Kia ora Nathan,
Looks like a hefty piece or work. It would be very useful to fold in ability to continually edit and allow challenge and revision to the protocol. My view is that it needs to be a living publication. A 'Wikipedia of cultural protocol' if you will. Moreover, the lens must be focused on 'how it is done in NZ in the 21st century.' This is my immediate personal feedback, and happy to be challenged and/or chat further.
Suggest you chase down the teams working at these places
Renee Liang (Writer / Actress)
thank you for asking Nathan. I'd like to tautoko Eric's suggestions and also observe the following:
- for each culture, there is no one way of doing it - as practitioners and as individuals we all have varying degrees of comfort and familiarity with our own cultural protocols, and it is also common to borrow from others, modulate or share according to the work as we are trained to do.
- in reference to my first point it may be good to have case studies in the form of artist statements or interviews in order to better communicate these subtleties.
- I also note the heterogeneity in each group - eg for Asian there is not only a difference between Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Malaysian etc there is also difference between NZ born Chinese, Mainland Chinese, Taiwanese Chinese, Malaysian Chinese. And then to drill down further there is a difference between Mainland Chinese recently arrived and Mainland Chinese who grew up here. We are all different cultures!
Having said that here are my answers:
1) Do you use any cultural protocols in your arts practice?
It is specific to the project and the artists and is by a process of questioning, negotiation and mutual agreement. For The Bone Feeder opera, as we were telling the stories of our Chinese ancestors with a Maori character also portrayed, we used a mix of Maori and Cantonese cultural expressions to both prepare the ground and inform our continuing practice.
- mihi/whakatau as part of our workshop and rehearsal every morning
- a blessing of the theatre space when we packed in, using karakia to bless the sand, and a bai san ceremony to honour the spirits of the dead
- Karakia each night as a private event for our whole team before the performance
- many opportunities to share food together
3) How do these cultural protocols impact the overall development process of the work and final performances being created?
They are integral to the work. We cannot do our work without first acknowledging the real stories that our performances acknowledge. They lift the work beyond mere performance and into a cultural connection which then envelopes the audience.
4) Do these protocols help serve to unify members or have an impact on the cast and overall production?
Yes, they are essential - but also each member needs to feel free to evolve the protocols for themselves for example using their own language, or for Pakeha members of the cast including European forms of prayers or songs.
5) Is it easy to implement these protocols in the venues that you have used in your career?
I have always found the venues open to these practices.
6) Would you like to implement other protocols that you haven't yet incorporated into your work?
None I can think of.
7) Would a Cultural Protocols Guide be useful in your future arts practice?
As Eric as suggested, having a living document - where people can highlight their own experiences rather than any 'prescriptive' guide - would be useful.
Yee Yang Square (Co-Manager of Modern Maori Quartet and Co-Founder of the Oryza Foundation).
When it comes to understanding Asian/Chinese tikanga being practised here in the Arts Scene in Aotearoa it's really important to consider that many of the protocols are inherent within our culture and who we are as people - similar to Maori and Pasifika cultures not specifically separate things for us to follow or do to fulfill an expectation or a tick box when we come together to create and perform our works. When I was first practising the Arts in Malaysia we would just get on with the job at hand and not incorporate any specific ceremonies per se, given our arts and cultural practices were based on common values and naturally interweaved with our daily lives. However upon arriving in New Zealand, where our daily lives and arts practice are not as culturally integrated as it was in Kuala Lumpur, and being immersed in particular in the Maori culture, we started to introduce more cultural elements into the Oryza Foundation for Asian Performing Arts' everyday practice. For example having a version of a mihi whakatau that is steeped in particular (Asian/Chinese) cultural or traditional values at the start of a creative or rehearsal process. Interestingly, the cultural authenticity of our customs is sometimes different here in New Zealand mainly because we are now somewhat disconnected with our original cultural heritage, and in some cases, we were observing diasporic practices anyway back home in Asia, (as third, fourth or fifth generation Malaysians for instance). Thus this new 'cultural strain' of our kiwi styled Asianess or tikanga was more of an organic process - not really mature enough to have all the protocols specifically laid out formally, but a worthwhile and gentle starting point upon which we can all build on. This was the case with the Oryza Foundation's first theatrical production, Asian Tales: Native Alienz. Because we were working with a mix of cultures given the diversity of our Asian practitioners - the difficulty of instituting a particular practice was hard enough on top of the sheer challenge of trying to get the show off the ground professionally!
