A point of civic pride that is much remarked upon and always worth remembering: the oldest Chinese community in Europe exists right here in Liverpool.
The history of multiculturalism in Liverpool can, like most of human history, be charted back to the river and the initial Chinese districts of the great port town began around the docklands—before moving into the recognisable China Town area following a dispute with Herr Goering and the Luftwaffe. Liverpool and Chinese communities have a long history that need not be covered in full here. Britain and China have an ongoing and peculiar relationship which is only getting more interesting by the day. The much-acclaimed company Chinese Arts Space has brought, to Liverpool’s Black-E and onwards, chapters from that story that have been at best forgotten, at worst deliberately replaced.
Project New Earth brings into focus to tales of the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC), some 140,000 Chinese men enlisted by the British and the French armies in the First World War to fight against the Central Powers. The Entente Cordial won, the CLC was forgotten—removed to make room for American servicemen, a tale wrought in staggering beauty by one of the pieces “Heroes Within”.
The collection of four tales are presented as a haunting mosaic of artistic styles, not content to stop simply at dramatic presentations of historical events (and why shouldn’t it be?). Singing, animation, dance, film: every trick in the box is employed to create an experience as deeply sensual as it is humanely moving.
There is a temptation to call this ‘multimedia’ but, with no disrespect to multimedia, that would rather sell the whole experience short. And therein lies the key. Project New Earth is very much an experience. It is felt as much as witnessed. Nothing so humdrum as “lest we forget” sentiments, it extrapolates on how history, events, and human stories are really experienced. That is to say, we don’t just see things and think about it, but every sense and synapse are employed. Here is the theatrical equivalent of that effect. This could be a new way of presenting historical theatre and certainly exemplifies the wondrous and moving effects of blending cultures to illustrate the commonality of the human condition.
One of the pieces worth special attention on this point is ‘Songs Unsung’ that interweaves British songs from the First World War with Chinese folk songs to drive the story of two young men. The effect is breathtaking. This is a remarkable collection of pieces, a theatrical and filmic arrangement in which the greatest swathes of human sensibilities will find succour. For sheer theatrical value it is a masterful realisation by performers and producers, for human drama it is a tour de force, and for the history lovers—a much maligned but pleasant enough demographic—it is a succulent treat of ‘forgotten history’.
There is another dimension to what Chinese Art Space has taken to the road—living as we are in the shadowy no man’s land between the Brexit referendum and the activation of Article 50 there is the very real possibility that Britain will soon close the doors, plug its ears and pretend the rest of the world simply doesn’t exist. In a cosmopolitan, multicultural nexus like Liverpool—given the importance of internationalism overwhelmingly voted to Remain—this is a dire prospect. The phantom of exclusionary nationalism, the spectre at the feast threatens to be corporeal. Productions like this are vital to reminding and educating that no culture and no people exist on this planet alone, that we are all a part of one global history and one global story.
I would dearly love to see other cultures that have become part of Britain’s part of the story take to the stage, to the page, to the screen and continue the internationalist aspect of art that Chinese Art Space have begun here. The clock is ticking.
You can find out more about the work of Chinese Art Space and additional tour dates for Project New Earth here.