03 Mar 2021
Wayang Kitchen’s production of RICE! is a multi-sensory portrayal of migration through memories, food, and connection.
Over the past two weekends, audiences in Malaysia and the UK went to dinner and a show… in their own homes. Wayang Kitchen and Omnibus Theatre’s joint production of RICE! played live on Zoom, preceded by a cooking demo hosted by Set The Tables on how to prepare tea eggs and congee that would be referenced to and interacted with throughout the show.
But what was this show about exactly and how did it come to be? “Wayang Kitchen wants to focus on nothing but food and theater, and our job is to make it fresh every single time,” said Razif Hashim, who co-produced and co-directed the production with Hester Welch. While it wasn’t the first time they held a production (much less virtually), it was indeed the first time a production was held live across two continents.
Razif noted that Wayang Kitchen’s MO was to work with restaurants across KL, weaving dining experiences with storytelling and a live audience. But as 2020 came crashing down on everybody, they had to pivot.
“RICE! was initially supposed to be called ‘The Far China Monologues’ as a spoof on The Vagina Monologues, a chill cabaret thing set in Concubine KL,” said Razif. But after much discussion and devising, it became the multi-sensory experience that debuted in kitchens from Kelana Jaya to Wiltshire.
RICE! tells the story of Connie, a Malaysian-Chinese lounge singer who migrated from Malaysia to the UK, and all the memories and stories surrounding that migration. From references to the brain drain of the late ’90s to criticisms from both Malaysian aunties and English neighbours, many immigrants could relate to the jabs mentioned in the show—especially if they were Malaysian Chinese, even more so if they were middle-aged women.
While the show itself was entertaining (if slightly disjointed for irregular theater-goers), the highlights of the show were undeniably the food. Meal kits for tea eggs and congee were prepared for the Klang Valley audience by Concubine KL, and by 5 Foot Way for the UK audience. The Periuk team‘s test kitchen is in Langkawi, but as we had the ingredients for the recipes featured, we cooked along as well.
Vera Chok, the show’s writer and herself a Malaysian-Chinese immigrant in the UK, talked frankly about knitting together the various plot points and dishes involved. “They wanted three courses, so we had the tea egg, the congee, and the peanuts as it was close to Chinese New Year,” said Vera.
Audiences were to prepare the tea egg broth during the cooking demo, and young Connie (played by Amanda Ang) demonstrated on-screen how to crack the hard-boiled eggs. “Don’t smack too hard now, it’s your eggs, not your daughters!” Connie said on screen, grimacing as she tapped her egg.
The scent of the soy sauce braised with sugar and spices wafted through the air as we watched the show in our own homes, drawing us into Connie’s memories. Which, in our opinion, is a delicious counter to watching a food documentary and wishing we could reach through the screen to grab the food.
Congee came into the show via Connie’s admissions of failure as a woman by way of kitchen skills: “I couldn’t cook rice because it always turned into mush but hey, that’s just congee!” When asked how they arrived at the specific dishes offered by and mentioned in the show, Vera said that they were restricted by the lockdown and what they could feasibly mail out that wouldn’t go bad.
“Everybody’s got eggs, so we sent out the spices for that. And we landed on congee because it was a nice metaphor of something customisable; you’re an individual, and this is how it’s done traditionally but basically eat it however you want, find your own way in life,” she said. The actress playing the older Connie, Michelle Wen Lee, is yet another Malaysian-Chinese immigrant to the UK and the woman behind 5 Foot Way.
“We had to cut down quite a bit as we had all these stories of women and people migrating and trying to find a better life,” said Vera. “One hour isn’t very long at all especially when it’s interactive, but I’m happy with the result because we took the time to be with the audience. What’s important now especially is connecting.” And what better way to connect than to share the same meal, over time zones and spaces?
Vera sighed as we asked her about the food memories that are hardest to replicate in the UK. “A lot of Malaysians have a list of foods that they want to eat when they go home, and I don’t even know the names of the foods I miss, because they’re so distant in my memory. But when I see it…” She trailed off before perking up immediately. “Oh my god, roti jala. I would kill for some roti jala.”