By Samuel Smith
Published: Wednesday, September 8, 2021
OzAsia Festival Artistic Director Annette Shun Wah shares her thoughts about the importance of cultural connection and bringing contemporary Asian Australian stories to festival stages.
Actor, writer, broadcaster, producer, director – Annette Shun Wah is no stranger to the stage or the screen. Now, in her role as Artistic Director of the 2021 OzAsia Festival, she’s focussing her lens on the wider community, seeking to identify and strengthen cultural bonds through the shared experience of art.
We chat to Annette about what OzAsia Festival has in store this year and why now, more than ever, this festival is so important.
samotor: What first drew you to OzAsia Festival?
Annette: Way back when Jacinta Thompson was directing OzAsia Festival, she invited me to host the Moon Lantern Parade and I thought it was such a nice way to be introduced to the festival.
And while the festival has grown in popularity and stature since then, not a lot of Asian Australian artists have been involved in the program. I saw all these great communities come together for the parade, but they weren’t necessarily flowing through to the ticketed program, which is something I wanted to see.
samotor: How do you see OzAsia Festival bringing local communities closer together and raising cultural awareness?
Annette: I think it has a very important role right now, given the political climate. It’s important to recognise that below governmental and diplomatic levels, there are personal connections, and those are what will provide us with the resilience to get through these difficult times. So, in many ways, OzAsia Festival is about fostering a deeper, more nuanced understanding of one another’s cultures and celebrating the links that are there.
I think it’s really empowering for people to see those who are similar to themselves tell their stories and share life experiences. It’s also important for all of us to be a bit more in-depth about embracing multiculturalism, and for it not to just be skin-deep.
samotor: How does your cultural heritage and background influence your work?
Annette: I say I’m 4th generation Chinese Australian. My great grandparents came here from China, so the family’s been in Australia for a while. My heritage has affected my entire career, but I only realised it when I started on television and noticed so few Asian faces on TV.
For many years, I didn’t see much change, which was incredibly frustrating. That’s why I ended up in live performance – I could see the huge potential to start making some change because there seemed to be a willingness in theatre that didn’t exist in television. Maybe because it’s intimate, live performance responds instantly. I feel like, through live performance, we’ve been able to make an impact at the highest levels.
samotor: What excites you most about this year’s program?
Annette: Double Delicious is a standout for me. Audiences love its interactivity – people telling their own personal stories, both funny and sad, inspired by a dish from their lives. At the end, the audience eats the dish. The final act, when people eat the food, is almost sacred – people have heard these hallowed stories and then they complete their experience by tasting a dish that embodies each story.
I’m so pleased with our performing arts program. We’re showcasing new voices like Anchuli Felicia King and Michael Mohammed Ahmad as well as highly revered artists like Sue Healey and Sandy Evans – they’re all amazing.
In Other Words is another highlight. This is a 3-day writing and ideas program, mostly free, on the Riverbank lawns. It’s a forum to have those big conversations we need to have right now about the Asian Australian connection. It will also be the biggest showcase of Asian Australian writing, ever, with Benjamin Law (of comedy-drama The Family Law) and Roanna Gonsalves (author of The Permanent Resident) as guest creators.
It’s like choosing between my children! I’m excited about the whole thing – it’s going to be the biggest showcase of Asian Australian work ever. Ever.
samotor: What program favourites will be back in 2021?
Annette: This year, instead of the moon lanterns coming to you, you’ll go to the moon lanterns. The Moon Lantern Trail will be open over the first 4 days of the festival (Thursday 21 October to Sunday 24 October, from Pinky Flat to Elder Park). You can come and see the lanterns any time, both day and night, in a circuit around the festival precinct, which leads to the Lucky Dumpling Market [returning this year]. There will be lantern installations, pop-up performers and storytelling – it will be at its most beautiful at night.
There will be free visual arts exhibitions, of course, including an unusual project called Untitled.Showa in the Nexus Gallery. Photographer Mayu Kanamori discovered a packet of photographs in a market in Daylesford, Victoria – of all places – containing hundreds of images of an unknown Japanese family back in the Showa period, on holiday in Japan. This interactive project aims to solve the mystery of how these photos ended up here, and return them to their rightful owners.
OzAsia Festival 2021 runs from 21 October to 7 November and will feature more than 100 performances spanning theatre, comedy, dance, music, film, visual art and community events.