Banana Boys: everything you never wanted to know about Canadian born Asians

Theatre review: Banana Boys jabs and pokes fun at Asian-Canadian inferiority complex… 

Banana Boys
Firehall Arts Centre
directed by Donna Spencer
until February 9th.

Bananas are everywhere in Canada.  They are the Canadianized Asians that are yellow on the outside and white on the inside.  Terry Woo wrote the novel, and Leon Aureas turned it into the play being performed at the Firehall Arts Centre.

Everybody knows a Banana.  They straddle in between the Mother tongue culture trying to distance themselves from the FOB (Fresh Off the Boat) new immigrants who still speak with an accent, and they don't quite fit in with the Mainstream White-Canadian dominant culture – because everywhere they go, people still refer to them as Chinese because of their skin colour.

In a negative perspective, Bananas are sometimes accused of denying their racial and cultural heritage, by trying to be mainstream.  Former Governor General of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson, could be considered a Banana, even though she was born in Hong Kong and came to Canada at age three.  She doesn't even use her maiden name Poy anymore, keeping the name of her ex-husband political scientist Stephen Clarkson.

In a positive perspective, Bananas emphasize Canadian values, and the integration (or assimilation) of Chinese culture into becoming good Canadians of Chinese ancestry.  My friend David Wong calls himself a Banana, and like myself, is proud of his multigenerational Chinese-Canadian pioneer ancestry.

But in both the book and play, Banana Boys are college friends at the University of Waterloo.  They are called losers by one of their girlfriends.  And the most successful of them, is at odds with trying to distance himself from them and fit into the rising corporate class of new Chinese-Canadian immigrants.  They are 5 friends that each  represent many of the Asian-Canadian male stereotypes: unassertive romantically delusioned male, family values dominated number one son that goes to medical school, computer/math/tech geek, commerce faculty BMW or Accura Integra driving Chuppie (Chinese yuppie).

What is wrong with being a Banana?

Nothing… and everything!

The play opens with the 5 friends declaring their friendship in a prologue.  The real action starts when we discover that main character Rick Wong (Victor Mariano) has died by self-impalement of a piece of mirror into his heart.  The rest of the play explores each of the character's relationship to their “Banana-ness” and how they relate to each other.  Simon Hayakawa plays Michael Chow, the medical student who is in charge of documenting Rick Wong's life, struggling between following his bliss of becoming a writer or his family expectations of becoming a doctor.

It is a manic romp through many issues of being Asian-Canadian such as: dating white women or Chinese Women; following parental expectations for academic achievement; facing racial discrimination and cultural stereotypes; and trying to blend in with the mainstream or immigrant cultures.  Simon Hayama, Victor Mariano, Parnelli Parnes, and Vincent Tong, are all back for this return engagement after closing the 2007 Western Canada premiere with sold out shows.

The first act is fast paced with some brilliantly insightful and funny scenes. A scene addressing why Banana Boys are at the bottom of the relationship desirability ladder, begins as a mock battle scene with the boys playing soldiers fighting with machine guns, but transitions into a description of Venn diagrams explaining the intersections of Asian women with White men, but not White women or Asian women with Banana Boys.  It's a hilarious tribute to the mathematical geek stereotype of Asian males.

But this play goes beyond mere racial issues, it also tackles the tough issues of identity, drug addiction, friendship and learning to love oneself. 

Kudo's to Firehall Arts Centre for premiering this wonderful play to the West Coast, and having the strong belief in it to re-launch it a year later, in the wake of Firehall's remount of Urine Town.  Director Donna Spencer has tightened up the production, and the actors seem much more comfortable with the material.  The actors are all  amazing, as this play pushes them to over the top performances that exaggerate the issues to extremes.  Highlights include two of the actors dressing up with blonde wigs, as go-go dancing game show hostesses with Chinese accents, or dressed up in a big Sumo Wrestler outfit as Michael Chow's mother wrestling his personal ambitions against family expectations.  Metaphor is big in this play, and it hits you with big outrageous scenes and imagery.

When the play premiered last year, Terry Woo the Banana Boys author, came out for the opening and was happily amazed by the production.  The play had originally been workshopped in Toronto, but still translated well to Vancouver.  While the original material was written with a Chinese-Canadian specific culture in mind,
the actors come from a diverse Asian ancestry including Filipino, Chinese, Japanese and Hapa-Canadian.  The issues are universal enough to relate to all Asian-Canadian and Canadian immigrant community groups.

I was amazed by all the pop-cultural references and Asian Banana Boy cultural specifics such as dragon boat racing, driving Acura Integras, and drinking Coca-cola – which I do personally in my life.  As a 5th generational Chinese Canadian, am I that much of a Banana Boy?  Or are some of these issues relatable to all Canadians?  Judging from the laughter in the audience, lots of people, White or Asian, were enjoying the play.

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