Dim Sum Diaries explores the diversity of Chinese Canadian experiences

“Where are you from?”

It’s a seemingly harmless question, right? Maybe for the first few times, but at some point, you might begin questioning if there’s something about you that’s consistently making you a target of this curiosity: Is it the way I speak? Or the way I act? Could it be because of the way I look?

In Dim Sum Diaries: Second Helping, Fabulist Theatre explores the diversity of Chinese Canadian experiences in a post-COVID world in their sequel to Mark Leiren-Young’s 1991 radio play Dim Sum Diaries. It revolves around the rush of immigrants coming from Hong Kong to Vancouver in the '90s.

During the pandemic, the whole world wanted to find someone to blame, and many were quick to point fingers at the Chinese. The news flooded with reports of anti-Asian hate crimes.

The new sequel consists of eight individual stories based on the realities of Chinese Canadians in Vancouver and their journeys of self-discovery, with one prominent question in mind: What does it mean to be Chinese in Canada?

Mikayla Kwan, a graduate student in UBC theatre and film, takes part in continuing this conversation about the diversity of Chinese Canadian experiences.

“We’re not a monolith,” said Kwan. “There are so many different stories and experiences.”

Kwan plays the roles of Lila, Hannah, and Laara — as if being able to convincingly portray one character’s internal struggles wasn’t hard enough.

Lila is a second-generation daughter of first-generation immigrants. As she enters adulthood, her relationship with her mother declines as her mother struggles with the loss of her husband and attachment to the house that contains all of his lasting memories. On top of it all are the challenges of living in Vancouver’s competitive economy.

Hannah is a Chinese adoptee with Scottish parents. Though her adoptive parents have always tried their best to connect Hannah with her culture of origin, the lack of Chinese cultural representation in her personal life left her wondering what it truly means to be Chinese Canadian.

The character of Laara is based on a real person with the same name. She’s a former Miss Chinatown Pageant contestant who remembers how restaurants in a tight-knit community, like Chinatown, hold a sense of familiarity that’s rare in a big city like Vancouver.

Though people may share a culture with an entire population all around the world, everyone is working through their own individual battles. It was important to the play’s entire creative team that they highlight the differences between individual people within a collective culture.

”I think there's always kind of a universality in the specificity as well,” Kwan said. “At the end of the day, even though it is a piece that's more culturally specific, there is always that basis of humanity and relationships…that everybody can relate to.”

Though this play centres on Chinese Canadians, the target audience is broader. On top of cultural identity, the writers explored the intersectionality of the characters, touching on subjects like sexuality and beauty standards.

“It shows that we are nuanced. We have the same problems that everybody else experiences,” said director Damon Bradley Jang. “We go through all these different things, and we kind of destigmatize what everybody is going through.”

It’s safe to say that no matter what background you come from, this play is one that everyone can take something away from, if you come with an open heart and open mind.

Near the end of the play, a mixed-race character named Stanley contemplates where he belongs in terms of cultural identity while making mooncakes, a traditional Chinese baked good. These mooncakes can contain various types of filling, from lotus seed paste to salted egg yolk, or mixtures of both. Stanley reflects on his multicultural identity in the context of the cakes.

“It’s easy to know who you are with only one filling.”

Dim Sum Diaries: Second Helping ran from March 27–30. More information about Fabulist Theatre productions is available here.