I am one of the 5 founder members of the British East Asian (BEA) theatre company, Yellow Earth. We were 5 actors who came together fed up with the paucity of roles available to us and keen to make our own work to change that.
Over the 22 years the company has undergone many changes. I am now the Artistic Director and as a theatre company our business is always to deal in stories. That has led me to explore and unearth the overlooked, forgotten and unheard stories and voices of the British Chinese and East Asian communities.
In 2011 we won a commission to create a new character interpreter for the Traders Gallery at the National Maritime Museum. His name was James Robson a British Chinese Sailor and the longest serving crew member of the Cutty Sark (1885-1895).
Whilst researching James Robson I became increasingly fascinated with the area around Limehouse and Poplar that was once the site of a small but significant ‘Chinatown’ with restaurants, Sunday schools and grocery shops. It began when Chinese Sailors arriving at the London docks in the 1800’s as part of the new trade between China, E Asia and Britain, were left waiting to work their passage back. There they met the local women who clearly showed a preference to the Chinese men over the local men and quite a number ended up staying, marrying and having families. Today there is little to suggest such an area ever existed save for a few street names such as ‘Amoy Place’, ‘Ming Street’ and ‘Canton Street’ and a dragon sculpture, easily missed.
Slum clearances in the 30’s and the Blitz pretty much destroyed everything, but not before the place had caught the imagination of writers such as Sax Rohmer who spawned the popular evil genius Fu Manchu. At the time Rohmer wrote, there was a lot of racism ,fear and mistrust of the Chinese in the media fuelled by the idea of the “Yellow Peril” and Limehouse represented to the British public all that was alien, sordid and fearful about the Chinese with it’s dark alleys and smoke filled opium dens.
We wanted to debunk those myths and present the real lives of those that had once lived there so we commissioned a new play, ‘The Last Days of Limehouse’ by Jeremy Tiang.
If you want to find out more, here is a great resource I worked on to explore the key locations of the old Chinatown in Limehouse: www.limehousechinatown.org and you can take an audio tour of the area voiced by characters from our play.
Kumiko Mendl, Artistic Director, Yellow Earth Theatre
‘Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kowk’ opens in Manchester on March 22nd and tours around the country until June. To see the show or find out more, visit www.yellowearth.org/mountains-dreams-lily-kwok/
In Autumn 2018 the Yellow Earth Theatre commemorate the end of World War 1 with a new play, Forgotten遗忘 by Daniel York Loh.
Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok
Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok a new play by In-Sook Chappell, adapted from the family memoir ‘Sweet Mandarin’ by Helen Tse, a story of love, sacrifice and survival. Opening at The Royal Exchange, Manchester 22 March – 7 April coming to Stratford Circus, London 18 – 21 April and then on tour.
James Robson Cutty Sark
Johnny Ong playing James Robson on the Cutty Sark
Devised and Written by the company
Directed by Kumiko Mendl
A regular character on the Cutty Sark and at the Maritime Museum, James Robson was found as a baby floating in the South China Seas. He was rescued by a Captain and his wife and brought up in Poplar East London. He was the longest serving crew member alongside Captain Woodget on the Cutty Sark serving for 10 years between 1885 and 1895
The Last Days of Limehouse' by Jeremy Tiang performed at the Old Limehouse Town Hall, Limehouse, London.
Directed by Gary Merry and Kumiko Mendl
Design Moi Tran
Music Ruth Chan
Jonathan Chan, Sara Houghton, Matthew Leonhart, Amanda Maud, Gabby Wong
Photo © Robert Workman
Sunday School in Chinese Mission, Pennyfields, 1935
© Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives
November 2018 marks the end of World War 1. We will bring the little known story of the Chinese Labour Corps to London in a new play by Daniel York Loh ‘Forgotten遗忘’. Following the lives of 3 friends in an amateur opera troupe who together with 140.000 men left behind their homes and families for a foreign land to work behind the Front Line.
Me with the cast of ‘The Last Days of Limehouse’