A compelling Chinese family story takes to the UK stage

The middle of a heatwave might not seem like the best time to sit in a dark room full of people. But as the audience packed into their seats in a London theatre, fanning themselves on a hot April day, the scene for Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok was set perfectly set: the hot and bustling streets of Hong Kong.

Here we meet Helen: a smart, dry-witted lawyer, raised in the Manchester takeaway restaurant run by her Chinese family, who has moved to Hong Kong in the hope of reconnecting with her roots. In a haze of jetlag and crowded city streets, Helen sees an unbelievable sight: her grandmother, Lily Kwok, as a young woman. Over the course of the play, Helen and Lily delve deeper into Lily’s extraordinary life story, with grandmother and granddaughter stepping into each other’s shoes.

The play doesn’t shy away from dark subject matter: from spending her childhood working in a factory and as a maid for a rich British family, to fighting for her life during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, the hardships of Lily’s life take many twists and turns. But while she lives with the scars, Lily’s perseverance, intelligence and spirit see her striving through it all, determined to see herself – and her family – succeed.

Amidst the trauma and loss, there are brilliant moments of humour too. Helen goes on a terrible first date, made more embarrassing by the presence of her grandmother’s ghost. The rich white British woman who employs Lily imparts life lessons worthy of a sarcastic fifties housewife meme. Scenes of Lily and her friends playing mahjong are peppered with funny asides in Cantonese (I think – I was lost, but some of the audience was definitely laughing).

The play is based on the family memoir Sweet Mandarin by Helen Tse – an author, restaurateur and the real-life granddaughter of Lily Kwok. Throughout the play, food is a strong theme that brings the characters and the audience together. As Helen and her grandmother prepare Lily’s signature dish together, the audience actually smell the ginger and garlic frying as the two characters “cook what they can’t say”, becoming closer and gaining mutual understanding.

With simple yet inventive staging and a sprawling family tree of compelling characters, Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok is an immersive, vivid personal story that transports you around the world and brings a part of China’s most hard-hitting modern history to life.

Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok is touring across England until 2nd June.

Catherine Jessup

A languages nerd with a food obsession and lifelong music bug, CJ can often be found panning the internet for golden Chinese indie tunes and toting around culinary experiments in a fancy lunchbox. Host and producer of East Meets West and Reporter for pandaradio.co.uk and gbtimes.com. Find them on Twitter @cjessup_gbtimes