By Dionne Christian
11:16 AM Saturday Nov 5, 2011
The Bone Feeder actor Llanyon Eli Joe. Photo / APN
In a Grey Lynn art gallery and studio packed with trestle tables and stacks of chairs, pots of paint, lumps of clay and half-finished drawings, an artist diligently keeps his eyes on his work rather than stepping out from behind a partition to watch the five Chinese men in the centre of the room.
They are going through a carefully choreographed series of martial arts moves, making them look graceful and ethereal. It is the final scene - an emotional and physical one - in playwright Renee Liang's The Bone Feeder.
The men look towards the high ceiling, imagining how in the theatre martial arts will be combined with high-wire flying - a proposition for Dragon Origin, New Zealand's first martial arts stunts company, and stunt choreographer and actor Willie Ying to co-ordinate.
Liang and the production team, which includes director Lauren Jackson, believe it's the first time a local professional play has combined martial arts and high-wire flying.
It's also the first time New Zealanders, particularly those of Chinese descent, have had a significant piece of their history presented to them in such a large-scale production.
Jackson says the 19-strong cast, live music, high-wire martial arts, dance, drama and comedy must complement the story rather than distract from it.
"We must make sure during rehearsals that we stop, talk and share ideas so a cohesive direction and vision run through the piece because it's telling such an important and moving story."
Far from contemporary Grey Lynn, the SS Ventnor was en route from Otago in 1902 when she sank in the Hokianga Harbour with the bones of 499 Chinese miners bound for ancestral graves in Canton on board.
It was considered important for Chinese to return to their home villages so many of the men who migrated to New Zealand to work - mainly in the gold fields - thought of themselves as temporary visitors.
They always intended to return to China once they made enough money but life was harsh and many of them never made it home.
Those who died here were buried in temporary graves but the local Chinese community, led by Choie Sew Hoy, raised by subscription the then vast sum of £4000 to charter the Ventnor and carry the exhumed bones home to China.
"It was believed that people needed to return to their home villages in order to watch over their descendants and, in return, have their graves looked after and spirits nourished," says Liang.
But the bones never made it after the Ventnor struck a rock and sank near Hokianga Harbour. The coffins and bones were lost, along with 13 crewmen.
Some of the coffins and bones were washed ashore where, local stories reveal, they were found by Maori and buried in family urupa.
The Bone Feeder gives voice to the ghosts of the Chinese men and the iwi who found their remains, taking the historical fact as the basis for a fictional exploration of family, identity, and love and loss.
It follows Ben (played by Kevin Ng), a fifth generation Chinese New Zealander, who travels to present-day Hokianga to search for the bones of his great, great grandfather.
Once there, he meets some unusual "locals" who may - or may not - be mischievous ghosts.
The play also tells the story of Kwan (played by Gary Young, last seen as Chinese Jack in Underbelly: Land of the Long Green Cloud), who migrates to New Zealand in the 1880s and must decide where he belongs.
"Historical facts are historical facts," says Young, "but what intrigued me was the emotional journey of these characters. Love, fear, loss - they all contribute to universal stories and that interests me as an actor.
"Few people have heard this story before and there's nothing like it on the theatrical landscape so it means at last those Chinese men have a voice and that's important."
While The Bone Feeder has been performed before outside Auckland, Liang describes those shows more as development seasons.
With feedback from the audiences, she has developed the script into a piece of magical realism which now includes a story about one of the first contacts between New Zealand Chinese and Maori communities.
Liang has added Maori characters, notably a ferryman played by Rob Mokoraka, and details about how Te Roroa and Te Rarawa iwi dealt with the discovery of bones and coffins when they washed up on the shoreline.
She admits to fearing she didn't have the necessary knowledge or background to include a tangata whenua element and tried to avoid doing so.
"The first draft didn't have any Maori characters or stories, but people said I needed them. At first, I tried to get away with including Maori music but I realised I needed someone to speak for the land and the people of the land.
"Local Maori found the bones and, realising they needed someone to watch over them, took guardianship of them. It is a shared history."
Mokoraka, who is of Ngapuhi ancestry and grew up in the Hokianga, had never heard the Ventnor story before and travelled home to speak to elderly relatives about it.
While they knew of other ship wrecks in the harbour, the Ventnor sinking was also news to them.
"My family lives in Panguru, down the road from where the play is set. Everyone at home was fascinated to hear the story and to know that, at one point, there had been, relatively speaking, a sizeable Chinese population up there. I just love finding out about this."
Another of the cast discovered a direct link to the Ventnor. Llanyon Eli Joe, who plays Dan the miner, had a great grandfather who opened a store on the same street and in competition with Choie Sew Hoy.
He would almost certainly have been friends with some of the men who ended up on the Ventnor.
Liang and the cast acknowledge a responsibility to present a nuanced and rounded story, which demonstrates the complex decisions many of these men faced, particularly given that The Bone Feeder is based on real-life events which still resonate for the descendants of those early Chinese migrants.
Young says he likes that Liang hasn't shied away from presenting the men's faults.
"It's great that it doesn't try to sweep away the blemishes. As an actor, you have to play it with integrity and our responsibility is to get the story out there in the best possible form."
Having worked for years on the Italian-Maori World War II story Strange Resting Places, Mokoraka says the best advice he got was not to treat historical figures like gods but human beings with flaws.
"Then you can start to tell a story warts and all because it's the grey areas that are the most interesting."
The Chinese community, representing the 499 men, as well as the descendants of Choie Sew Hoy, are in the process of thanking the appropriate iwi for their care of the bones and, in the long term, there may be a public celebration. The Chinese community is considering building a memorial at a suitable site to commemorate the lost souls of the Ventnor shipwreck.
What: The Bone Feeder
Where & When: Tapac, Western Springs, November 10-20
By Dionne Christian