Jay Chou’s ‘Love Confession’ which had me cheering to finally hear Chinese music, in comparison to the Western music and Asian music (but not Chinese songs) played during pre-show and interval.
My personal favourite of the show though would have to be Sabrina Choi (Mabel Li), the ‘ABC (Australian Born Chinese)’ who I found myself relating to the most. With a thick Aussie accent, she was loud, proud, and essentially described my childhood through her story.
Being sent to Saturday Chinese school, going home every day to having TVB on the television, and seeing beauty pageants as, at the time, one of the only sources of female Asian representation growing up, I didn’t realise until after seeing Miss Peony that one of the only positive representations of Asian women in my childhood actually came from watching Miss Hong Kong. A lot of the Asian TV shows I watched had a male centric storyline, and Miss Hong Kong had one motto that has resonated with me to this day: “the coexistence of beauty and wisdom”.
As a fellow ‘ABC’, I have never watched a show before that has felt so relatable and sparked so many nostalgic memories within me. This show came with surtitles in English and both traditional and simplified Chinese; but I was personally lucky I was able to understand all three languages without the reliance on the surtitles. That being said, I did have a look throughout and was pleasantly surprised that the meaning and humour was not lost through translation thanks to translators, Samantha Kwan, Sylvia Xu (Cantonese), and Dr Jing Han (Mandarin) who also did the subtitling.
I was surprised with how many sensitive topics were integrated so seamlessly into the show, such as Taiwan’s legalisation of same sex marriage, the relationship between Hong Kong and China, racism amongst the Chinese community, and the unwritten rule of female treatment in the beauty pageant/entertainment industry. It was brave, smart, hilarious, and thought-provoking.
I absolutely loved that the storyline focused on four contestants who came from very different Chinese backgrounds and how they learn and overcome their prejudice with each other. The execution of their flourishing friendships was also very endearing to witness, seeing these different young women support each other throughout the beauty competition. All the while, each pageant contestant brought their own unique flavour and story, and the attention to detail to make these personalities so distinctive, made these contestants’ varying personalities feel very believable and real.
I also appreciated the attention to accents for each character. Lily’s very broken Cantonese, Sabrina’s fluent but accented Cantonese clearly showing she wasn’t a native speaker, Joy’s Mandarin depicting the cuter and softer tones often heard in Taiwan, compared to Chinese native Marcy’s pronunciation.
The costuming by Johnathan Hindmarsh and Keerthi Subramanyam was a great way to show each girl’s personal charm and cultural background; and I loved how silly and exaggerated they made it. The lighting work by Trent Suidgeest was also incredible. Being able to display scenes of a cold and isolated hospital room to a glamourous and flashy pageant stage through the changes in lighting, use of haze, smoke, and space really showed that each scene was extremely well thought out and used to its full advantage.
I am so happy that Miss Peony exists to truly represent Chinese representation. To showcase that there isn’t actually one type of Chinese is a powerful move and to address even within this community that there are still struggles to accept and learn from our differences. I never expected to see a production in Australian theatre be trilingual and accomplished so flawlessly. Even if you cannot understand Chinese, Miss Peony is an enjoyable show that’s very easy to follow, is deeply moving, and I’m thankful that it’s made to be so inclusive.
Miss Peony is now playing at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Fairfax Studio until August 20.
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Photography by Jason Lau.