With the Oryza Foundation we next secured the opportunity to work specifically with a group of Chinese and Māori (and Māori-Chinese) creatives and artists which meant we were able to connect further with our respective cultural heritage and to strengthen the cultural and traditional aspects of our practice. Similar to what happens in Māori culture we got everyone together and gathered for a prayer and a cup of tea before starting our rehearsal period. Furthermore, like with Chinese New Year we chose to give away mandarins and red packets filled with a small token of kind wishes and blessings to all involved. This was to symbolise well wishes of prosperity and good fortune, and to bring a sense of togetherness and looking after each other during the process of building the show.
And perhaps this is part of what could be a spectrum of Asian and Chinese protocol in the theatre in Aotearoa. It's more about cultural authenticity and deeply held values in the way we conduct ourselves with each other, such as mutual respect, finding a safe place to rehearse not only on a health and safety practical level but also so that everyone feels comfortable with themselves in these environments so the work can best develop with this sense of cultural respect and confidence.
As the Oryza Foundation progressed to collaborating with other Asian cultural practitioners, e.g when Sums our current Executive Director produced the recent Auckland Arts Festival commission of TEA, written and directed and performed by South Asian practitioners we then had the opportunity to explore Indian ceremonial process as our group came together. Ahilan Karunaharan, our director and playwright kicked off rehearsals with a Tamil rendition of a mihi whakatau, starting with a prayer in Tamil to represent his Sri Lankan roots, supported by Tama Waipara with a karakia in Māori to represent the land and space we live and operate, as our cultures all merged for the same goal of making everyone feel acknowledged and culturally safe in the space. In general it seems we comfortably incorporate Māori protocols in our work.
I find that a lot of the Māori kawa we as Asians understand inately, as we do this type of practice in our everyday lives. For example, respect for our elders and those who have the knowledge to pass on - right to providing the right level of caring for others (manaaki) and creating a safe, trusting environment (pono). It's also a natural way for us to operate and why perhaps Māori and Asian cultures - the inherent values anyway - blend into and meet each other so easily.
It's not always easy to work in a legitimate sense of 'Asian culture' however in all the works Sums and I have been party to. For example, when asked by Auckland Live to culturally consult on the children's play The Secret of Dongting Lake to help find the right level of cultural authenticity we had to challenge the European based writing and creative team to make sure that the work was not tokenistic. Given that most of the audience was pakeha they probably would not have even noticed that some of the play's content would have irked a lot of Asians, therefore it was necessary to communicate this is a manner that ensured our culture was made aware of and being respected. Indeed this can be a very hard balance to strike when competing cultures are at the directing helm and ultimately depends on how the working relationships develop and the sort of vision that is sought for the overall performance.
A key aspect of Chinese culture is that of Giving Face. Under no circumstances should one be in a situation to lose face if at all possible. Hence, like in Māoridom, why we always treat our visitors well. (E.g. Give a cup of tea and some kai to any guests that visit whether it be the Spark technician or a VIP!) Another example is when you are given a business card you always take the time to read it properly rather than just put it straight in the pocket, or as I have witnessed on many occasions and even in some Boardrooms throwing the card to the other side of the room! Such cultural ignorance obviously still occurs with general societal ignorance but in Auckland in particular I am finding it is less confronting for us to open up and share our culture into other peoples' lives simply because there has been a growing familiarity with all the cross-cultural experiences on a daily basis (especially with Asians now approaching 20% of the city's population.)
