Caro Meets Festivals Interview

Daniel York Loh: Kakilang Festival

By | Published on Friday 10 February 2023

You know we love festivals and we know our readers love festivals, so it’s always great to have festivals to talk about.

This week we’re talking about the latest festival from Kakilang – formerly Chinese Arts Now – which launches shortly at the Barbican, and takes place at multiple London venues and online. 

It’s a multi-genre spread of events, connected, of course, by its platforming of Southeast and East Asian work. To find out more about the festival and the company behind it, I spoke to Associate Artistic Director Daniel York Loh. 

CM: Can you start by telling us what kinds of events we can expect from the festival?  
DYL: As a company, Kakilang produces and presents world class art and pioneers multi-disciplinary artforms from a wide spectrum of Southeast and East Asian voices. Our work covers all performance art including dance, drama, music and so on.

We also work with communities from East and Southeast heritages – which, while we may only make up a relatively small percentage of the UK’s population, is an astonishingly diverse and wide-ranging group of heritages.

As for the upcoming Kakilang Festival, there is a lot to choose from. You will find a multi-form art exhibition – ‘State-less 無國界’ at Two Temple Place; and a VR gaming world-building spectacular featuring dance and the most astonishing music and visuals – ‘Home X’ at the Barbican Pit Theatre.

There is gig theatre and rap featuring electronic music and classical Chinese instrumentation – ‘every dollar is a soldier/with money you’re a dragon’ at Two Temple Place).

We also have a circus dance performance – ‘Light Vessel’ at Rich Mix; a dance and clowning cabaret of life and near-death – ‘The Rest Of Our Lives’ at Shoreditch Town Hall; and a queer club night – ‘Taste’ at The Yard featuring DJ sets, live music and drag.

And the whole festival culminates in a gig with acclaimed singer-songwriter Emmy The Great at Shoreditch Town Hall, where she’ll premiere a brand new five song cycle commissioned by Kakilang. 

There’s also all sorts of extras like a children’s theatre event by Orang Collectif at Two Temple Place, where there’ll also be late performances, panel events, a community poetry workshop and guided curator tours.

So that’s quite a line-up, even though we had to postpone Tobi Poster Su’s ‘The Lonesome Death Of Eng Bunker’ – which will now happen later this year rather than during the festival itself.

Beyond the main festival, this last year we also produced ‘Low Carbon Chinatown’, a community cooking and participation event focusing on more environmentally friendly food preparation, designed and produced by Kakilang Associate Artistic Director Ling Tan.

And there were two community centred artist development schemes – Finding Our Creative Voice and Creative Lab.

And later this year we’ll produce ‘Saving Face’, a story dance piece about invisible illness by our other Associate Artistic Director Si Rawlinson.

And later after that my own ‘The Dao Of Unrepresentative British Chinese Experience (Butterfly Dreams)’, a gig theatre tone poem about crime, drugs and… Chinese philosophy.  

Honestly, I don’t think there’s another company like us!

CM: Kakilang used to be Chinese Arts Now, didn’t it? What prompted the name change?  
DYL: We wanted to be more inclusive. We wanted a company where anyone of any Southeast and East Asian heritage, or a mix of heritages, could feel they belonged and where could find their ‘Kakilang’ and find their voice.

Another aspect of the ‘Kakilang’ meaning is an ‘aching for home’.

Our entire Kakilang Festival is shot through with that aching for home. And this is what we want our company to be for people of Asian heritages – and everyone in fact: Home. 

CM: How have the different events been selected for inclusion in the Kakilang Festival? Who makes the decisions and what is the process?   
DYL: The different Kakilang Festival events were selected with enormous difficulty. We needed to feature the four artistic directors and we put an open call out for everything else.

We had about 25 applications and the standard was ridiculously high. We could have programmed this festival four times over. 

East and Southeast Asians have this somewhat ludicrous reputation for being silent and invisible. I say ‘ludicrous’ because I simply don’t believe this is in any way culturally the case.

I reflect on this in my festival show ‘every dollar is a soldier/with money you’re a dragon’. You have to look at migration and settlement patterns in the UK, as well as historical governance in Asian countries, as to why this aura of inscrutable non-presence has become such a cliche.

We have as much expression, hope, joy, despair, rage and existential anguish as anyone – and we can express that as well.

What we always need is funding, which is why we’re all really gratified to have the support of the Bagri Foundation – such a benchmark of Asian heritage artistic excellence – for this festival. 

