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SIFA 2023: An Interview with Brian Gothong Tan and Huang Ruo, co-creators of ‘Angel Island’

With its continued mention across history books, film and other media, most people would be familiar with New York’s Ellis Island, a symbol of the American Dream that welcomed European migrants to America searching for a new hopeful life, along with its proximity to the Statue of Liberty. But few know about Ellis Island’s counterpart – Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay, which instead welcomed immigrants from Asia to America.

All that is about to change as composer Huang Ruo and multimedia artist Brian Gothong Tan collaborate to present a stunning new work of opera-theatre – Angel Island, that informs audiences about the history of the island through song, alongside the massive discrimination faced by Chinese immigrants due to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Some of these immigrants were held for up to years in a brutal detention centre, and ended up writing poetry onto the walls, inspiring the music that forms Angel Island.

Prior to its premiere this week, opening the 2023 Singapore International Festival of Arts, we spoke to co-directors Huang Ruo and Brian Gothong Tan about the development of the project, the relevancy of presenting such a work, and how the work stretched them as artists. Read the interview in full below:

Brian Gothong Tan. Photo courtesy of Arts House Limited

Bakchormeeboy: How did the two of you meet, and in what ways do you complement each other’s artistry?

Brian: Natalie Hennedige introduced us to one another, but I’ve known of Huang Ruo’s work when his Paradise Interrupted came to SIFA in 2016 when I was directing Tropical Traumas. I think we complement each other artistically very well. When I listened to his music, I realised we are quite similar in the way we create our art… we are very playful with structures and ideas, but deep down, it is emotion that drives the work. Our world views are also quite similar, I think because both of us have diasporic identities. We both are living in a different country from our place of birth, he from China and I was born in the Philippines.

Huang Ruo: In the original version, we only had six scenes, and I felt it wasn’t quite completed yet. SIFA took an interest in the work, and I talked about my vision of completing it, which led to this commission. Brian was brought on bored, and as a piece of ‘opera-theatre’, he brings in multimedia and other aspects to it. I hope that what it does is to offer a sincere journey through the history of Angel Island, and I’m glad it now feels ‘complete’ with Brian’s involvement.

Huang Ruo. Photo courtesy of Arts House Limited

Bakchormeeboy: When did you learn about ANGEL ISLAND, and what made you decide that the story should be told through a performance?

Brian: I actually learnt of Angel Island a few years back when I visited the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum in SF, but it’s significance was only impressed on me when I read Huang Ruo’s research and proposal for a performance.

Bakchormeeboy: Why did you decide on the Singtel Waterfront Theatre as the space the stage the work?

Huang Ruo: I visited the site before it was finished, and we settled on it because of the medium of our work. In addition to song, it also features narration and spoken word, which needs to get amplified through a space like the Singtel Waterfront Theatre, and really make it into an immersive theatre piece for audience to feel part of. The beauty of the ‘back box setting’ is that we have full control over the space, and what’s more, it’s new, so it’s very exciting to put our work there and experiment with what we can achieve.

Bakchormeeboy: Despite being so far removed both historically and geographically from Singapore, how does this version of ANGEL ISLAND find significance within the context of premiering in Singapore?

Huang Ruo: Beyond Angel Island itself, the work is inherently about how people treat others differently for their differences, be it due to race, beliefs, or sexuality. History has a tendency to repeat itself, and I wanted to present the humanity behind the stories of Angel Island, and encourage people to see and treat each other as equals. A large majority of the immigrants who came to Angel Island were Chinese, and back then, the USA had implemented the Chinese Exclusion Act, the only racist law of its kind at the time that prevented all members of a specific ethnic or national group from immigrating to the United States.

I do see it as a possibility that it happens again even today. Behind the beautiful backdrop, there is so much tragedy, where some immigrants ended up detained for weeks and months and even years, some dying on the island, and some eventually being sent back to Asia. The poetry that the detainees wrote on the wall would turn out to be very important – a park ranger discovered the writing back in the ’70s, before the centre was demolished. As a result, it was instead saved and even converted into a museum. To me, that’s what America is about – to not just acknowledge the dark history, but also to make a conscious effort to improve things and question what it means to be human.

Bakchormeeboy: In terms of the visuals, what does Brian have planned, beyond archival footage?

Brian: I’m keeping the visual language quite sparse and minimalist, although I’m employing various forms like live camera work, filmed footage that I shot on the island and some interesting props that me and Allister Towndrow, the set designer and a frequent collaborator, came up with.

