Fringe World review: Tabitha Woo, A Westerner’s Guide to the Opium Wars ·
The Blue Room, February 6 ·
Review by David Zampatti ·
It was ever thus.
Empires and trade, blockades and gunships, hypocrisy, oppression, brutality and the Peril of China, troubling the sleep of the rich, powerful and white.
And even 21st century America at its Trumpiest, confronted with the imbalance of trade between the indolent West and the industrious East, could never have been as conniving, or brutal, as the mid-19th century British.
Tired of parting with bullion for the tea, silk and porcelain they imported from China, they sent back opium as payment. And when the Chinese baulked at this devilish trade, the British sent warships and troops to enforce it (seizing some strategic ports, most famously Hong Kong, as entry points for the narcotic).
The hero of Chinese resistance was the scholar Lin Zexu, who arrested the opium traders, destroyed their pipes, mixed their drug with lime and washed it out to sea – apologising, as he did, to the ocean gods for polluting their realm (thanks again Wikipedia!).
He also wrote a letter to Queen Victoria, pleading with her to end her country’s vile practice (he was unaware of the processes of constitutional monarchy, but no-one’s perfect).
The letter is read early in A Westerner’s Guide to the Opium Wars by Lin’s great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter Pei Hui, the performer Tabitha Woo. She winkles out the story of her family, from her doctor grandfather’s early life in Ipoh, a provincial city in British Malaya, to Singapore, where Woo’s father was born, and on to Tasmania where he married a Hobart girl and raised a classic Asian-Australian family, Tabitha the oldest of their children.
It would make an enlightening hour just listening to their story, but Woo enlivens it with an endearing performance that includes everything from a faintly ludicrous but charming caricature of Victoria to show tunes (A Puzzlement from The King and I) and the Mandarin pop of Teresa Teng.
She throws in some awkward glove puppetry and a trip through the mores of Victorian and Chinese culture and customs.
Woo is no world-beater but she inhabits her family’s story with charm and great loyalty, and comes out a winner.
I found myself far more impressed with, and entertained by, A Westerner’s Guide by the time it ended than I was half way through.
That, I promise you, is not damning with faint praise. It’s actually a rare and welcome achievement.
Pictured top: Tabitha Woo digging her hands deep into Chinese history.
Photography: Clare Hawley