We all made the final programming decisions together. We’re a very good team in that we complement each other extremely well. We disagreed at times but there was never rancour – just sadness that we couldn’t programme more, along with excitement over what we were able to commission.  

CM: ‘Home X’ – which launches the festival –  sounds like a really innovative project. Can you tell us a bit about the format and experimental nature of it?  
DYL: Where do I start? It incorporates gaming, VR, dance, music, community voices and a soprano singer in a really real and searching drama about what we’re prepared to do to build a new world after we’ve destroyed our old one.

It also reflects powerfully on the migrant experience, where we’ve recorded the stories and lived experiences of community participants from a plethora of backgrounds and heritages, and placed those stories at the very heart of the piece. 

It’s visually stunning, aurally breath taking, environmentally concerned and expertly performed by artists based both here and in Hong Kong working together live and in real time.

And it’s available online in a format where you can be a character in the story, in the shape of the avatar inhabitants of the world of ‘Home X’.

You can see I’m really proud of it and I’m only the dramaturg. The work of An-Ting – Kakilang Artistic Director as well as director and composer of ‘Home X’ – and the designers Ian Gallagher and Donald Shek is genuinely astonishing and ground-breaking in my opinion.  

CM: I know this is probably an impossible question, but what would you say are the highlights of the festival? What are you personally most looking forward to seeing?  
DYL: You’re right, it’s an impossible question and there’s just no way I can answer it, especially after having to postpone one of the events. As one of the directors of Kakilang, every single aspect of this festival is precious to me and I know the rest of the team feels the same.

Kakilang loosely means ‘Our People’. We feel strongly that our ‘Kakilang’ is people who come together in art. Because art is creativity and it’s human expression. It’s essential. 

CM: Can you tell us about the history of the festival – how did it begin and what were its aims at the start?  
DYL: It began when An-Ting became Artistic Director of the company in 2018. An-Ting’s goal was always to produce and platform the very best art and performance from East and Southeast Asian heritage creatives.

We’re not here to tick boxes and beg for ‘development’. We’re here because we believe in ourselves and other Southeast and East Asian heritage artists. Our voices are big, bold, powerful, diverse and relevant.  

CM: What hopes and aims do you have for the festival in the future?  
DYL: That we can platform even more artists and even more diverse stories and forms. To do that, though, we need resources, so there’s a constant push for funding and the climate is so tough at the moment.

Plus, it’s worth me pointing out that in real terms, Arts Council funding for East and Southeast Asian performance art has been at real-term standstill for forty years.

At times it’s decreased, then got back to where it was at previously. But it has never increased apart from in line with inflation – and recently not even that. This is shocking and it needs to change. 

CM: Can you tell us a bit about yourself, now? Did you always want a career in the arts? How did it all begin?  
DYL: I’m mixed-race from an ordinary working-class provincial background.

I’m a polymath. I’ve been an actor – including at the Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre, Royal Court and many many more; a playwright – with Arcola, Royal Court and two drama schools; and an award-winning short film maker.

I’m also a multiform spoken poetry writer and performer – check out ‘every dollar is a soldier/with money you’re a dragon’ in the festival, which I created with An-Ting during lockdown, and which won the Arts Council Digital Culture Award in 2021, and which we’re now performing live for the first time.

It takes in the history of both America and China, the experiences of the first Chinese settlers in London and what it means to be ‘Chinese’ in Britain.

I’ve also written prose in the best-selling essay collection ‘The Good Immigrant’. I’m one-third of an alt-folk punk band called Wondermare – we’re on Spotify! And I’ve also been a trade unionist and campaigner/protestor against racism and exclusion.

I wanted to play guitar from a very early age but I never thought I could do all the other stuff. I was in an addiction rehabilitation centre and one of the girls there went to college studying drama. I went to see her in a play, chatted to the drama teacher after that, and the rest is a weird, wonderful and at times heartbreaking history.

It’s worth noting though that my route into theatre – so welfare state and student grants – isn’t there any more. 

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far?  
DYL: Honestly, all of it. Beyond my wildest expectations. Kakilang in particular is an extraordinary thing. 

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?  
DYL: To catapult diverse Southeast and East Asian heritage artistic and political expression into the centre of British cultural life.  

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?  
DYL: Something big that I’m not allowed to talk about – and developing ‘The Dao Of Unrepresentative British Chinese Experience (Butterfly Dreams)’ with Kakilang. 

The Kakilang Festival launches on the 22 Feb and continues until 22 Apr, at various London venues and online. Read about the full line up here.

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