Bringing 'Dim Sum Diaries' to Vancouver

Damon Jang

It is a radio play that is over 25 years old, yet the artistic producers at Fabulist Theatre in Vancouver, BC believes the themes in Dim Sum Diaries are just as relevant today. Onstage Blog sits down with director Mary Littlejohn to chat about the show.

How did the idea to produce the show come about?

At our first board meeting we were trying to think of fun events to put on as fundraisers. The idea of radio plays and staged readings came up, but we didn’t make any firm decisions initially. One of our board members, Diana Keng, attended Shylock at Bard On The Beach, where she happened to meet Mark Leiren-Young, the playwright, and Donna Wong-Juliani. Warren Kimmel, who had been playing Shylock, asked Leiren-Young how he had happened to write the play. It had happened after the radio production of Dim Sum Diaries (which had been originally produced by Donna Wong-Juliani and her late husband John Juliani). Some of the lines had been taken out of context and Leiren-Young found himself branded a racist. From that experience, Shylock was born. Upon hearing this, Diana purchased a script, read it, showed it to the rest of the Fabulist team and we were all excited by the idea of doing something a little different with it. Mr. Leiren-Young gave us his blessing and now here we are.

What draws you to the play Dim Sum Diaries?

It’s gripping in its simplicity - five very different monologues, all thematically connected. Five characters expressing how the influx of immigration from Hong Kong to Vancouver has affected them - in their personal lives and relationships, their careers, their way of thinking. The more the cast and I have worked on it, the more discussions we have, which feel are so important right now. Hopefully we can carry this over with our post-show talkback and foster dialogue, 

The show is set in Vancouver in the 1990s. What themes are still relevant for a play written over 25 years ago? 

If the few dated references were removed, one might assume it was written today. All of the feelings expressed are still present, which begs the question - how are we as a city, as communities divided, going to get past our prejudices? Our city has already changed and grown so much. I know a lot of people have strong opinions about the housing crisis, but we keep looking for people to blame instead of looking for solutions. Everyone still constantly judges and assesses each other based on our idea of who we think they should be and how we think they should behave. It doesn’t work that way. 

Do you feel the Asian community is as marginalized today as it once was?

I think what’s great about this show is that offers a very unique-to-Cancouver perspective. Asian characters are often marginalized and stereotyped in theatre, film and television. For having such a large Asian community, Vancouver hasn’t always provided many opportunities to its Asian actors to play themselves, though we do see a shift happening - with companies like VACT and shows like Satellite(s), King Of The Yees, Empire Of The Son. It’s nice to be doing a show that speaks to our community and that Canadian-born Chinese actors can feel like they are telling stories close to their own experiences. I think it’s absolutely wonderful that most companies these days have an ethno-cultural mandate to allow roles to be played by anyone, but many actors still find themselves playing roles originally written for white actors. I think we can and should encourage the re-imagining of “classic” roles, while also facilitating the production of plays, both new and old, that celebrate all cultural experiences.  

Setting the show in a restaurant is clever. What sets this apart from other dinner theatre?

Again, I can’t take credit for this, it was a group decision! The show is called Dim Sum Diaries, it’s a natural fit to set it in a Chinese restaurant. We had looked into other non-traditional venues with the idea of serving dim sum, but this just made more sense. We were lucky to get the Pink Pearl on as a venue - they are quite well-known for their dim sum. One of the characters in the play talks about dim sum in terms of how it has shaped his idea of family, and how welcoming and joyful it is to share food, as a ritual. It’s a lovely sentiment - how meals and food can bridge gaps and bring people together. The tables at Pink Pearl seat 10 - odds are you’ll be sitting with strangers and hopefully making new friends!  It’s important to see past our differences and celebrate what other cultures have to offer us.

Dim Sum Diaries plays 1 night only in Vancouver BC at the Pink Pearl Resturant.