From the Silk Bath Collective, WOKING PHOENIX explores two decades of a family’s survival. Woking Phoenix, now at Theatre Pass Muraille in Toronto (April 12 to 27), tells the story of three siblings, their mother, and their restaurant as they seek to find belonging in small-town Ontario. It’s an intergenerational Chinese love story about creating community and the food that reminds us of home.

The story was co-created, co-written, and co-directed by Silk Bath Collective members Bessie Cheng, Aaron Jan, and Gloria Mok. This work draws from many inspirations.  The company’s shared family legacies of running multi-gen immigrant family businesses are central to the storyline. In fact, Jan’s family owned a Chinese restaurant in small town Ontario called The Blue Tavern.

In Woking Phoenix, the artists were interested in focusing on an intergenerational family story. It explores the multifaceted food culture within the Chinese diaspora. We had a chance to chat with the creators to learn more! 

Woking Phoenix departs from your most recent works – what inspired this direction now?

Aaron: Our last two plays were science fiction dystopian narratives.While we felt those were really successful, we also felt that as a collective we were straying away from why we originally started working together – telling stories inspired by our own upbringings as children of the Chinese diaspora from first, second and third generation upbringings. We also saw Lulu Wang’s movie the Farewell and were really inspired by creating a large scale play about a Chinese family that celebrated their humanity first and foremost. We’ve been working on Woking Phoenix for over five years and we feel it’s our most personal work yet.

Gloria: We wanted to create a play that spoke to our collective experiences as first, second, and third generation Chinese Canadians. We all have different definitions as to what “authentic” Chinese food means based on our upbringing. We’re text-based writers, and our previous work also often felt rushed. So we intentionally wanted a longer development process that would allow us to layer choreography, original music, and visual art that would help tell the story and influence our writing.

Woking Phoenix - Toronto Theatre
Phoebe Hu in Woking Phoenix : photo by Jae Yang

The title of the show is “Woking Phoenix.” Can you share with us how that took flight? Umm…any inspo from Joaquin Phoenix? 

Aaron: We were genuinely looking at silly names that sounded like other things. Absolutely no significance other than it sounding the same (which is – in fact – hilariously Chinese)

Bessie: We came up with the name “Woking Phoenix” with the joke that Ma tried to make a pun on “Walking Phoenix” since it sounded like “Wok” and “King”, but also that phoenixes don’t walk, they fly.

The implication is that as an older woman who isn’t super familiar with pop culture, Ma totally missed the fact that her restaurant name sounds like an actor who has nothing to do with the restaurant.

Gloria: Chinese restaurant names are often a combination of a very obvious Chinese food related word like “wok” and a lucky symbol like “phoenix”. We also wanted to play up on the fact that Chinese restaurants are often titled odd names that sometimes people make fun of, and the people in this fictional white town definitely would make fun of this family for this.

The basis of the storyline of a Chinese restaurant in a small town is relatable for Chinese Canadians, including myself. What did you discover in your research? Did anything surprise you?

Aaron: For me, I think the largest discovery was how accepted a lot of these restaurants were in these mostly white communities. yes, racism exists and happens, but it’s the community’s emotional connection to the Chinese restaurant that’s always surprising. My grandparents ran a Chinese restaurant up in Levack Ontario, so a lot of my own research came from their stories. The kids did so much! Waiting tables, taking shipment orders, counting the till – all were jobs for these young “employees”.

Bessie: I’ve worked in restaurants since I was 19, so I’m using that as inspiration for how the kids feel as they work at the Phoenix growing up. I’ve also met and worked for many restaurant owners who are there open to close, 7 days a week, fighting to keep their business alive. I see many of them in the character of Ma.

Gloria: I discovered that historically, most people who started Chinese restaurants in Canada were from southern China and likely spoke Cantonese, just like my parents! While the matriarch in this iteration of our play speaks Mandarin, we still think many immigrant families will be able to relate to this story.

