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Play ‘Miss Peony’ discusses important themes of family, language, culture and tradition

Written by Michelle Law and directed by La Boîte Theatre’s Creative Director, Courtney Stewart – Miss Peony has just graced the stages of Belvoir Theatre in Sydney on 1st July to 29th July 2023, before heading to Melbourne, Canberra, Wollongong and Geelong, so not only Sydney siders will be able to enjoy this!

Miss Peony is a glitzy, glamorous and slightly-unhinged dive into the world of beauty pageants, featuring projected captions in English, Cantonese and Simplified Chinese simultaneously throughout the show – which is something unique and very awesome as it shows we do not always only need to have our Asian Australian content in English!

Miss Peony tells the story of (via Belvoir Street Theatre-

Lily’s grandmother was a beauty queen back in Hong Kong. She doesn’t care that times have changed and that Lily lives in a new country and a new century. She realises that Lily’s caught between worlds, and prods her to enter the Chinese community beauty pageant, the highly competitive Miss Peony. She won’t take no for an answer. And to make matters worse, she’s a ghost.”

The cast also includes Gabrielle Chan (SBS’s Hungry Ghosts, STC’s Chimerica), Jing Xuan-Chan (SBS’s The Family Law), Mabel Li (SBS’s The Tailings), Charles Wu (Jasper Jones, The Cherry Orchard), Shirong Wu (Cursed!) and Michelle Law herself. Just reading about this play is quite exciting, as it touches on many issues including family, traditions, culture, language and identity. All are actually very universal themes, being seen through an Asian Australian lens, so all audiences of different cultural backgrounds will be able to enjoy this play for sure.

In a recent interview with Being Asian Australian, Gabrielle Chan, Jing Xuan-Chan, Mabel Li and Shirong Wu spoke about their journeys in being part of the cast for this production. Each actor has a bubbly and upbeat personality, despite the fact the interview was held on a morning during rehearsals.

From left to right – Mabel Li, Jing Xuan-Chan, Shirong Wu and Gabrielle Chan during the interview

In any case, both Mabel Li (who plays Sabrina) and Jing Xuan-Chan (who plays Marcy) shared some thoughts on their characters and how similar or different they are from their characters and vice versa. To be able to relate and identify with the character being played is important for the actor as that is how emotions and raw mannerisms are detected and it is the way to create a layered character and not one which is one dimensional.

“I play Sabrina, who I guess is kind of an archetype. This question is hard for me to explain, but I guess I injected a lot of things from my own upbringing into playing Sabrina. Like me, Sabrina is a young Asian Australian woman, who likes to works and plays hard and is also very academic inclined – she is kind of like what we call in Australia an LG (Little Girl) which is equivalent to an ABG (Asian Baby Girl) who parties hard and works hard. Thought in real life I am no LG, but I definitely grew up amongst all that, so I guess I have injected my observations on LGs my character”, Li said.

“My character in the play is Marcy, who is quite business minded and ambitious. I think she is the type of person who has the eye on the prize and changes the competition. I think there is a bit of me in Marcy in that we are both very ambitious – though I would say Marcy is more to the extreme. One thing we do share is our connection to family. I have a strong connection and so does she”, Xuan-Chan mentioned.

In addition to being about a beauty pageant, there is a strong spiritual element to Miss Peony. Gabrielle Chan plays Adeline, who is a typical matriarchal grandmother or poh poh to Lily (played by Michelle Law). She wants her granddaughter to reach heights she never reached when she was young and a beauty queen back in Hong Kong, so she pushes her hard. What makes Adeline multi-dimensional is that she is from the afterlife – yes she has come back to encourage her granddaughter Lily as a ghost. The question of how and what she does to get into such a complex role was posed to Chan who mentioned that due to her age being older than the other actors she grew up in believing in the spiritual world and the afterlife, and this deep understanding helped her in playing Adeline.

“Well, because of my age, I have probably many more years experience than the other ladies here in being taught about the spiritual world. I did grow up religious, believing in karma, the afterlife, next life and past lives. I connected immediately when playing Adeline because of my upbringing with the spiritual sphere. Injecting my understandings and experiences into Adeline has helped me play her as a person and as a ghost”, Chan expressed.

Image via Belvoir Street Theatre

An interesting and awesome thing about this production is that the majority of the cast and crew are women and more amazingly majority Asian Australian women. Where there has been an increase in stage productions and even in theatric leadership positions filled by Asian Australian women, there is always a need to see more. This is important considering the negative stereotypes Asian women have always been subjected to in the Western world as meek, weak, petite and obedient to men. So how does Miss Peony fight against these stereotypes? Well for Shirong Wu, it starts with supporting each other and working together.

“To be part of a majority Asian Australian production is so important, and this is something we have to keep on seeing. To do this it starts with supporting each other as Asian Australian female artists, creatives and actors, and pushing the institutions with decision making power to make spaces for Asian Australian female writers and creatives to do our work. With Miss Peony, we all egg each other on, and it really breaks all the negative tropes because it is not about fetishising Asian women, but it is about Asian women having their own independence to pursue their goals and dreams. All the characters in this play are not one dimensional”, Wu passionately discussed.

Finally, what do each of these actors want to see audiences takeaway after watching Miss Peony? Here is what each had to say in a few sentences – which was hard to control because they all had so much to say!

“I just hope to see more Chinese and Asian Australian audiences in my age bracket and from an immigrant generation to feel they can come and enjoy theatre, particular because of how we intertwine English, Cantonese and Mandarin into the play. I just want audiences to walk out with a greater understanding of what our Asian/Chinese cultures are all about and that we have made theatre more inclusive”, Chan expressed.

“I hope audiences can find themselves in the play and have a greater understanding of our Asian cultures, traditions and spirituality. I hope they will walk out with empathy and of course having enjoyed watching us put on this show”, Wu stated.

“I just want audiences to have fun and a good time. Miss Peony sends many strong messages, but at the heart of it, its all about having fun. I also hope it will give the audience an appreciation of the different Chinese languages and the beauty of our language – this is also something which makes us different from other plays”, Xuan-Chan mentioned.

“I am excited for this, and hope it will invite a more diverse audience to be able to enjoy our play and see the hard work we have put in to give the best show possible. I hope those who usually don’t feel welcome to theatre will feel welcomed, and I hope audiences will walk out of the theatre having a special experience”, Li said.

If you are in Sydney or will be in Sydney, please go check out Miss Peony at the Belvoir Street Theatre. The production started on July 1st and will play all the way till July 29, 2023. For more information and to purchase your ticket, please go to: After July 29, the production will be going to other cities and regions of Australia – keep you eye out!

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