Chimerica – a fusion of the words China and America coined by academic historian Niall Ferguson and economist Moritz Schularick to signal the intertwined economies of those two countries (watch the pronounciation!) – is not just a play about that iconic photography of a man standing in front of Chinese tanks at Tien an men in Beijing. (click on this link for the original coverage by CNN: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YeFzeNAHEhU ). In fact, this picture is just a starting point for how much the US and China are diverted by culture, by upbringing and by social norms.
It all starts 20 years ago, when young Joe (Mark Leonard Winter, whose character is given his name to reflect the “average Joe” moniker often given to Americans in general), a photographer on his first boring assignment – an economy conference – in Beijing, is caught in the riots of Tien an men and by pure luck looks out the window of his hotel room just in time to see a single man, holding a plastic bag in each of his hands, standing defiantly in front of the rolling tanks, forcing them to avert him. He takes a photo and quick witted hides the film in the toilet.
At home in the US he is immediately famous. In America the lonely man facing the force of China’s army is a symbol of a new dawn in a dark country, the force of the people against an oppressive regime, something that fits the narrative of the US perfectly.
20 years later, now, Joe is still in touch with his then interpreter Zhang Lin (played by Jason Chong), having been back in China often, yet still not speaking the language… Zhang Lin teaches English in Beijing, trying to instill a feeling of freedom in his students, but mostly being a bit weird, shouting from rooftops (literally). He lives next door to a woman with a severe lung infection caused by working in bad conditions. When she dies, he tries to make the government change said conditions. He’d be in need of some backing, but Joe doesn’t get that he’s supposed to help Zhang Lin. Joe hasn’t had any new successes – he still lives off that one photo he had taken in that hotel room decades ago. When a cryptic message shows up in a newspaper, Joe hopes to finally find that elusive stranger.
Back in Beijing we see in flashbacks, how that photo came to pass: Boy meets Girl at one of the student protests there. Boy and Girl fall in love. Girl gets pregnant, they are happy. But then they get caught in the riots, the girl is hurt badly, dies at the hospital. a tired nurse hands the boy two plastic bags with the girl’s clothes, her shoes, the necklace he gave her. With a bag in each hand he walks away, numb, finds himself standing in front of tanks without even realising it.
While in the US, Joe follows lead after lead until he finds the owner of a flower stand, who seems to be connected to the “brave man in the photo”. It turns out the brave man was his son, riding the tank, not standing in front of it, avoiding collision with a lunatic. And while China spun a story about how humane its army was, the young man driving the tank was later shot because he didn’t roll over the protester.
The audience, of course, knows – thanks to the flashbacks – that Zhang Lin was the brave young man in the photo, something Joe would’ve caught on as well, had he even tried to learn more about his interpreter who had been a friend to him even when they sent him to prison for “colluding” with Joe.
So we look at two lives at dead ends – one in democratic America, where you have to follow orders given to you because of monetary motifs in a more concealed way perhaps, just like in “non-democratic” China. Who are we to say that Democracy as we know it – being executed by rich white men – is so much better or so much more just than any other form of rulership?
The play doesn’t give us answers, but asks great questions and did have great impact on me. With the help of personal stories (Joe’s finding and losing love, Zhang Lin’s having and losing all hope) it depicts the differences but more often the commonalities of two only outwardly different countries that probably won’t ever understand each other. I didn’t warm up to the actors that much, though. I “recognised” Joe’s failures from a lot of distant colleagues, who live off lost glory, but Mark Winter didn’t make me care about him, he rather instilled a vague feeling of discomfort in me. I rather sided with Jason Chong, who did capture the life of someone who was eaten by his grief very well.
All in all it was another great night of theatre thanks to the Sydney Theatre Company in the Roslyn Packer Theatre. If you ever get there, try the restaurant. They serve yummie stuff!