In exploring how the oppressed can become oppressors, the stage adaptation of The Poison of Polygamy – Australia’s first Chinese-language novel – is a timely critique of the present. By Yen-Rong Wong.

The Poison of Polygamy

Four performers carry a bed with a woman wearing a crown sitting on top.
A scene from the La Boite Theatre production of The Poison of Polygamy.
Credit: CSQUARE Media

In 1909, the Chinese-language newspaper The Chinese Times began publishing instalments of Wong Shee Ping’s The Poison of Polygamy. It’s believed to be the first novel written in Australia by a member of the Chinese diaspora and is possibly the first Chinese-language novel published in the West.

More than a century later, this work – translated by Ely Finch and adapted for the stage by Anchuli Felicia King – is Courtney Stewart’s debut production as La Boite Theatre’s new artistic director, before it heads to the Sydney Theatre Company next month. The Poison of Polygamy looks at the hardships faced by 19th century Chinese miners in Australia, but is timely in its critique of capitalism and its commentary on marginalised migrant communities existing on stolen land.

The production opens with several quick, sharp shafts of bright light that illuminate a woman dressed in an ornate red qipao (cheongsam) and matching headdress. Ben Hughes’ lighting sets the tone for this three-hour production, as the red-clad woman foreshadows the tragic events to come.

She circles around a preacher (Shan-Ree Tan) who is the story’s narrator, speaking from beyond the grave. In some deftly ironic casting, Tan also plays the character of Sleep-Sick, the story’s antihero. His nickname refers to his opium addiction – derided by his fellow villagers, Sleep-Sick’s only ambition is the amassing of wealth. Ma (Merlynn Tong), his long-suffering wife, is his opposite – filially pious to a fault, she sacrifices her last warm clothes for medicine for her mother-in-law (Anna Yen).

When Ma’s cousin (Silvan Rus) introduces an opportunity to get rich from Australia’s gold rush, Sleep-Sick jumps at the chance, leaving behind his wife, although it means he has to promise to stop smoking opium. On the voyage to Australia, he meets Ching (Ray Chong Nee) and Pan (Gareth Yuen). After disembarking, the pair inform Sleep-Sick that they have been dropped off in South Australia, far away from the goldfields, to avoid paying the £10 poll tax imposed on Chinese passengers who disembark in Victoria.

After 76 days of walking, the three meet Chan (Silvan Rus) in Melbourne, who welcomes them warmly into his home before telling them, to their dismay, that the goldfields are in Bendigo. The four decide to go into business together, despite Chan’s reservations regarding Sleep-Sick. Here the everyday business of being Chinese in Australia is made clear – as well as dealing with overt racism from white settlers, the Chinese are required to pay an exorbitant additional annual residency tax, or “protection tax”, which eats into their already meagre earnings. The four men are also exposed to the physical dangers of gold mining. After a collapse that nearly claims Ching’s life, Pan decides to leave the mines to pursue activism and Sleep-Sick returns to his wife in China.

At first glance, The Poison of Polygamy explores the tensions between Christian monogamy and Chinese polygamy but here the definition of polygamy is expanded to encompass the relationships between different communities and countries. Representations of poison throughout the production are also multifaceted. The most obvious is the role of opium, a poison that can be used medically for pain relief and also cause addiction, or can be given to others for more nefarious purposes.

Colonialism is the most insidious poison of all. It is worth remembering the British imported vast quantities of opium to China in the early 19th century, creating a population of addicts and which, after the trade was banned by the Chinese government, led to the Opium Wars. Colonialism infects all who come in contact with it, becoming a source of intergenerational trauma and also leading those who have been oppressed to oppress others.

Sleep-Sick doesn’t stay in China for long, leaving Ma to take care of their adopted son while he returns to Australia with Ching for yet another business proposition. It is on this second trip to Australia that Sleep-Sick meets Tsiu Hei (Kimie Tsukakoshi), a bondmaiden tied to Ching’s family. Tsiu Hei is strong-willed and manipulative and she uses her femininity and her relative freedom in Australia to her advantage, much to the derision of those around her. Tsukakoshi is especially charismatic in this role and her nuanced performance is underpinned by the deft navigation and understanding of a character who, in different hands, could easily be seen as wholly unsympathetic and teeter into stereotype.

The relationship between Tsiu Hei and Ching is particularly interesting, underlining the ease with which a marginalised community can contribute to the marginalising of another. Ching expects Tsiu Hei to obey his orders, and is exasperated when she does not. This contrasts with his joviality when he is with his friends, another reminder of the prevailing attitudes towards women in China at the time.

Upon their return to Australia, Ching and Sleep-Sick reunite with Pan and Chan. The friends find Pan has achieved moderate success in furthering the rights of his fellow Chinese miners. However, he still speaks of First Nations people in derogatory terms and when Ching argues on their behalf, Pan doubles down. The Chinese sentiment of “eating bitterness” – the belief that China’s greatness is due in part to its people’s ability to persevere through hardship and suffering, often without complaint – comes to mind here.

Predictably, Sleep-Sick and Ching’s business fails, largely due to the former’s embezzlement to fund his opium addiction, and he is forced, yet again, to return to China and his first wife. It is here that his life – and the lives of those he is closest to – unravel, leading to the play’s dramatic conclusion and climax.

James Lew’s set is minimalist yet impactful – the only props are a cane bed, a blanket, and six large red poles on castors. These poles are used interchangeably to delineate boundaries, in the depiction of the roiling action of the ship (and its passengers’ stomachs) on its way to Australia. Lew’s keen eye can be seen in his costume designs – in the second act, the men’s loose shirts are replaced by waistcoats as they accumulate wealth and attempt to assimilate into Western society. Tsiu Hei wears a dark-red qipao, foreshadowing her roles as murderer and ghost narrator, while the other characters are clad in white and muted beiges.

The soundtrack from Matt Hsu’s Obscure Orchestra complements the play’s themes by combining sounds from traditional Chinese instruments with those of Western origin. With Guy Webster, the production’s sound designer, Hsu’s work enhances the play’s emotional highs and lows, which become more pronounced as the play progresses into its second act.

As a whole, The Poison of Polygamy is a triumph: Stewart’s balanced direction gives due consideration to all its many perspectives. Her careful artistic choices and attention to cultural and historical undercurrents combine to introduce this important piece of Chinese–Australian literature to a modern Australian audience.

The Poison of Polygamy is at the Roundhouse Theatre, Brisbane, until May 27 and at Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney, June 8-15.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 20, 2023 as "Opium dreams".

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