What's exciting about the Asian Migration now is the fact that with the specific skills sought in the labour market in Aotearoa, there has been a huge influx of Asians into New Zealand, particularly the Phillipino community - so much so that they have probably now overtaken the number Koreans here and the diversity only adds to the strength of this city. With this diversity comes challenge however, for when it comes to addressing the Asian Communities there has to be a lot more cultural intricacy that needs to be considered. For example, if working with people from Pakistan, India or say Afghanistan there are a whole other set of protocols and cultural nuances one needs to be aware of than if you are solely working with East Asians. If they are Muslim one has to be mindful of not (only) providing pork at any occasion. The Hindus revere cows so they understandably don't appreciate beef being part of a big meal at a communal table of artists which in New Zealand could often consist of at least 50 steak and mince pies. It's a challenge being culturally mindful in this day and age, but the benefits of becoming so are huge. We noticed this when the Modern Maori Quartet performed in Uzbekistan and how the Russian culture there had totally immersed itself within the Asian influence that permeates central Asia. While they were foreign to us, there was still a commonality in essence, hence we were able to get on easily with the local artists because they were in fact Asian (Central Asian) and this informed our performances accordingly.
So a relevant question in Aotearoa in this day and age is who and what really is Asian? In some ways this comes down to the distinction of geography, (e.g. South Asia, East Asia, Central Asia), but seeing how all Asian cultures have developed and changed so dramatically in the modern day makes it even harder to make clear cut distinctions. A clear example of this is Taiwan and China - where the Taiwanese are said to retain the ancient Chinese tikanga because they escaped before it was wiped out by Mao's cultural revolution. And even though Mainland Chinese culture is still a culture of its own quirks and unique ways of being it is different to how New Zealand-born or New Zealand-brought up Chinese interact these days under exposure to all sorts of novel cultural influences, including to both Kiwi Pākeha and Māori cultures; it's hard to pin it all down with one simple distinction. For example, one of the big influences on Mainland China in particular is the emergence of the bourgeoise culture which is having a huge impact on the overall psychology of the population. (i.e. Where new desirable values are threatening, rightly or wrongly, to upend traditionally-held values.) For example a new love for business and money, (and quicker ways to achieve it), versus a traditional way of 'eating bitterness', working hard and diligence. Therefore it's will be challenging to have a tick box guide to our cultural practice because all our 'cultures' are changing so rapidly and significantly.
It's great to have such as guide as a start for those starting out to learn about a new culture and their ways, including for the theatre-space environment which is so cross-culturally fertilized these days in Aotearoa, but it's vital that there are practitioners and/or consultants on hand to help people with the dynamic changes constantly afoot. This is the specific work that we at the Oryza Foundation do, especially helping people navigate their way through cultural differences as they tackle the challenges of their show.
As an aside: it seems well overdue for Creative New Zealand to have an Asian representation on their Board. On that note, there seems to us also to be a massive need to resource cultural governance in New Zealand, and to represent Aotearoa at key events abroad. (E.g. cultural requirements for key events should be resourced by MFAT/ Creative New Zealand with arts practitioners on hand to make sure this is a priority of all arts practice coming out of Aotearoa.) Greater cultural representation and governance in our major arts institutions would make it much easier for Asian practitioners to find that 'familiar face' to interact with when it comes to creating partnerships, seeking funding, overcoming administrative hurdles or getting artistic initiatives off the ground as well as building and enhancing cultural awareness and allegiances.
In a nutshell it's appropriate to say that when it comes to us Asian practitioners, the way we are performing, the way we are expressing ourselves is the statement of our culture through the Art itself . It's similar to kapahaka in that it is a Māori way of being, a Māori way of life. This is where the interplay and interaction with Pākeha culture gets fascinating because is there a distinction between their way of being and what and who they are when they are on the stage? Is European culture broken down to say Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or are they a lot less intertwined, or for that matter, much more diverse than we commonly give credit for? For example, I dare say that no Asian practitioner in New Zealand sets out to do something Asian - they simply just do their thing, express themselves in the cultural mores and frames they belong to and identify with; and that could be as distinctively Kiwi as it is Asian.
