August 01, 1997


The North
William Yang


Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

When he presented Sadness at the Institute Hall in Kintore Avenue William Yang gave us one of the unexpected highlights of the 1994 Adelaide Festival. Idiosyncratic, intimate and full of wry good humour, Yang’s slide show did much to draw together the otherwise inchoate strands of Christopher Hunt’s program. This modest one- person show provided a regional perspective and dealt with regional ethnicity. But, unlike much of the abstracted, ethnomusicological fare at the Open Roof, William Yang not only spoke about an Asian experience with an Australian accent, he reminded us that, for many, an Australian experience is an Asian one.

Sadness was also about other things. About violence towards the Chinese community in Queensland in the 1930s and the white face and round eyes of the Australian justice system. It was about the death by AIDS of many of the best minds of Yang’s generation. Sadness embraced melancholy alongside pleasure. Pleasure in travelling the Australian continent by car, in meals enjoyed (and scrupulously photographed) in the camaraderie of the Patrick White circle in Sydney. It was, in large measure, about the pleasure in being William Yang. His show zig-zagged with deceptive ease, held together by the skilful understatement of a droll narrative and the matter-of-factness of its low tech presentation. Sadness was a wonderful work but it had all the hallmarks of a brilliant one-off.

Wrong. The North, his current success, has taken the format and made it new. Where he had been diffuse, he has focused. Now, he trusts his tale even more and, with the singular talents of composer Colin Offord, has created another, differently subtle and satisfying performance piece.

“Memory is a strange faculty,” William Yang observes, between projected glimpses of what used to be the Dimbulah railway restaurant. “It has a life of its own. Nothing to do with the facts.”
For him, The North means Northern Queensland where Yang was born, fifty two years ago, second son of Emma Wing and Charlie Young (formerly Yang) -shopkeepers, tobacco farmers, ethnic Chinese, assimilated Australians.

One day at primary school a kid calls him Ching Chong Chinaman. “Mum, “he asks incredulously, “I’m not Chinese am I ?” Long looks from his mother and brother persuade him that he is. And, as Yang notes with comic deadpan, “I had better get used to it.” While talking of his own school days, and his childhood contact with the de Lacey family whose son Vern is still his friend nearly a half century on, Yang flips through a succession of close-in portraits of kids from the Dimbulah schoolyard now. They are well-nourished and thriving. Their features are a blend of European, Asian and Aboriginal. They could be little vegemites anywhere in Australia.

Yang talks about racial difference but by no means as a victim. He recalls “poor whites” on the wrong side of town. People who, short of a feed, cooked up parrot pies, and worked in the marginal soil raising tobacco for a dwindling market. Fastidious and impassive in his suit and bow tie, Yang recalls picking wet tobacco leaves in the early morning before school. While other families prepared their children for the rural version of the apostolic succession- “I knew,” Yang notes with dandyish disdain, “that my future was not in tobacco.”

Instead his future led to Cairns where he boarded and attended high school. It was there that he realised that he was homosexual. His terrible secret discovered when reading about others Famously Afflicted. “I thought there were only four homosexuals in the world,” he notes drily. “Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Oscar Wilde – and me.”

Revisiting some of the family history in Sadness, Yang describes the marriage of his matriarchal Aunt Bess to a powerful merchant, William Fang Yuan, later murdered by a business rival acquitted on dubious evidence. This miscarriage of justice haunts Yang, fueling his insecurity in what is supposed to be his country. He explores the scattered remnants of now dismantled joss houses, where Chinese celebrated their beliefs in Buddhism, Confucianism and, the faith Yang himself adopted, Taoism.

This provides a lead-in to Yang’s account of visits to the other North- Northern China and, later, Hokkaido in Northern Japan. Bemused by his travels in China, Yang’s perspective is that of a chic Sydney-sider but he is moved when his hosts remark that he has the blood of China in his veins. This is the hinge on which The North operates. It is about the nature of belonging and the inescapable claims of place. But as Yang represents it, that is no simple tribal thing. He belongs equally with childhood friends in Dimbulah, with his Asian gay pride group in Sydney, with workers in a dingy tearoom in a Mongolian factory.

The North is a welcome contribution at a time when discussion of identity in our community is frequently disturbed, anxious and vindictive. William Yang’s gentle meditation, splendidly framed by Colin Offord’s spacious sarod and jews harp soundscape, is about hard-won affirmation and generosity. When Yang returns to Dimbulah to discover a grove of silvery eucalypts, which he had previously photographed, is in the process of being burnt to the ground, he might well have elaborated it into a doomy portent of things to come. Instead, he measures his sadness and anger with a Taoist acceptance of change and trust in essentials. Without insisting upon it, William Yang offers us his version of true North. And he not only talks about it, he is gifted enough to picture it.

The Adelaide Review, August 1997.

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