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Interview: Dr Jingan Young on her new play and why theatre is a crucial medium for political stories

Dr Jingan Young is a journalist and writer from Hong Kong and her latest play, which opens at the Vault Festival on 25 February, focuses on censorship in the media.

Here she talks about what inspired the story, communism and freedom of speech and why theatre is such a crucial medium for political stories.

Dr Jingan Young speaking on the BBC

When did you first get interested in writing and specifically writing for the stage?

I didn’t grow up going to the theatre in Hong Kong. I didn’t see my first serious production until after I moved to London for university in 2009. I was transfixed by this world where words directed action and vice versa, where what actors pretended could affect and had affected lives.

And politics, rhetoric…to be able to argue or to explore topics about our lives through drama. I found it visceral, ephemeral, I grow older, and as we continue to see the disconnect within the digital and real-world, I see the political importance of having a space for live theatre/live performance where audiences are forced to engage with what they're watching.

I applied on a whim to the Hampstead Theatre’s (now defunct) Heat & Light and rather extraordinarily was mentored by James Graham.

A month later I was admitted into the Royal Court Theatre’s Young Writers Programme. The training was invaluable.

I was later commissioned by the Hong Kong Arts Festival for my play FILTH (Failed In London, Try Hong Kong) on ex-pats in the city.

Later, I set up my own non-profit company Pokfulam Rd Productions, which for four years, championed new writing from South East Asian/East Asian writers & those inspired by it at venues like Theatre503 and the Arcola Theatre.

This culminated in the publication of Foreign Goods, the first British East Asian play collection published by Oberon Books in 2018, the foreword was by my mentor David Henry Hwang.

Tell us a bit about your new play The Life and Death of a Journalist?

Last year, I wrote about the political importance of writing a play about Hong Kong, the city of my birth and an ex-British colony whose freedoms are being eroded by the Chinese Communist Party.

I also discussed the anchor of the play, which is the CCP’s ongoing interference in Britain, specifically, in the media. 

My play follows a female journalist who chooses to align herself with a pro-CCP outlet because of her misplaced belief that she can change it from the inside.

This play is partly an appeal for Britain and the rest of the world to reflect on the consequences of welcoming an authoritarian propaganda outlet with open arms.

It uses the media as a backdrop and a battleground to ask: whose side are you on?

The Life and Deat of a Journalist is at the Vault Festival

Why is theatre the right medium to tell this particular story?

As a playwright who has so far primarily explored Britain’s relationship with Asia, I am too often asked why I do not adapt these ideas for film or television. 

For me, theatre is a space where we can be unafraid to question, tease and play with those numerous debates, where we are unrestricted in our storytelling, form.

It is also a space of immediacy, you don't need a large budget, you can assemble a strong team of creatives to bring your idea to fruition with the same aims, in the rehearsal room, they can challenge you and you can unpick and streamline those debates.

More importantly, there is no fear of censorship (or 'editorial voice'). Recently, my interview with a reporter on this play was pulled from publication in a major Asian newspaper with global reach.

This is precisely in many ways, what I want to provoke with this play - because it highlights the issues we are facing in the wake of an authoritarian power's unrelenting pursuit of domination through finance. But I'm not saying this wouldn't make a great film...

Is art the alternative channel when media is being suppressed - are the dangers in speaking out the same?

It's a very interesting question. I heard - though never fully 'verified', that a production was wiped from the net after going on sale, though as someone whose close friends work on reporting censored news in China and abroad, it seems dubious.

If anything, China's reach would extend outwards by speaking out, it's when figures of notoriety within the state itself are speaking out that becomes a threat.

Then again, my articles have been pulled apart and deemed to be anti-nationalistic, or so state mouthpiece Global Times wrote in their rebuttal piece.

How much does your journalism inform your creative writing both as a source of material and as a discipline?

I always tell people I am a 'fake journalist' in that I freelance, and contribute articles, appear on television and radio but have only ever been in a 24-hour newsroom environment rarely. 

In many ways, this play is an attempt to pay respect to those on the ground, my good friends particularly, many female journalists who went out every night during the heated protests last year in Hong Kong and risked their lives to report the truth.

What’s next for you?

Currently working on my monograph based on my PhD thesis about London's Soho in cinema - I passed my viva last year.

But amongst looking for full-time jobs after being granted a Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa, I'll be getting started on my next play EAST OF SUEZ about Britain in Asia, and a new musical about my father's family who fled communist China to Hong Kong and San Francisco. 

Jingan's play The Life and Death of a Journalist is at the Vault Festival from 25 Feb - 1 Mar

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