review: Red Letters – a new Chinese-Canadian musical

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Red Letters reveal the hidden tragedies of the Chinese Head Tax, while sharing hopes and dreams with soaring melodies

Directed by Andy Maton
Music & Lyrics by Alan Bau
Book by Kathy Leung
Original Book by Alan Bau

  • November 26 – December 4 with
    Preview November 25 (10 Performances), Roundhouse Performance Centre,
  • December 30 – January 8, 2011
    with Preview December 29 (10 Performances), Gateway Theatre Studio,
  • January 13 – January 16 with
    Preview January 12 (8 Performances), Metro Studio Theatre, Victoria

8pm nightly with select matinee

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Quick! Name a musical that features a Chinese-Canadian


Okay… there was the Iron Road opera that performed in
Toronto and was later turned into a CBC-China 2-part drama with an unrealistic
love story.   And there is the
Vancouver Opera Touring Ensemble production of Naomi’s Road, based on Joy
Kogawa’s children’s version of the award winning novel Obasan.


Waitaminute… what about that Rogers and Hammerstein musical
set in San Francisco, Flower Drum Song?

Flower Drum Song was produced by VACT last year for 2009.  Originally written as a 1957 book, became a 1958 stage musical and a 1961 movie starring Nancy Kwan. 

RED LETTERS is an ambitious work that marks a first for a Chinese Canadian theatre company.  While there have been theatre pieces such as Simon Johnston's Gold Mountain Guest, there hasn't yet been a musical with the broad story strokes and lyrical musical passages that interweave the heartbreaking trials of racism and isolation caused by the Canadian government's head tax and exclusion act from 1885 to 1947.

The play opens with the apology for the Chinese Head Tax
and Exclusion Act, by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on June 22nd.   An 84 year old gentle man named Ping (Alan Wong) is watching the
apology on television, and ponders what this event means to himself, his
parents and the Chinese-Canadian community.

Song: Ping sings


Flashback:  two
Chinese teenagers flirt and wash clothes by the river in China. Shen (Alvin Tran) announces to Mei (Rosie Simon), that he is being sent by his family to go to Gum San (Gold Mountain)/ Canada to make lots of money and help his family. 

Song duet:  Mei and Shen sing about their hopes and dreams


Next scene: Shen arrives in Canada, and begins work in a laundry shop in Vancouver Chinatown.


Red Letters interweaves a love story with Shen's aspirations to make a living in Canada, and make enough money to bring his new wife Mei to Canada to live with him.  But racism lives in Canada, as work is scarce and the Chinese immigrants are blamed for many things, including taking jobs away from whites.  The $50 head tax that was introduced in 1885, as a deterrent to keep Chinese from coming to Canada was raised to $500 in 1903 – the equivalent of two year's wages of a Chinese labourer or a small house.

Shen saves his money, and works hard at two jobs at the laundry and a sawmill.  His boss is excellently played by Jimmy Yi.   They delightfully break into a song and dance about working hard, keeping their heads down out of trouble, and sticking their noses up at white folks, despite the racism they face.

Like all good musical story arcs there is tragedy and redemption.

Red Letters succeeds because it breaks new ground in theatre.  It tells an important story in an way that is sure to entertain.

At the Tuesday show, I met Chinese community elders that had grown up with my parents.  They were surprised to see a picture of their family's store, used as a backdrop.  They were enthusiastic about the musical, and said they would tell all their family to see Red Letters.

I also chatted with a elderly white male, who also was enthusiastic about the play.  He said he never knew about the head tax, or how it affected the Chinese families facing racism in Canada, and separation from their loved ones still in China.

RED LETTERS will serve as a wonderful entertaining way to inform audiences about an important part of history in Canada.

RED LETTERS touches a very personal part of me, because I also attended the simulcast of the apology in the ballroom of
the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, and I was also involved with the Head Tax Redress campaign in Vancouver from 2005-2006.

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