Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The lives of others

I meet a lot of interesting people in my job, but sometimes they are extraordinary. A lady called Jannette Cheung emailed me last week saying she wanted to talk about a noh play and thought that she'd met me in Japan years ago. I didn't recall her but I pencilled in a chat this morning, hoping it wouldn't take too long. Turned out she's a Chinese Brit based in London, one of 12 children who grew up in poverty in East London and has been working in higher education most of her life, dabbling in poetry and, more recently, facilitating international cultural productions.

She proceeded to tell me about a noh play, Pagoda, she'd written in English and an amazing series of events which saw it grow from just an idea to securing major funding from the Japanese government, somehow persuading Oshima Noh Theatre and Theatre Nohgaku to produce it, and then convincing the South Bank in London, the Maison de la Culture du Japon in Paris, and the Samuel Beckett theatre in Dublin to stage it (a year ago). She's now planning to bring it to Beijing, and I firmly believe she'll succeed.

But what was most amazing was the story of her father. He'd grown up in China in extreme poverty in the 1920s but managed to get a job as a cabin boy on a ship and ended up in England where he married a British woman and they had their dozen children. He died in the early 70s and it was then that Jannette decided, aged twentysomething, to go to China to teach English and possibly find out something about him. All she had, by way of a clue, was a scrap of paper with some Chinese characters on it. She was posted to Harbin during the height of the Cultural Revolution, this must have been an experience in itself. Anyway, eventually the authorities helped her decipher the scrap of paper and it turned out to be his Chinese surname and a village in the middle of nowhere. Eventually she was allowed to travel there and met an old dying woman of that name, who turned out to be his sister. She had never known what had happened to her brother, but now - through this unlikely series of events - she could die in peace.

The lives of others...

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