China calling: setting out to prove you can go home again

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The last time photographer and storyteller William Yang was in Vancouver was five years ago where he performed at the Push Festival.  Yang returns to Vancouver again for his second Push Festival with his work China, February 2nd through 6th at UBC’s Frederic Wood Theatre.  We caught up with him while he got ready to present his show in Montreal to talk about China, the search for his heritage and being gay in a country where homosexuality is still considered an anomaly.

William YangAs third-generation Australian, William Yang’s connection to his Chinese heritage has always been tenuous at best.  As with a great many immigrants, he was taught that his birth country must take priority over ethnicity.

“My mother always wanted me to be Australian first and saw our Chinese heritage as a liability,” said Yang.

But that all changed for him at the age of 35 where, after learning the philosophy of Daoism, he had a sudden desire to explore his family history.  This new found curiosity ultimately took him to China on four different occasions with the photographs and stories he collected becoming the basis for this Push Festival piece.

Yang, who has always considered himself an art photographer with a documentary style, first began doing slide projections to music in the early 80s and by 1989 had the enough to string his first piece together.  And for Yang that first piece was a bit of a revelation.

“This felt so much better than a book or an exhibition,” explained Yang.  “It was much more engaging and richer in nature”.

While Yang still does the occasional photographic exhibition, it is obvious that his images and the accompanying stories are his passion.  When I suggested that perhaps it was like my father setting up his slide projector in the family room, Yang was quick to point out that while that might be the genesis for his work, it is, for him and his audience, so much more.

Like his original projections in the 80s, music continues to be an important part of Yang’s creations too, but with live music now replacing the cassette tape.  In China, Yang is accompanied by Nicholas Ng on the traditional erhu, a sort of Chinese violin with what he describes as “a haunting sound”.  Yang first met Nicholas at a Pride event in Sydney a number of years ago and when he went looking for a musician to be part of this work, Ng signed on.

Yang also spoke to what it is like being gay in China, or at least from his perspective as a “foreigner”.

During one of his visits he performed an excerpt from a piece about gay Sydney called “Friends of Dorothy”.  And while the Professor that was to moderate a discussion after the performance suddenly dropped out to distance him from any potential controversy, the student reaction was what Yang referred to as “intelligent”.  Yang proudly points out that this visit was thought to be the first ever public discussion of homosexuality in China.

“China would like to be more open about things,” said Yang.  “But it is difficult as there is always the fear of being arrested.”  Yang says it is up to foreigners like him to push the boundaries and create a dialogue inside China.  “There is a gay voice emerging in China but it is still a touchy subject”.

But far more than just a recounting of his journeys to his ancestral homeland through the eyes of a gay man, I got the distinct impression that William Yang’s China is one of discovery, pride, wonder and with the firm belief that, perhaps, you really can go home again.

2-6 February 2010 @ 7:30pm
Frederic Wood Theatre, University of British Columbia

A charismatic yet stoic storyteller, Yang humorously narrates his journey from the streets of Beijing, where electronics superstores jostle with echoes of the Cultural Revolution and the Ming Dynasty, to the sacred mountain Huang Shan. Yang’s wryly sensitive perspective, his eye for detail, and his arresting projected images come together with Nicholas Ng’s haunting live score for the erhu (Chinese violin) and pipa (Chinese lute) in an unforgettable theatrical experience.

Tickets are $24-$30 each available by calling the Theatre UBC box office at 604.822.2678.  Visit for more information.

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