Thursday, November 03, 2011

Doctor rewrites the script

Doctor rewrites the script

Rebecca Blithe | Saturday, August 27, 2011 6:00

Renee Liang is a playwright, paediatrician and researcher. Shes preparing for the debut of her play The First Asian All Black - about a young immigrant wanting to get into rugby.

Renee Liang is a playwright, paediatrician and researcher. Shes preparing for the debut of her play The First Asian All Black - about a young immigrant wanting to get into rugby.
Kellie Blizard

Rebecca Blithe encounters doctor and writer Renee Liang at the Jungle Cafe in Grey Lynn to talk about how she's exploring growth as a nation.

Her Chinese name means literary blossom, Renee Liang tells me. "My mother told me halfway through med school that my grandfather had decided there were already too many doctors in the family."

But, despite that direction - or because of it - Renee is a pediatrician, a playwright and poet with a master's degree in creative writing, a researcher and an advocate for youth art.

Seated in a corner of the Jungle Cafe in Grey Lynn, Renee is a small character. Or, rather, a small person with a big character.

As we sit and talk about her work on a sharp-aired, soft-sunned morning, the veranda offering a view to the rows of open-fisted London plane trees lining the suburban streets, she flits between thoughtful, demure moments and vivacious enthusiasm.

"I'm older than I look," says the smooth-skinned 38-year-old.

"I have four degrees, I like to keep busy, I don't like to have a lot of downtime."

She pauses pensively. "I have a totally weird life," she says with a laugh as if the fact has only just occurred to her.

"I have a lot of fictional versions of myself," she says of her plays, which draw on her own experiences, and of her moviemaker sister's depiction of her in what became the hit film, My Wedding and Other Secrets.

New Zealander-born Chinese Renee has two new plays in the wings. They reflect her intrigue about the history of Chinese in New Zealand and consider what it is that makes someone "Kiwi".

The Bone Feeder explores the story of the SS Ventnor, a ship which set out in 1902 to carry the bodies of Chinese back to their families. But they never made it home. The ship sank in Hokianga Harbour. Eventually, the remains were discovered and honoured by locals.

"The guy who had been instrumental in organising the first ship died and was put on the second ship," says Renee of her play's central character, the ghost of Choie Sew Hoy. "He has something like 2000 descendants. I've been in touch with some of them. Early Chinese history [in New Zealand] is largely unknown. In some communities they were well accepted. But there was racism from both sides."

The First Asian AB - the acronym used because the words "All Blacks" are trademarked - follows a young immigrant who decides he wants to become an All Black. For this, Renee had to immerse herself in rugby culture.

"I never grew up playing sport," she says. "I never knew how to watch a rugby game. It's really interesting because Kiwi Asian theatre is at the stage of Pacific theatre 15 years ago."

In addition to her work as a playwright, she has been involved in several youth projects, including An Absolute Rush - a grassroots performing arts scheme for at-risk youth in South Auckland. "The thing about these kids was that no one had said, 'Your stories are valid'. They were so talented, the most natural singers, actors, dancers, comedians."

She was initially intimidated but was soon completely enamoured. "I ended up performing a really bad rap in front of them and their parents. They were all rolling around laughing at me."

During her time with the group she researched the benefits of art projects on youth health. At present she is completing a University of Auckland study: "Growing up in New Zealand".

Playwright and paediatrician may seem a strange combination. "I did paediatrics because I noticed how paediatricians stay young - my Dad's one. My favourite thing is watching kids develop and discover things about themselves."

But Renee, who was granted a Sir Peter Blake Leadership Award last year, says the medical and literary roles are complementary.

"I look at the stories that drive everyone. As a doctor, you're trained to look under the surface. You get a sixth sense of what people are trying to tell you. As a playwright and poet, I'm looking under my own skin and finding that story. Everyone's story can be universal. Getting to hear about them and tell them, it's a real privilege."

Fine China

The First Asian AB, Basement Studio, September 13-18, 6pm. Book at or ph 361 1000 or 0508 iTICKET; or at Real Groovy, 438 Queen St, or Conch Records, 115A Ponsonby Rd.

The Bone Feeder runs November 7-20 at TAPAC, Western Springs. For booking information contact or ph 845 0295 ext 1.

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