“How long is a piece of string if you tie one end to your home country and the other to your heart?”
Jean Tong is a fiercely intelligent playwright with something to say. We first met when she was studying Arts at Melbourne University. I had been brought on as director’s mentor on a short play she had written. What struck me about her writing was its rage and immediacy. Although at the time she wasn’t yet in control of her craft, the text had a pulsing intensity and a desire to communicate something angry. Fast-forward five years, Jean has honed her craft and all those qualities endure – that rage has not abated one bit.
Hungry Ghosts deftly weaves together the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 disaster, Malaysia’s billion-dollar 1MDB scandal and the story of a Queer-Chinese-Malaysian Australian trying to find her place in the world. By intersecting these three narrative threads, Tong insistently interrogates ideas of absence and identity, finding tension between desire and greed, family and nationhood. Sitting underneath is a pulsing rage for a country where corruption is endemic, an identity that cannot be fully expressed, a longing that will never be sated.
The longing is most explicitly represented by the MH370 disaster. Malaysia Airlines flight 370 was an international passenger flight that disappeared on March 8, 2014. The flight was scheduled to fly from Kuala Lumpur International Airport to Beijing Capital International Airport. It was carrying 12 Malaysian crew and 227 passengers from all over the world. While flying over the South China Sea the aircraft disappeared from air traffic control systems and military radar. Despite the most expensive multinational search in aviation history, the aircraft was never recovered. Two hundred and thirty nine souls lost, families unable to gain closure, Facebook and Twitter awash with ‘thoughts and prayers’. In January 2017, almost four years later, the search was suspended with no conclusive findings. These souls are lost, forever searching, most likely victims of foul play. The idea of the searching lost soul is integral to the diasporic experience that Tong interrogates. It no accident that the play is titled Hungry Ghosts.
In Chinese Buddhism, hungry ghosts are beings driven by intense emotional needs and only manifest from tragedy or ‘evil deeds’. Interestingly, if we go further back, in very early Chinese and Vietnamese mythology, hungry ghosts are those who have been false, deceitful, greedy people and their karma is an insatiable hunger. Tong’s Hungry Ghosts are seekers but they also exist in and embody corruption, another central tenet of the work.
“How many planes do you have to lose before people forget about the money you lost?”
The 1MDB Scandal (1 Malaysia Development Berhad), is a complicated, corrupt and bloody web of financial dealings involving Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, that spans the globe. In short, Razak had been accused of channeling close to US$700 million from 1MDB, a government-run strategic development company, to his personal bank accounts. 1MDB was created to boost Malaysia’s economy. Razak denied allegations that he funneled public funds to his personal account, claiming instead they were large donations from undisclosed sources. The highest profile aspect of the 1MDB scandal is the financing of the box-office hit The Wolf of Wall Street, which was funded by Red Granite Pictures, a production company owned by Riza Aziz, Razak’s stepson. It is alleged that millions of dollars was diverted from 1MDB to fund the film. No-one is left untouched by this corrupting element in the play. Even the audience becomes complicit, as consumers of the film and unwitting participants in a fraudulent system. The murder of Shaariibuugiin Altantuyaa – a Mongolian National who worked for Razak – is at the epicentre of this corruption thread in Hungry Ghosts. Altantuyaa was employed as a translator for then Defence Minister, Abdul Rasak Baginda, and they became romantically involved. It is reported that Altantuyaa discovered one of the parties involved in negotiations to purchase submarines from France for the Malaysian government paid out commissions of €114 million, which were subsequently credited in the accounts of Baginda. A letter written by Altantuyaa (found after her death) shows that she had been blackmailing Baginda to remain silent about her knowledge of the deal. The Malaysian police found fragments of bone (later verified as belonging to Altantuyaa) in the Malaysian forest. She had been shot twice before C4 explosives blew up her remains. Just like the lost souls from flight MH370, Altantuyaa is lost (her DNA literally obliterated) and Malaysia itself lost in a quagmire of scandal and corruption.
In an interview with Melbourne Theatre Company, Tong expressed how the three narratives clicked for her when she realised:
“The nature of grasping at straws during a tragedy, the scale of the financial operations and volume of assets, my physical distance from home and inability to fully contribute to the discussions that were unfolding about the country’s socio-politics – it fell into place so suddenly. I noticed that the common thread seemed to be a sense of loss, or an inability to speak due to either the suppression or lack of knowledge, or the wistful melancholy for something missing.”
Formally, Hungry Ghosts is a collection of scenes, events and monologues using multiple languages, modes and tones, which all refract and relate to its central idea of what it is to be unexplained, forgotten, to exist in the liminal – to be ‘ghosts’. The lack of traditional narrative allows the audience to make their own meaning from the disconnected scenes and moments. The specificity of material does not push its audience away – quite remarkably it grounds the work and makes it relatable on so many levels.
In the first scene of the play, ‘Animal Kingdom’, Tong uses the metaphor of pistol shrimp to unpack the idea of how one small lone voice, although lost in a vacuum, can have a large impact on the world around it. The pistol shrimp is a small crustacean that creates a bubble of nothingness, a void, when it snaps its claw shut. This tiny bubble is suspended in the middle of the ocean until it explodes and the ocean crashes back in to fill the void. The noise that colonies of these shrimp make is so loud that it interrupts military and scientific sonar. A lone voice then asks:
“I wonder what it’s like in that bubble. In that absolute quiet, in the silence of a million waves, billions of networks of oceanic activity. Imagine that peace. It stretches on forever, a silence where anything can happen. I could be anyone. Do anything. I could hide in that silence. I could become something in that silence. I could weaponise myself, kill a king. I could make myself the greatest, most invisible danger of the big blue sea wrapped in a tiny, tiny, shrimp body. And then the moment passes, and the great crushing weight of the ocean whooshes back in.”
Tong proposed, when introducing Hungry Ghosts to the Melbourne Theatre Company subscribers at the 2018 launch that:
“People are increasingly discovering highly specific ways of identifying themselves and figuring out how to talk about the way they experience the world. I’m really interested in the outliers of these categories – when and why do these labels fail, and what other expectations come with those new identities or categories? Language is intoxicatingly powerful, but incredibly slippery: who are we with it, and who are we without it? I hope that my writing opens up some spaces on all of those levels.”
Tong opens up a quantum space in this first scene to tackle the biggest mystery, our own existence – Who are we? What is our true nature? In the realm of quantum physics there is no matter. What we think of as matter are tiny particles that are waves of potential – different potential outcomes of reality with infinite possibilities. Space and time exist within (rather than without) the quantum space. Hungry Ghosts exists in this quantum space, underneath the waves, inside the bubble, in the absolute quiet, where anything can happen. It is at once a love/hate letter to Malaysia and a meditation on who we are, in the silence.
Jean Tong is part of a new wave of writers and performance makers finding their way to our main stages. Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of directing a number of works written by artists from diverse backgrounds. These works all share an investigation around identity and belonging in relationship to the dominant culture. They have all used multiple languages as a tool to expose their audiences to ways of seeing, feeling and interpreting fluid identities. These perspectives on our stages allow some audience members a new lens through which to see the world, and affirm and celebrate the experience of previously ignored audiences. I can only hope that with the inclusion of stories like these (and many others around the country) on our main stages, we will increasingly see more diversity embedded in the dominant cultural narrative. Tong’s work is an important voice in this growing conversation.