When veteran Vancouver actor and director Raugi Yu was growing up in Montreal, there were plenty of frogs. Over Zoom, he tells Pancouver that he saw these amphibians all over the place.
“Then, just 10 years later in that same area, nothing,” Yu says.
The frogs had vanished.
Biologists describe frogs and toads as “indicator species” because they are extremely sensitive to pollution. If they disappear, it’s often a sign of trouble.
In Pippa Mackie’s new comedic play, Hurricane Mona, which will be at the Cultch Historic Theatre from November 18 to December 3, Yu actually plays a giant frog. According to him, Hurricane Mona addresses climate change, told through the filter of a dysfunctional family.
Yu doesn’t want to say much about his character to avoid disclosing any plot spoilers.
“I think it’s common knowledge that the frogs indicate what’s going on in the environment,” Yu says. “They breathe through their skin. It’s how they survive. If something changes in the air or the water, the frog will change. The frog will mutate, literally.”
Yu describes Mackie’s script as tight, funny, and smart. The cast also includes Diane Brown, Craig Erickson, Alex Gullason, and Sherine Menes.
“It’s not preachy in any way,” Yu declares.
Yu follows intuition
Nowadays, Yu is feeling good about his life after more than three decades as an actor and director.
One career highlight was directing the 2021 feature film, Attic Trunk. It’s about a man questioning his life choices after meeting a woman from his past at his sister’s funeral. Attic Trunk won Best Feature, Best International Feature, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress awards at the First City Film Festival.
Last year, Yu co-starred in Ins Choi’s Bad Parent, which was performed in Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Toronto. He’s also had several television roles, including Kam Fong in JPod.
“I will never say that I’m a smart guy, but I’m an intuitive guy,” Yu says modestly. “I always followed my intuition. It’s led me to where I am now, which I love.”
He’s also become a leader in his industry as an elected director of UBCP/ACTRA. The union represents nearly 6,500 media performers in B.C. and the Yukon. He’s been on the union’s BIPOC mentoring subcommittee since its inception.
“I’m currently mentoring an Asian actor,” Yu reveals.
In addition, he has been teaching acting for many years at New Image College and through various workshops. Plus, he’s the B.C. and Yukon councillor for the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association. It negotiates and administers scale agreements and oversees engagement policies on behalf of nearly 6,000 theatre, opera, and dance artists across Canada.
Bullies and bigots
Yu has come a long way from a very challenging childhood in rough-and-tumble Montreal. His was the only Asian family on a street full of French Canadians—and he experienced intense racism in those years, right from a very young age. In fact, Yu often had to use his fists to defend himself against bullies.
Yu’s father was a highly educated Taiwanese immigrant. He had moved from Beitou District in northern Taipei to France, where he earned a doctorate in aeronautical engineering with a second major in political science. Yu has three older siblings who were all born in Taiwan.
“My dad was like a genius,” Yu says. “But they ended up in the States and nobody would hire him because they [American employers] were so racist.”
So, his father applied for a job in Montreal with Pratt & Whitney, which designs aircraft engines. After being hired, he brought his family to the city, where Yu was born a year later.
As a kid, Yu travelled to Taiwan with his parents. But he didn’t find acceptance there, either, even though he had learned the Taiwanese language from his mother.
“They would call me ‘foreigner’ or ‘barbarian’ or whatever the derogatory term was in Taiwan,” Yu recalls. “For a while, it was really hard for me because my own people don’t accept me. In Canada, I was going through a lot of racism.”
His elementary school teachers liked him, but he still frequently found himself in trouble for talking too much.
“Usually when I was talking, I was telling a story of some sort,” Yu says with a chuckle.
He believes that his fascination with storytelling led him into acting.
“I didn’t see any representation of my face on TV or film,” Yu states. “And I think I wanted it, you know. I just didn’t know it at the time.”
Last year, Raugi Yu spoke frankly about his childhood at LiterASIAN 2022.
Embracing his Asian identity
Pancouver asks Yu what he understands now as an actor that he didn’t realize when he was younger.
“What I know now, without a shadow of a doubt, is that I’m Asian,” he states emphatically. “When I went to theatre school [and] in the first 10 years of my career. I didn’t know it. I was really auditioning as if I was a white person.”
He explains it this way: “You’re auditioning for John Smith. And I started thinking, ‘John is, you know, a good old American, went to Michigan State, played football.’ ”
Then one day, Yu had an epiphany. He realized that as soon as he auditions for the role of John Smith, this character becomes Taiwanese because Yu is of Taiwanese ancestry
“That was a real shift in my thinking.”
Looking back now, Yu would like to tell his younger self to embrace who he is.
“Let’s start working with the concepts of love and true curiosity,” Yu adds. “That’s how I live now. I’m constantly exploring who I am because I know I’m changing every day.
“And I always start with love and then curiosity,” he continues. “Because I used to start with anger—and fists. That only takes you so far. They were good tools for a while, but they don’t last so long.”
Curiosity embedded in Taiwanese DNA
Yu also didn’t want to end up in jail—he wanted to be an actor. Fortunately, the right people came into his life at the right moments, steering him along a better path.
Moreover, Yu believes that curiosity is embedded in the DNA of Taiwanese culture, as is an appreciation for nature. The island nation has 16 officially recognized Indigenous tribes and has experienced waves of colonization from the Spanish, Dutch, Ming and Qing dynasties, and Japanese.
All of these influences, as well as its history as a trading nation, have infused many Taiwanese people with a broad perspective. This was on display when Taiwan became the first Asian nation to legalize same-sex marriage in 2019.
Yu is happy to see that Canadian theatre is evolving in a “really strong way” for actors of Asian ancestry, He attributes that, in part, to the work of playwrights such as Ins Choi, Marjorie Chan, and Tetsuro Shigematsu.
Yu says that he’s also impressed by younger Asian Canadians in the theatre world, which is why he’s so eager to serve as a mentor. While they may be angry about discrimination, he feels that they’re approaching storytelling in more heartfelt, smarter ways than simply coming in with “fists up”.
“I feel a bit of a responsibility that maybe I should create content myself, given that I have stories to tell,” Yu states. “I have experience and maybe I can craft something for future generations to use, while they are creating their stories.”
Touchstone Theatre and Ruby Slippers Theatre will co-present the world premiere of Hurricane Mona at the Cultch Historic Theatre. It will run from November 18 to December 3. For information and passes, visit Touchstone Theatre’s website. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.