The Dao Unrepresentative British Chinese Experience – Soho Theatre, London

Reviewer: John Cutler

Writer: Daniel York Loh

Director: Alice Kornitzer

The show blurb for Daniel York Loh’s semi-autobiographical The Dao Unrepresentative British Chinese Experience describes the work as a “psychedelic gig-theatrical punk pop rap rock riff on what it means to be an outsider in a world of identity politics”. It is indeed all of those things. In addition, it is a densely symbolic multi-layered play about growing up mixed race in a culture steeped in racism, as well as one man’s ongoing struggles with drug addiction and recovery through art.

There is more. York Loh adds into this complex, heady mix some musing on fundamental concepts of Chinese philosophy, metatheatrical toying with dramatic structures and the fourth wall, and reflections on the nature of dreams and consciousness. The result is a grand, anarchic, angry and often very funny mash-up of music, verse, and dialogue that brims with punk rage. Think an intense, fantasy-like, multi-modal assault on the senses.

The writer helpfully warns his audience there will be “no conventional chronological narrative” here. Some of the allegorical flights of fancy he offers are awfully difficult to follow, something which makes it a challenge to pull diverging strands together and report them in a way that makes sense. But here goes.

Dao, the fundamental concept of Chinese philosophy, indicates a ‘way’ in the sense of a road or a pathway. Cloud, York Loh’s protagonist, faces the challenges of finding his Dao: more specifically the path he should follow in reconciling contrasting aspects of his cultural and individual identity. “Sometimes I dream I’m Chinese” Cloud tells us. But what is the dream and what is reality?

Growing up in a rural West Country town to an English mother and Chinese father, Cloud “stood out like noodles in a sausage factory”. He becomes aware of his race only when confronted with taunts of “chink”, “ching chong” and, in a nod to the times, “Bruce Lee” and “yellow Hendrix”. A first school trip to London’s Chinatown spurns a recognition that “I want to be at home… but I have no home”. Far from the modest, high-achieving, polite and near-invisible stereotype of the British Chinese, Cloud’s late adolescence is soon shot through with petty crime, shoplifting, and drug use. An encounter with a rabidly racist Catholic priest offers a caustic reminder of his otherness as an “oriental Beelzebub”.

An extended, beautifully rendered duet between performers Melody Chikakane and Aruhan Galieva (who dominate the action and alternate in the role of Cloud and his interlocutors) explains how the lad comes to have a tooth in the shape of a crucifix. York Loh helpfully pauses the action at this point to bring his mainly millennial audience up to speed on those halcyon days back when it was possible to find NHS dentists. Later action is paused to explain what a phone box is and what the welfare state used to be.

A car theft sees Cloud beaten up, arrested, and engaged in an extended battle for control of the play’s storyline with a toxic police sergeant who has his own Western-centric tale to tell. Snapped “back in the liberal echo chamber of the play” we then see Cloud, following a sojourn in rehab for narcotic addiction, search out a unifying narrative structure for his life.

Cloud determines to find his “virtuosity” and tell the definitive story of the “British Chinese experience”. This requires him to search for a sage deep in London’s zone 6 called Master Obscure, then embark on a quest to find Pangu, the mythological creator god said to have formed the world out of chaos. York Loh offers up a fair few further theatrical rabbit holes in the piece, including a kind of Greek chorus in the form of a podcaster commenting periodically from stage left on the ongoing action.

An-Ting Chang’s top-notch song palette offers an eclectic mix of punk, pop, psychedelia, electronica rap, and acid rock. Erin Guan’s video projections – garishly colourful brush and ink animations drawing on themes from Chinese calligraphy and art – are utterly gorgeous. York Loh’s bright red hair and punk skirt evoke mid-70s rebelliousness perfectly. Opaque, often unfathomable, beautifully put together, this piece may be unlike anything you have ever seen before.

Runs until 13 July 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Dream-like punk musical drama.

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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