Unravelling the Canadian dream

Gold Mountain tells the story of a man’s journey from rural China to Canada in search of a better life, in a beautiful visual package.

Gold Mountain. Photo by Sam Heath. 

A joint effort of Liverpudlian Unity Theatre and Montreal’s Les Deux Mondes brings us the more bitter than sweet Gold Mountain. Through short, titled scenes, David Yee (Eugene Salleh) examines the life of his morally ambiguous father, Yee Lui (David Yip). Yee journeys from East to West in search of his “gold mountain” — money and success found abroad. Dementia and willful forgetfulness turn Yee’s memories into unreliable, hazy impressions, leaving David resentful of his father’s questionable life choices.

Yee is a complicated man. He walks 1,000 miles across China barefoot and boards a ship bound for Liverpool. A vendetta against the Kuomintang [a communist-affiliated Taiwanese political party, currently in power; I had to Google it too – Ed] transforms the once apolitical Yee into a Communist sympathizer; he writes letters of solidarity to Mao, organizes mariner strikes, and enlists in the Sino-Japanese war. In Liverpool, Yee courts and marries a Caucasian woman, raises a family, and owns a laundry business. However, the persistence and male pride that help Yee survive are the seeds of his undoing. Opium and gambling undermine both his business and marriage. Yee retreats into fantasy, even refusing to attend his wife’s funeral, convinced she is alive.

The production is a visual ballet. Sliding scrims, creative lighting, and digital wizardry paint each “chapter” of Yee’s life with moving imagery across a sparse stage. A film clip of Yee’s proposal is juxtaposed with one of marching Maoists. Borrowing elements of Chinese dance, David and Yee open two large fans as screens to display Yee’s wife on her wedding day. Silhouettes — reminiscent of Chinese puppet theatre — create some of the most memorable. In the most haunting, Yee’s miraculous tale of survival at sea is silhouetted with the shadows of toy soldiers sinking slowly through a night sky, created by a container of water backlit behind the scrim.

Yip, who co-wrote the script and based the story loosely on his own father, lends pathos and humanity to the Willy Loman-esque Yee. Though much is left unsaid, there is an elegance to Yip’s gestures that suggests he is burdened by unarticulated traumas of brutality, poverty, and loss. How he sits or cradles a toy boat suggest decades of secrets that seem to seep through the cracks of his psyche.

Salleh plays David as a stern young man still tending embers of rage for his father’s antics. As a character, he mostly serves as a foil for Yee. What little we know of Yee amplifies that we know less of David. Herein is perhaps the weakest point of the production: David’s journey is so rarely addressed that the show’s conclusion is unsatisfying. The relationship needs to be more than frustrated, steely contempt.

Overall, Gold Mountain puts together the pieces of a difficult man’s life through stunning visuals. Each “chapter” is engagingly self-contained and beautifully packaged, but the story never fully coheres. All the same, even with narrative gaps, the emotional resonance is profound. Ultimately, Gold Mountain demonstrates that contextualization and understanding are keys for forgiving those who have failed, particularly parents. ■

Gold Mountain is playing at Théâtre Aux Écuries (7285, Chabot (metro Fabre), to  April 27. Tickets $12.50 – $25.

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