In this way it is perhaps important to make sure that this protocol guide stipulates the whakapapa of Asian theatre practitioners in New Zealand all the way back from the Operas in the 1800s to the Asian theatre resurgence beginning in the 1980s when practitioners like Lynda Chanwai Earle and Helene Wong took their first steps towards getting Asian performance and stories out on the professional stage. It would have to also express the continuation of that challenging kaupapa through the 1990s and all the ups and downs in the journey till our time with the Oryza Foundation from 2008 onwards not to mention all the other Asian companies that have come to the fore like Prayas, Indian Ink and Agaram because it is the accumulation of all these efforts which has helped define the face of Asian theatre culture and how that is evolving in New Zealand's ever changing cultural landscape.
Alice Canton - Actress
I've been thinking about your provocation about creating a guideline for cultural practices in the performing arts. I think it's a great move forward by Playmarket towards acknowledging that in order to decolonise the spaces and systems that we've inherited and sustained since the 1800s, we need to move into the 21 century and be explicit about some of the other diverse cultural protocols that operate in the wider social context of New Zealand (because the world is a diverse place).
For me, as a Chinese-Pakeha practitioner, there are some cultural practices which are ingrained into my daily practice, so it is a little foreign to objectively observe my own behaviour. But off the top of my head, here might be a handful I would do without question: never touch someone on the head; never step over someone; always offer food or give up your seat to the oldest / most senior person in the room; never ask direct questions about an uncomfortable or pertinent social or political issue; always soften a handshake and initial greeting by being indirect (but polite and friendly); always offer to take shoes off before entering a domestic space; be okay with silence; be okay with people eating noisily, talking overtop of you, or spitting and hoiking; toast to prosperity / good health / longevity; always bring a gift and offer it to the host when you arrive (like a nice packet of biscuits). Those are all coy, discrete mannerism which I'd say are pretty comfortable for people to get on board with.
But there's also parts of these cultural practices that are at odds with contemporary, New Zealand theatre practice. Bare with me, this is a terrible reinforcing of the Western superiority complex - but if we insist that the best way is the West way - celebrating that 'we' are modern, capitalist, secular, liberal, individuals - then the binary opposites of these ideologies can and are often upheld by many Asian/Eastern practices. I would say, as a whole, that the social practice is governed by a fundamentally conservative order, where gender, age, sexuality, and class are viewed with a traditional mindset - which means things can be challenging for women, young and poor people - in relation to power, authority, and decision-making. This is something to keep in mind when building relationships and cross-cultural collaboration. An anecdotal example of this: a respected New Zealand Theatre company traveled to South Korea a few years ago to perform their show. The venue technicians (who were all men) had never worked with a woman, let alone managed by one, and struggled to take direction and leadership from the two female stage manager and production manager leading the pack-in. Some refused, and were quite rude. Initially, the company thought it was a language barrier, before realising that the crew would only take orders from the lighting designer (who was male). Don't ask me what the best way of working through this cultural mis-understanding was, but perhaps if both parties had a better understanding of the landscape in each of their respective cultures, it might not have been so awkward (and awful) for either.
I think when I've travelled with the Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership Network, they've always done a great job of communicating cultural protocol without it feeling rigid. In 2016, I went to Bangkok during the Perfoming Arts Tour which coincided with the mourning period of the King. This was something that was included in an email to us: " DRESS CODE: I’m sure I don’t have to really say this, but for those of you who haven’t been to Thailand before, please bear in mind that you will need to dress appropriately. This means for gentlemen, shorts that aren’t too short, and ladies, I would suggest covering your shoulders and likewise, a comfortable length of skirt/shorts. Thailand is generally fine to wear what we would normally wear in NZ during summer, but be aware that we might be popping into places of worship and on these occasions, a respectable code of dress is definitely required.
Hope this provides you with some food for thought.
Sarita So - Cambodian Playwright and Practitioner with I Ken Productions
For I Ken So Productions, we acknowledge that we are a multicultural company and both our interests and works reflect our cultural backgrounds. However when it comes to protocols and approach to work we don't apply specific cultural protocols to the building up or performance of our work. For myself personally, religion and cultural protocols are quite heavily linked within Cambodian culture especially with it being Buddhism. I am myself not religious so I do not use these specific approaches. I also don't think we have anything quite as formal when it comes to welcomes, goodbyes etc,as there is no equivalent to a Powhiri or Poroporoaki, we don't have a Marae but we do have a temple again linked to Buddhism which is a big part of the culture but we do not use any of this in our work. On the other hand, we aim to work as professionally as possible and attempt to be flexible with everyone we work with whilst creating a safe and family feel to our working environment. So in short, our works may reflect culture and cultural practice but they are not used with a specific approach to this work.
