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Gateway's own Jovanni Sy shines

Lorraine Graves   Apr-16-2018

Tommy Lam, played by John Ng, in Jovanni Sy's Nine Dragons at Richmond's Gateway Theatre.

Photo by Tim Nguyen

The long-awaited stop in the world premiere tour of Jovanni Sy’s play, Nine Dragons, opened Friday (April 13) with a dark mystery and a strong social message rooted not just in Hong Kong of the 1920s, but in today’s Canada.

The play opens, misty and dark.



The Chinese police officer Tommy Lam, ably played by John Ng, in colonial Hong Kong knows of two murders in Kowloon, likely by the same killer.

He tries to investigate the murders. No one is much interested because the dead young women didn’t die in the “white” part of Hong Kong, and is Chinese, not British like the rulers of the colony.

After spending last Sunday at the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry, there are strong echoes.

No one in power pays attention to the Kowloon murders until the daughter of a wealthy Brit dies in the same fashion.

Then two things happen, the police spring into action and they put a rookie British police officer in charge of the experienced Tommy Lam, saying “You know how things work around here.”

As they seek to find the killer, layers upon layers, like an onion, of plot reveal themselves to the cops. You never know who to trust, who is what they seem.

This is no dull tone poem.

Nine Dragons is plot rich with intrigue, unexpected turns, and plot points that reveal facets of Hong Kong under the British that many of us didn’t know before.

The mood is very much film noire, almost to the point of being a little too dark for aging eyes.

The music that introduced the show and some transitions was outstandingly loud but that is usually an opening night feature that is tweaked during the run.

The dialogue was quick. Coupled with the different accents those playing Brits adopted, it took a bit of getting used to but it soon settled in.

The play also brought to mind the recent Anti-Racism Forum at Kwantlen Polytechnic University where people spoke of the names they were called, the attitudes they lived with, and the struggle for equality.

The British calling middle-aged Chinese officers, “boy,” or asking a woman in the room to bring tea, two sugars no milk, even though she is the qualified medical pathologist.

The sets were magnificent. They were clever. It was always clear where you were and what was happening.

The transitions were handled well with the actors helping to move things. At first, it was a little disconcerting when, in the lowered light, the dead guy got up and helped move a desk to set up the next scene but, as the play progressed, it became standard to suspend one’s disbelief.

Projection was used magnificently to add nuance to the scenes, offer translation when necessary and even to create rain. Kudos to the set designer, Scott Reid and projection designer, Jamie Nesbitt.

Nine Dragons offers two interesting matinees.

One offers a tea with cakes in the hour before the play and the other offers complete Chinese translation on the projection incorporated into the set.

That means newcomers or elders not accustomed to dramas in English can participate in this part of the cultural life of Richmond. By reaching across the language divide, Gateway offers an opportunity to our Chinese-speaking community to integrate with mainstream Canadian culture.

This is a play that appeals to a variety of people. It’s a murder mystery. It’s a genre play reminiscent of The Maltese Falcon and for those whose family lived through those times, it will bring their stories alive. It’s a good yarn, true to place, well told.

Without preaching, the issue of race in an English colony underlies the whole evening.

A British officer calls a seasoned Chinese policeman a “mongoose,” while one Chinese national copes by choosing to become a Brit in education, tone, and accent while another struggles with one foot in each camp.

It touches on a colonial power that treats the Indigenous people as second class citizens, all wrapped in an engrossing play with moments sparked by humour. Even a popular British misconception about Cantonese is fair game and caused waves of knowing chuckles.

There was a surprising amount of coughing and sneezing on the audience’s part. Perhaps triggered by all the smoke they saw. The mist used in the production was light enough, not adding a lot to the mood, that I could have done without it.

What really shone inNineDragonswas the skilled writing. Jovanni Sy has a winner on his hands and, with the ending as it was, patrons at the opening night reception said they hope it leaves the door open to more in a series.

It has been a long time since a modern play wove the threads of so many people’s story lines and so many dark issues into a cohesive, gripping plot.

A coproduction amongst Gateway Theatre, Calgary’s Vertigo Theatre and Winnipeg’s Royal Winnipeg Theatre, NineDragons runs at the Gateway Theatre through April 21.

Information at

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