Thanh is pronounced Tan, like sun-tan. Her roots are Han Chinese from generations of migration from southern China to Vietnam and then to England London. Thanh is an artist writer and director born in London, she has been experimenting with her creative practice in Beijing now for just over a year and half, disguising herself ‘Laowai’ ways behind her Chinese face and learning 汉语 off her elderly neighbours in the hutongs. She set up ‘Scratching Beijing’ as a way for different artists to meet, collaborate and experiment with their and put on a show. Along the way she has found co-scratchers who believed in her creative cause, adopted a hutong cat and makes regular guilty visits to fried chicken man, a delicious hole in the wall fried chicken joint situated too conveniently close to her home.
Is China important in your life?
It always has been important wherein I'm Chinese by heritage. So I've always had to come here and learn the language. A year and a half ago it finally happened.
How about writing?
I realized I was dyslexic in university. I was really bad at writing essays. But in the last five years, I suddenly became relentless at writing. I was travelling, and got really drunk in a pub, and these voices just appeared in my head. I put the voices on paper, and started writing plays. Now I can’t live without a notebook ever.
How would you describe your voice?
When I think of characters, their voices often come to me first. Underlying their voice are the themes intrinsic in the story that I like to explore.
The last play I wrote, Chicken Shit, is about the relationship between a laowai [non-Chinese person] and a beautiful Chinese girl. And they are always swearing but don’t understand each other. She's trying to learn English and mimics him, and he being British he swears a lot. And this miscommunication is what moves the story along.
Tell us about your writing history and current projects.
I started playwriting in 2012, mostly short plays. They can be dark. I’m quite into monologues. The most notable character I do in Beijing is my character “Dong.” She is a brass, abrupt, Vietnamese woman. In England she was married to a rich English guy. But when she (i.e. me) came to Beijing, she adapted. Here, I noticed a lot of Vietnamese women marrying to Chinese men, especially down south. Because of the gender imbalance here, men have to look for marriage "solutions" abroad. On a train once I eavesdropped on a conversation about Vietnamese women running away with Chinese men’s money.
So with Dong's first of two pieces in Beijing, Dong is married to a Chinese man, very very unhappily. The second one she leaves her husband and fucks a laowai in a toilet.
These pieces explore ideas of home. So I’m hoping to do a prequel to look at how she got to Beijing in the first place. I hope to travel to some border towns down south, and go through an NGO to see how and why the women have been through that.
Do you have a favorite word to use in your places?
I swear a lot. Chicken Shit was a whole script based on swearing. In London I had this promenade piece of this old granny swearing a lot. I enjoy the enunciation and the effects of swearing.
Describe the process of writing.
I most need relaxing in a pub and brewing over what to write, over a drink. The first step is hardest because you know the first draft you know is not going to be any good. You know that writing is mostly about rewriting. A good play would need about 6 or 7 drafts.
And about playwriting: writing the play versus working with actors and seeing it live are two different things. It’s difficult to see action just writing it.
How does writing and performing link up? Can you visualize it?
I do think visually; I was a concept artist for two years. I think a lot about stage direction and how things can be conveyed through action. An early piece on Dong shows her eating a mantou [Chinese bread roll] in a toilet. And it conveys a lot about her without any words. I think it helps the audience understand her a lot more and her fights with her husband.
How do you prepare a solo script for yourself?
I have to really get into the person. I filmed myself, which is odd for me because I’m animated, a more stage performer. But it’s important for me to see. I have this character Rita, who is 29-going-on-30 living with a cat. And that’s somthing I’m interested in here, as a woman who is 30 and also has a lot of Chinese associates who are 30. It's the kind of topic that always makes my audiences laugh uncomfortably – they don't know if they should laugh or not. And there's a fine line between comedy and tragedy, and I like to explore the line.
What do you think interests you about that?
Stand-up comedy is definitely one of the most daunting things I’ve done in Beijing. For me, I need a story, including my stand-up character. It’s not enough to just make the audience laugh; I want to interact with them.
I remember that after my grandpa’s funeral, me and my siblings got together in his room and shared a laugh. It was a wonderful thing.
Do you write for film or stage? What’s the difference?
The ideas will be the same. But with stage I can think more about how to use space, like in one play I wrote there was a theme of isolation and the use of space was important.
In film you can give more hints. On stage you need to be more dramatic to get those hints across.
You write a lot of interesting female characters.
So, my mom’s a massive influence in my work. She’s a refugee from Vietnam who moved to England in the late 70s. A very strong figure. Culturally she’s in between Vietnam and Britain, but she claims to be Chinese. In my house we speak a weird language of our own. Some speak Cantonese, some can’t. Mostly English, but with a lot of Vietnamese-isms that I didn’t realize were real English until I grew up. I am always interested in women immigrants and what they have in it for themselves – to throw their lives away and move to another country and marry a foreigner. And why? My pieces often look at these questions.
How do foreign languages play a role in your pieces?
The way you say something and how you say it means more than what you’re saying. Even in a foreign language. It makes audience pay attention.
What is the influence of China on your work?
On one hand I’m looking at leftover women. But as I look closer into the topic, I realize it’s all over the world. The other day I was on the phone to my mom and she was like, “Are you going to marry a nice Chinese boy and bring him home?” The idea of leftover women is happening in India too. Researching it now, it’s clear the Chinese media pigeon-holes these women. It’s in the newspaper and on the radio, telling women not to work so hard and to lower their standards. I can’t imagine really living in it. I feel the pressure around me because the first few questions you’re asked as a young woman here is, “What are you doing here?” “Do you have children?” and “Are you married?” Yes, sometimes the children question first. And they approach the topic so naturally.
I'm developing a piece on this topic right now called Introducing Rita (click to watch a preview).
How do you respond?
I just laugh. Like, “Who, me? No, no.”
Do you appear in most of your plays?
I don’t always intend to. I love writing and directing, and working with the actors. But there’s a bit of a problem here. One, I’m not Chinese enough to get Chinese actors and work with them in their language. Two, most expats here are white, so can’t play those Asian characters. I never got that into acting until I came to Beijing. In London I was a director.
Tell us about your ongoing art events – Scratching Beijing.
That's something I started last summer, derived from Scratch nights in London. Primarily it’s theatre. We are so limited from theatres to perform in, and people want to test their work. Coming from an artist background, I wanted to 1. Practice my art more; 2. Meet like-minded people here. So we’ve turned it into a multi-disciplinarian platform. We’ve had some really interesting collaborations, with dancing and acting and music – I think this is the essences of Scratches. It’s not about the finished product, it’s about experimenting with what can happen.
We don’t make any money from our shows; tickets are just to keep us alive. Keep the creative spirit.
Also, we are mostly teachers, and I’m a drama teacher. We’re doing some kids theatre, and its fascinating. For many of the Chinese kids, it’s their first time pantomiming, being on stage, saying things a certain way. I want to develop that a little more. I want to arrange a summer camp to take kids from Beijing to London. Got some connections there with an East Asian theatre, and we're aiming to bring over 20-30 kids.
I hope to get more people involved. Beijing’s got very exciting energy.
Whats your biggest dream for your writing?
I’m a traveller. I get itchy feet. Want to get travelling and writing and Scratching all over the place.
Any advice to young playwrights?
I don’t know, because I see myself as a young playwright. I’d say just go for it. Nothing to lose, right?