Lynda Chanwai Earle - Chinese / Maori Practitioner / Radio Journalist
Kia ora Nathan, lovely to hear from you. I will put my thinking cap on regards my various Chinese theatre productions and any cultural protocols ... also, I made the RNZ radio documentary about the Ventnor commemoration in the Hokianga, 2013 "499 Hungry Ghosts" as a Chinese NZer and part of the pilgrimage to the Hokianga we met with local iwi who had taken up our ancestors bones to protect them until we went to claim them, we all experienced an awesome traversing of the cross cultural differences in our ancestor worship rituals: Maori - Chinese. So its tapu to eat on the Urupa but it's essential to feed the ghosts of your ancestors, so what to do? Check my doco out on RNZ, its a great example of the beautiful cooperation between Maori & Chinese around these potentially clashing rituals. Nga mihi Lynda
When dealing with the spiritual world in Chinese beliefs it is important to feed the deceased spirits as an act of reverence. This is done by leaving food at burial sites or in ceremonies where small temple shrines are erected with foods (bai se or bia jan) such as chicken with feet and head attached, succulent roast pork, bowls of steamed rice, sweet fruits, teal rice whiskey, rice wine. When honouring the dead you have to light three incense sticks, bow three times and tell the ghosts to come back here and have a good meal. (The incense sticks smell entices the ghosts back where all the food is waiting for them.) In addition to this the burning of money and setting off of fire crackers is also done all to appease the ancestors. Following the completion of this type of ceremony the descendants can then partake in a festive picnic.
Sums Selverajan, (Co-Founder of Oryza and Co-Manager of Modern Maori Quartet).
It's always tricky to underpin my South Asian - Tamil and Indian (Hindu) roots having come from Malaysia and living now in New Zealand as I now essentially exist in a cultural time capsule so different from someone that comes to Aotearoa fresh off the boat from Sri Lanka or India. In Malaysia, I was brought up in the British schooling system where grades and opportunities to find work overseas in western countries like America, the UK and Canada were a key focus rather than immersing ourselves in our culture. Coming from mid to upper class in the caste system that permeates Indian / Sri Lankan culture meant that English was always the first language and Tamil was optional. Having said this, I did learn to speak Tamil from the age of 12 which my brothers and sisters didn't do to the same extent, but our cultural upbringing was essentially bastardized by what my parents wanted me to learn based on their future expectations of me. We all had an understanding of Indian Art given our parents introduced us to Dance and Singing classes as side hobbies, but there was always the expectation that this would never ever constitute our future professional lives.
Nonetheless, Malaysia has a hugely tolerant society of culture given it is a huge melting pot of race, religion mixed in with the underlying impact if colonisation so it is important to note that we as South Asians have been brought up very differently to our East Asian cousins. In many ways having been exposed to western forms of theatre makes us more amenable to the New Zealand theatre scene which is different to the way a person from China would respond when their traditional arts experiences were essentially day long performances of Peking Opera where one would come and go from a performance at will.
We have a celebration in Malaysia where everyone has an 'open house' for a period of time that anyone can enter during this period. As a result it is important to be mindful of all the cultures and religious practitioners that could come into your home whether it be Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Confucianism etc. Therefore it would be important never to serve beef to Hindu or Buddhist guests, or at least move those meats to another room they were not visiting, and likewise for Muslims with Pork. All these cultural nuances could get confusing given some people are Vegetarian, some people, (such as Muslim women) need a chaperon to accompany them, and some can only visit on certain days of the week, but ultimately we as a society would get used to this and just accommodate everyone as needed. Cultural tolerance was a key value in my upbringing!
