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Review: The Backstories - Cheong Liew

Adelaide Festival

This Adelaide Festival exclusive is a chance to get to know three prominent Asian-Australians who’ve made a cultural difference in this state, writes reviewer Heather Taylor Johnson.

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We all have stories to tell. A friend of mine says no, probably not the woman she works with who decorates her house with doilies. I say yes, she has a story to tell, and if you don’t believe this, then start listening to those around you.

This is what William Yang and Annette Shun Wah have done with Backstories – Contemporary Asian Australian Performance, a theatrical experience that, by the end of the Adelaide Festival season, will see three Asian-Australian Adelaide personalities tell their stories on stage.

The first one up is Malaysian-born Cheong Liew, who many will know as one of the top 10 hottest chefs in the world, once working at The Grange at the Hilton. His is a migrant story – what brings a person here and how do they make their way?

Liew’s story is one of cultural trauma, a chef who fell into his job out of an inability to read English text books, finding a talent beyond anything most people dream of. And this is what I love about this performance: what begins as an almost painful account of personal history (remember that Liew is a chef, not a polished performer, which is enforced in the first 20 minutes of the production, where the speaker struggles for words and a fine-tuned way of expressing them) turns into a modest telling of This is My Life.

Photo: Tony Lewis / Adelaide Festival

Photo: Tony Lewis / Adelaide Festival

We all have these stories – even the woman with the doilies – only not everyone is considered interesting enough for people to take the time to listen.

Most of the audience were foodies, interested in what this icon had to say about his family, backed by photos and the musical atmosphere of Gareth Chin, whose main task seemed to be giving Liew cues when he forgot his story.

If you’re interested in sport or fashion, you might want to listen to lawyer, soccer official and former Matildas’ vice-captain Moya Dodd or fashion designer Razak Mohammed tell their stories later in the series.

The idea is that Yang and Shun Wah showcase these famous Asian-Australians in the Festival format, with simple stories of extraordinary outcomes. Considering what’s on offer at the Adelaide Festival, this is a mild production. But it’s based on story, and stories are what live beyond us, only too often we don’t tell them and they go unsung.

Exclusive to the Adelaide Festival, this is a chance to get to know three prominent Asian-Australians who’ve made a cultural difference in this state. It’s not perfect, there may not be projection or pomp, but it’s part of what we are as Adelaidians.

Backstories with Cheong Liew is showing at the Space Theatre again today (Wednesday) at 7pm, with Razak Mohammed on March 9 and 10, and Moya Dodd on March 11 and 12.

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