Bakchormeeboy: In what ways did this project stretch you artistically? What were some of the challenges that went into this work, and was there a strong sense of emotional attachment to the work and its subject matter?

Brian: I think collaborating with artists from across the globe is always tough, because I really prefer meeting face-to-face and getting our hands dirty in the rehearsal room. That said, the pandemic has kind of trained me to get used to Zoom and discussing things online. I think the most challenging thing so far for me was actually going to the island itself. It isn’t easily accessible especially during off-peak season. But the journey and trek to the island was worth it because I truly understood how these people who went through the immigration station felt when I encountered their ghosts. I do have a strong emotional attachment to the subject matter and I have felt those feelings that those immigrants went through: the fear, joy, anticipation and all those complex feelings when you leave a country and adopt a new one.

Huang Ruo: I think the beauty of live music is that it really gets into you in an invisible way, something that no other art form can replicate. Music transforms and deepens these poems, allowing their meaning and emotions to reach even people who don’t understand Chinese. And with this version, you’ve got live singing and installation and even dance, all of which help serve the storytelling.

I do think it’s important not to box it up with a category and leave the audience to decide what to make of it. It’s also an immensely challenging work for everyone involved, with two distinct storylines that run through it. The first of these is inspired by the poems on the wall, and trace the journey and history the immigrants faced when they arrived, got detained, experience death, and finally, get sent home, capturing all the loneliness and sadness and heartbreak at how futile their efforts have been. The second storyline though traces the last Chinamen who survived the Titanic, and examines how they were put through things like having to travel to Cuba to receive medical treatment, unlike the other survivors, due to the Chinese Exclusion Act. These storylines weave in and out of each other, and end up in conversation. It’s intriguing to me, and I don’t think I’ve ever created any other work that interacts in this way. It helps to deepen and dramatise Angel Island to become multidimensional, sometimes abstract and surreal, and I’m glad it’s pushed me in such directions.

Bakchormeeboy: Do you feel ANGEL ISLAND has a life after SIFA? Are there any plans to tour it or develop it further?

Brian: Yes of course. I think the subject matter is very relevant. Discrimination happens everywhere, regardless of age, race, gender, social or economic status. When I was in Melbourne last year, I went to the Museum of Chinese Australian History and they had exactly the same history as those of Angel Island because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. As for touring, there are some talks but I’ll leave that to the producers!

Huang Ruo: I’d definitely love to see it continue. I think the beauty of festivals like SIFA is that they help support and create new work, allowing artists to fulfil their vision. I don’t think ANGEL ISLAND is here just for SIFA, it’s a work that reflects our past and our lives, and hopefully inform our future for the better. Over the pandemic, I realised how fragile the performing arts scene was, and this really would be my first live performance since the pandemic. We only have so much time on Earth to create work, so we have to work on creating work that really serves the world we live in, to inspire people to move society forward. For me, ANGEL ISLAND is a work of ‘action art’. It takes action and reacts to what’s going on in the world, evolving and changing over time. I don’t know how it’ll look in future, but what I do know is that it will continue to live on. For now, I’m satisfied with its current version, and hope that it keeps going on, touching and inspiring people who get to experience it.

Bakchormeeboy: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learnt about ANGEL ISLAND or yourselves as artists over this process?

Brian: I think the most surprising, or moving for me, was actually how the detainees of Angel Island chose poetry to express their predicament. They channelled their pain, anger and despair through art, and in turn, has left the world a lasting legacy and given us a way on how to think about the world. This idea of transformation, of turning something good when you are dealt with lemons, is quite profound. I hope that I can do that in my life and art as well.

Huang Ruo: I thought a lot about how during the pandemic, so many Asian people in the West suffered racist attacks. When creating this, I didn’t just want it to be about Angel Island, but to consider how it might spur educators and people to teach and learn more about Asian American history, which is absent from most textbooks and syllabi. It’s an invisible, unseen part of American history.

It all comes back to how people treat those who are different with hate, due to a lack of understanding and knowledge. These are things that happened in the past, but these are not relics, they are still relevant to the events that are happening in the world today. Writing something close to you that’s still happening in today’s world, it’s not like you’re dealing with an exotic, esoteric subject. It’s something that’s real and that people watch and relate to and feel for.

Angel Island plays from 19th to 20th May 2023 at Singtel Waterfront Theatre. Tickets available here

The 2023 Singapore International Festival of Arts runs from 19th May to 4th June 2023. Tickets and full details of programme available here

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