Thursday, June 15, 2023

The Poison of Polygamy


The Poison of Polygamy by Anchuli Felicia King, based on the novel by Wong Shee Ping, translated by Ely Finch.  
Presented by Sydney Theatre Company and La Boite Theatre (Brisbane) at Wharf 1, June 8 – July 15 2023.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
June 14

Director - Courtney Stewart
Designer - James Lew
Lighting Designer - Ben Hughes
Stage Manager - Kat O'halloran
Composer - Matt Hsu’s Obscure Orchestra
Sound Designer - Guy Webster
Costume Coordinator - Scott Fisher
Fight & Intimacy Director - Nigel Poulton
Choreographer - Deborah Brown
Hair, Wig & Make-Up Supervisor - Lauren A. Proietti
Voice Coach - Melissa Agnew
Lighting Supervisor - Jesse Greig
Dance Captain - Anna Yen
Lighting Programmer - Corinne Fish           
Sound Realiser - Zac Saric    
Lighting Operator - Cameron Menzies
Cultural Consultant - Institute For Australian And Chinese Arts And Culture
Rehearsal Photographer - Csquare Media
Co-Producer La Boite Theatre

Ching / Villager 1 - Ray Chong Nee           
Mrs Lui / Mrs Ching - Hsin-Ju Ely
Chan / Ma’s Cousin / Villager 2 - Silvan Rus
The Preacher / Sleep-Sick - Shan-Ree Tan
Ma - Merlynn Tong
Tsiu Hei - Kimie Tsukakoshi
Villager 3 / Sleep-Sick’s Mother / Ma’s Mother / Ms Lin - Anna Yen
Doctor Ng / Pan / Song - Gareth Yuen

“Originality” is a reviewer’s first Key Performance Indicator (KPI), and I must begin by saying I have never seen a play anything like this.  That makes it intriguing to say the least.  

Who on earth is this Chinese God-praising Christian Preacher, appearing in the fog of thunderous lightning who tells us all about such an odd collection of gold-miners and small business-men types who metaphorically and financially treat Australia as a gold-digger’s paradise because it is a rule-of-law democracy as opposed to a hide-bound rule-bound polygamous country – China.

Whoops!  Is this meant to be China and Australia now or when?  Women’s rights – and powers – as concubines – and men’s dictatorial behaviours – and failures in the smoke of opium (looking remarkably like vaping) – seem to be back in the 1850s goldrush days.  But there’s surely stuff in this story-telling with modern political implications.  Just think of the Australian parliament struggling with sexual behaviour claims and counterclaims right now.

And, as my wife pointedly argued, there something Shakespearean about all this.  Like Hamlet, say, there’s a family history about fathers, mother and son – and the possibility of an Ophelia – written in Australia, but playing out there and in China instead of in England and Denmark (think Rosencrantz and Golden – sorry Guildernstern are Dead).  You might feel a bit like R & G in Tom Stoppard’s ‘absurdist, existential tragicomedy’, wondering if anyone knows what’s going on at times.

But don’t worry – just go with the flow and you’ll be surprised at the intrigue.  And some sadness.  Even some funny bits.  And a great sense of celebration by women in the end.  

So I can’t call The Poison of Polygamy a ‘Great Play’ in the ordinary sense.  But it’s fascinating when you think of the cultural mix which Australia has become and where the Chinese diaspora comes into the picture.

Who was the original story-teller, the actual Chinese Christian preacher who wrote the novel in serial form, published in high-flown Literary Chinese in Melbourne, as a serial in the Chinese Times in 1909-10?  The details are at and

Wong Shee Ping was never a gold-digger but arrived in Melbourne in 1908 where his brother ran a Chinese restaurant.  Finding out about his journalist role and his political activities and the fact that “His father had business interests in Australia, including a gold mine in Ballarat, and spent extended periods of time away while Wong and his siblings remained in Guangdong with their mother” gives us a new understanding of the story he wrote, and Anchuli Felicia King’s interpretation of its significance today.

Perhaps Sun Yat-sen read Wong’s story.  Like this Christian, Sun Yat-sen opposed the rule of the Qing emperors. Leading the Revolutionary Alliance to remove the last emporer Aisin-Gioro Puyi, who had become emperor at the age of two in 1908, Sun Yat-sen was elected as provisional president of the Republic of China, forcing Puyi to abdicate on 12 February 1912.

Wong Shee Ping set up the Young China League in Melbourne in 1911, travelled to South Australia and Western Australia preaching, became the editor of the Chinese Times in 1914, edited the Chinese Republic News in Sydney 1919-20, revived the Chinese Times in Melbourne and married there in 1923.  He returned to China in 1924, representing Australia at the first national conference of the Kuomintang – the governing party, finally defeated by Mao Tse-tung in 1949 and then taking over Taiwan – a  year after Wong Shee Ping died. San Yat-sen had made him a member of the Central Propaganda Committee.  He became involved with the Hong Kong Morning Post and “later in the 1920s he held various provincial posts in the Republican Government of China, and was a member of its Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission”.

However, maybe consistently with his The Poison of Polygamy story, “he was survived by a wife and child” when he died in Kaiping in 1948, while “it is not known whether he intended to return to Australia, or whether he kept in touch with his [Melbourne] wife Cissie after his departure” in 1924.

So here is a novel and a play linked to a fascinating part of Australian multicultural history, by a man whose significance to Chinese Australians was pretty much unknown until his novel, originally published anonymously, was brought to light by historians Mei-fen Kuo and Michael Williams, translated by Ely Finch and published by Sydney University Press in 2019.

What a story!  It runs for another month until July 15 2023.  Try not to miss it.