In general, in New Zealand I am finding that although cultural ignorance does occur resulting in some uncomfortable and sometimes entertaining mix ups - there is generally an underlying openness for people here to at least have a dialogue about what needs to be done. For example with our show Tea, the play is actually Sri Lankan but we were only able to recruit Indian actors. It was therefore important for us to find out all the dietary restrictions and cultural requirements of all the actors. (One of our cast was Gurjarati and thus was a vegetarian.) We would therefore incorporate the idea of 'Checking In' to make sure all cultural grievances could be aired and everyone was made to feel comfortable throughout the creative process. As Malaysians, me and my husband Yee Yang (Square) found it easy to accommodate all these differing needs as humility, kindness, generosity and adaptability are such a key part of our cultural upbringing especially given the ways we had to change and adapt when our country went through the process of colonisation. (E.g Square is a mix of Catholic / Buddhist.)
Every project we are involved with is so different but ultimately 'Giving Face' to everyone's needs is key in Asian culture albeit the concept is somewhat watered down in South Asian culture compared with East Asia. Therefore it is important for us to have a upfront relationship with whom we are working with about all the cultural requirements and whether this can all be catered to before we sign the dotted line so to speak to begin working with them. Working with all these Asian cultures is still exotic and exciting for us but the overall aim is to not make things obtrusive or offensive to anyone. (For example what happens if a young Muslim actress we are working with requires a chaperon to accompany them throughout the creative process and yet there are two strong feminists in the ensemble who resent that this sort of thing happening?)
By 'Checking In' (which can also be done in private so as to save face, or in a comfortably arbitrated group setting), we generally form the sorts of dialogues to navigate such issues and enable the creative process to move forward productively. In many cases, the ability to have the conversation and learn from each other is more important than the actual resolution. Having said this, we aim to be politically and religiously neutral in all our dealings as consultants as this can help the free flow of information and open dialogue. Furthermore, using Maori tikanga has also been helpful to this process, (and our business) because having a karakia, organising hui and breaking bread with each other is a great way to forge the neutral ground with which to hold the space and build the reinforcing relationships necessary to see the project through to fruition.
I think that the key thing to keep in mind here is the fact that whatever the cultural situation or issue, (i.e. during menstruation a woman from South Asia won't be allowed to do the gardening or feed kids which could complicate a performance in certain extreme circumstances), it's all about upholding the value of tolerance and the ability to adjust and be practical. We are not back at home in Asia and are navigating our way through the dynamically changing New Zealand cultural landscape.
This happened once when I was watching the play The Bull Feeder. Throughout the course of the play Renee Liang made an offering of orange and candy to the deceased, yet after the play had finished presented those same offerings to the audience afterwards. From my perspective, once something had been offered to the dead, you would never then offer it to the living, but in Hong Kong culture where Renee is from, this is okay to do. Renee had also been living in New Zealand for so much longer and had pragmatically adapted her cultural practices to marry in with New Zealand cultural needs. Nonetheless the need to have cultural consultants in plays throughout Aotearoa is definitely a necessity and helps our business thrive in this culturally vibrant and ever evolving arts environment.
Cassandra Tse - Playwright (The Bone Thief, M'Lady, Long Ago, Long Ago...)
Kia ora Nathan,
Here are some thoughts on these questions from a "non-indigenous New Zealander of colour" perspective - I can't speak for Asian practitioners in general, but think it's useful to also be consulting with NINZOC practitioners as we have different needs to people who have a strong affinity with a non-New Zealand culture.
I wouldn't say that I use any particular cultural protocols in my arts practice. My practice is Western-style scripted theatre or musical theatre, which even when it explores issues of race or ethnicity is still presented in Western form, as this is the form I grew up with and trained in. As a fourth-generation New Zealander, I feel most comfortable with Western cultural protocols - incorporating Chinese cultural practices into my work would feel artificial and inauthentic as I would be approaching these practices as a total outsider. I am more interested in exploring themes of race and ethnicity in the content of my work in a Western framework, as that's where my own identity lies.
I would be interested in reading a cultural protocols guide if one were made, though I doubt that I'd incorporate any new cultural protocols into my own work - again, I feel like it would be a bit culturally appropriative to start using a protocol that isn't from my own experience/community/training, even if it's in line with my own ancestral ethnic background.
Hope this is helpful,
Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section