A self-confessed closeted Anglophile, playwright Jovanni Sy has taken his fascination with the British and applied it to the stage with his newest play, Nine Dragons.
“I don’t mean closet in the sense that I’m ashamed that I’m an Anglophile, it’s just not something that comes up a lot,” says Sy with a laugh.
Growing up in the 70s and 80s, Sy says his interest in all things British came from having limited interaction with others of his ethnicity, and from the entertainment he watched.
“There weren’t a ton of Chinese people in the school I was at growing up, which is funny because now that part of Toronto is very Chinese,” he says. “I guess because I loved the literature, because I loved the movies and the TV shows, I guess I just absorbed that naturally.”
The British connection comes from setting his detective story, Nine Dragons, in 1924 colonial Kowloon, whose central character is Tommy Lam, a Chinese detective on the Hong Kong police force.
“He’s the most senior and probably the best detective on the force, but he’s been held back and seen his white counterparts promoted ahead of him, because it’s still a very British run colonial system at that time,” he explains.
As a sensational murder rocks Kowloon, it is Tommy who discovers the lead suspect in the case, Victor, is also Chinese, but who also happens to be the son from one of the wealthiest families in Asia.
“It’s a bit of a cat and mouse game,” says Sy.
Surprisingly it wasn’t Sy’s hero, Tommy, who first inspired him to write Nine Dragons. Instead, it was his antagonist, Victor, which he based on a long-lost black-and-white photograph of an elegant Chinese man dressed in a tuxedo smoking a cigarette.
“What’s interesting about Victor is he’s someone who has stripped himself of all his Chinese identity, and tries to be more English than the English,” he explains. “Once I came up with this character, then I kind of created Tommy.”
While Sy has set his play in Kowloon, he consciously wrote Nine Dragons with a bridge between audiences from both the East and West in mind.
“It’s set when it’s set because it has a natural kind of built in cultural tension, not unlike the kind of cultural tension that exists in Richmond today,” he says.
“I went the mystery genre because it just suited the kind of battle of wits I wanted to see of two Chinese men,” he continues. “One of whom wants to eschew all traces of his own culture, and one who is definitely downtrodden and held back because of colonialism.”
Pointing to the obvious connection for the Chinese community because of its themes of identity and colonialism, Sy has also written a piece which can be enjoyed strictly for its entertainment value.
“I think what makes it accessible to the non-Chinese community is just the fact it’s a genre piece that everybody loves,” he says. “Everybody loves detective stories and crime dramas, so it’s quite accessible that way.”
It is the juxtaposition of the thriller genre with a different point-of-view that really excited Sy about his story.
“I remember watching Jordan Peele’s Get Out and thinking, wow, this is almost exactly what I’m trying to do with Nine Dragons,” he says. “I’m trying to take a well-loved genre and invert its point of view. The genre itself is accessible and one that everybody really kind of loves, but when you invert the point of view you get to play with a whole lot of different themes and perspectives.”
Nine Dragons opens at Richmond’s Gateway Theatre on April 12 and runs through April 21. Visit http://gatewaytheatre.com for tickets and information.