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Storyteller and performer Jasmine Chen makes intergenerational connection through Jade Circle

Jasmine Chen Jade Circle
While researching Jade Circle, Jasmine Chen learned how her grandmother survived tumultuous times.

Multidisciplinary performer Jasmine Chen says that the seeds of her new show, Jade Circle, were planted more  than a decade ago. It came in the weeks following the death of her maternal grandmother in 2012. At that time, Chen found herself reflecting on fragments of Taiwanese children’s songs, which her grandmother had taught her.

“I just felt this sense of loss because I couldn’t remember the full songs,” Chen tells Pancouver by phone. “And I also couldn’t remember the words.”

It reinforced to her that she didn’t truly know her grandmother. And it was all because of a language barrier.

Chen was born in Toronto where she spoke Mandarin in childhood but never progressed to full fluency. Her grandmother grew up in Fuzhou in Fujian province, before fleeing to Taiwan in the wake of the Chinese Civil War. In Taiwan, Mandarin was the official language.

“I could only communicate with her in very short sentences,” Chen says.

Through Jade Circle, which will premiere at Richmond’s Gateway Theatre from March 6 to 17, Chen reconnects with her grandmother through an original multidisciplinary storytelling performance.

In many respects, Chen’s story parallels the experiences of many thousands of Metro Vancouver residents. Like them, she learned her mother tongue in childhood but never fully developed it. That’s because she became immersed in English at school and with friends.

Watch the trailer for Jasmine Chen’s Jade Circle.

Learning a language for Jade Circle 

However, Chen couldn’t let go of her deep desire to re-learn Mandarin. So, she asked her mother to teach her those children’s songs to feel more reconnected to her grandmother. And Chen performs several of these songs in Jade Circle after working exceptionally hard to pick up the language.

“It’s an incredibly challenging and vulnerable process because you feel kind of stupid sometimes when you can’t get it right,” Chen acknowledges. “Especially when you feel like, ‘Oh, but I should now how to speak this.’ There is a lot of guilt and shame that can be associated with that.”

Through interviewing her mom, Chen discovered that her grandmother lived through tumultuous times. During the warlord era in China, there was often a fear of bandits. Then during the Japanese occupation, her grandmother had to escape to the countryside to find safety. On occasion, she and others would hide in caves.

During the Second World War, the Imperial Japanese Armed Forces took hundreds of thousands of sex slaves in Asian countries.

“Those historical events are within my own lineage and the timeline of my grandmother’s life,” Chen states. “I think  that sometimes for myself and for people in my generation and younger, World War II might feel like it’s very far away. But when I think that I’m only one generation from that, it really puts things into perspective in terms of how much trauma my grandmother actually lived through.”

Chen
Jasmine Chen performs Taiwanese children’s songs in Jade Circle.

Engaging audiences with surtitles

Chen says that she performs 60 to 70 percent of Jade Circle in Mandarin. Meanwhile, the production team has gone to great lengths to make the show accessible to English-speaking audience members. And Chen praises the show’s director, Derek Chan, for some “very dynamic surtitling”.

“There’s a lot of titling—so we want to make sure that the titling is engaging and as much a part of the storytelling as every other aspect,” Chen emphasizes.

The surtitles are in Traditional Chinese and English.

Even though it is a one-person show, she wants people to know that many people have worked behind the scenes to bring Jade Circle to life. One of those is the translator, Johnny Wu, who coached Chen on her Mandarin.

“He’s going through it word-by-word with me, making sure that I’m speaking it with the right tones, because I’m sure you know, the tones are everything,” she mentions. “If you say the wrong tone, you’re  saying a totally  different word that could have a totally unintentional meaning.”

As the interview draws to a close, Chen is asked what she has discovered about herself in the process of creating Jade Circle.

“I think I’ve learned how connected I am,” she replies. “Even if there are times where I might feel lonely, I’m never actually alone because I am here because of all these ancestors who helped me get here.”

Gateway Theatre will present Jade Circle from March 6 to 17. This multidisciplinary storytelling performance is produced by rice & beans theatre in association with Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre. For tickets and more information visit the Gateway Theatre website. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.