It also reminds us of the Chop Suey Nation by Ann Hui that I loved – did that also play an influence, and how?

Bessie: The three of us all read Chop Suey Nation as a part of the inspiration for the show. We are also fortunate enough to invite Ann Hui (the author of Chop Suey Nation) to our prelude community event where we will be chatting about the parallels between her book and our show.

Gloria: Yes, we all loved the book and it was selected for Theatre Passe Muraille’s book club for this month.

This is also a story about a multi-generational family business. Do you feel it will resonate with other immigrant families from different backgrounds?

Aaron: I feel there’s a universality in specificity, so definitely. This theatre season has been so full of really rich intergenerational family stories that are full of cultural specificity. I think there’s such a beauty in finding elements of similarity in radically different experiences, so yes yes yes!

Gloria: I definitely feel that immigrant families of different backgrounds can relate to this story. My parents started a small printing business that my brother and I spent many weekends and school holidays working at. I can relate to the countless hours spent doing repetitive tasks but also the simplicity and joy of spending lunch breaks eating gon chow ngau ho (beef chow with family. Many of our designers and collaborators come from Chinese and Korean immigrant families, and have similar stories of their own when it comes to family-owned restaurants and businesses.

Bessie: I definitely think this story will resonate with immigrant families from different backgrounds. My mother and I immigrated to Canada when I was 8 years old. Though that was over 20 years ago, I still see many similarities with new immigrants that I meet now. There’s a strong desire to assimilate into this new environment and to make a better life for themselves knowing that they worked so hard to get here.

Woking Phoenix - Toronto Theatre
Bessie Cheng, Phoebe Hu, and Richard Lam in Woking Phoenix photo by Jae Yang.jpg

It’s also about love, but as we know, Chinese families generally do not openly love the same way as the Western world. We show love in other ways. Thoughts?

Aaron: One of the things we explore in the show – and a key element of conflict – is the younger generation’s craving of westernized love versus Ma’s more Chinese way of showing love and the ensuing feelings of resentment and confusion that sometimes follow. We don’t provide any answers on which is better, but allow the audience to see the disconnect that occurs. I think though, at the end of the day, open communication is the most important thing.

Gloria: My mom and dad both show love through food and acts of service. My mom always cooks my favourite and my dad always offers to drive me places. My dad bringing me an iced cappuccino as a treat on hot summer days working at his print shop will always be a core memory.

Bessie: I felt this in a big way moving from China to Canada and seeing how my family vs. how friends of mine who have grown up here interact with one another. Some of my friends here have hugged my mom more times than I have! I also think it’s a generational thing that Chinese families aren’t as keen on showing physical intimacy and words of affirmation. Food as a way of showing love has always been a big part of how my family and I express ourselves.

Okay, do you seek out Chinese restaurants everywhere you travel too? 

Gloria: My parents love going to local Chinese restaurants on family trips, even if they are in foreign countries or remote places. They always complain about the Chinese food not being as good as here in Toronto, but I don’t know what they would expect if the ingredients are harder to source.

And, what do you hope your audience will feel after seeing this show? 

Bessie: I really hope that our audience can relate and see themselves in our characters, even their flawed, sometimes cruel ways. This show is about love in many ways, and I hope that our audience can leave the theatre wanting to connect/reconnect with loved ones.

Aaron: We hope audiences will feel the maternal love in their own lives and call their mothers.

Gloria: I hope audiences will leave the show wanting to call their mom, or share a meal with a loved one.

Woking Phoenix is now on stage at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto from April 12 to 27, 2024. For more information visit the official site here.

If you’re attending a show, you can also experience th Taste of the Woking Phoenix with Ma’s Snack Box. The menu designed by Vanessa Ling-Yu of caterToronto, this box of goodies offers audiences a tasty add-on to the show. Preorder for $22 when you purchase your tickets!

Wondering what else is happening in Toronto this month? Check out our City Girl’s Guide.