Creators: Nicola T. Chang and Isabella Leung
Described as an “immersive audio journey”, Mooncake forms part of the latest series of Written on the Waves. The aim of these radio plays is to produce and amplify work from female-identifying and non-binary artists.
Taking inspiration from the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, creators Nicola T. Chang and Isabella Leung’s play looks at the experiences of lead character Michelle (played by Heather Lai). She has moved from her family home in Hong Kong to London, and is well-established, with a flourishing academic career.
The Mid-Autumn Festival is over 3000 years old, and focuses on celebrating the Moon. To mark the occasion, a popular dessert – Mooncake – is prepared and eaten. We hear sounds from a kitchen, radio signals dropping in and out, clattering cookware, breaking eggs. Michelle receives a beautifully-made Mooncake from her family, and decides to Skype her parents (played by Tony Tang and Michelle Yim). Talk swiftly moves away from the festival, and onto a news story Michelle’s dad has picked up from the BBC. He has heard reports of an increase in hate crime against East-Asian people since the start of the pandemic.
Michelle reassures him that she feels safe in her part of London; she loves her job and her friends. Finishing the call and travelling to her friend’s house with the Mooncake, Michelle becomes aware of a piece of music that has been following her around all day – Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. She explains to her friend Joey (Rebecca Yeo) that this is an audible memory. She remembers her Mum playing Beethoven over and over again, stumbling over the notes – while Michelle herself had piano lessons, quickly surpassing her mother in proficiency.
Mooncake shifts from narrative here to become a collage of sound; ideas layered across each other, in-between scraps of silence. There are clips from the 1969 moon landing; Trump’s denouncing of COVID as ‘the Chinese virus’ and BBC News, rising in volume, confirming more racially-motivated attacks. We can still pick out the mournful tones of the Moonlight Sonata, as Chang and Leung explore cultural, political and historical elements of Michelle’s present and past.
Chang and Leung, while balancing these influences, are careful not to self-edit. The ambiguity Michelle feels about her Mum struggling to learn Beethoven is offset against Joey’s anecdote about being asked for her “real name” whilst meeting a new acquaintance. As Michelle and Joey decide to bake their own Mooncake, both experiences are given equal weight, and are allowed to hang in the air, unresolved. Mooncake is at its most interesting where tradition and contemporary life intersect.
Crammed with commentary, Mooncake feels at times overly full, fighting against its running time of 20 minutes. But where the drama refuses to tie up loose ends or provide that leading edge for us to follow, is where Mooncake succeeds. Mooncake’s expanse of ideas does not conform to traditional story-telling. The listener is asked to contemplate and sit with this assemblage of thoughts and impressions. The unsettling notion of being caught between continuity and change is what remains.