eatingthegame Review (Metro Studio May 15)

It.s Victoria Day long weekend here in, well, Victoria, and what better way to kick it off than to go down to the Metro Studio with MT to see eatingthegame! eatingthegame is produced by the Hong Kong Exile Arts Association based out of Vancouver. It.s a contemporary outfit formed in 2011 by three students who had met at Simon Fraser University.s School for the Contemporary Arts. The play is written and performed by Conor Wylie, who looks like this in half eclipse:

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I found out about the play while going around to some of the local theatres inquiring if they rented their spaces. One of the ideas for the Dead Man.s Hand was to stage it in a theatre set up as a restaurant. Assiduous readers will of course remember that this last month I.ve been coordinating the events which will culminate in the production of the cover illustration for my book “Paying Melpomene’s Price: Risk and Reward in Tragedy”. It turns out we.ll be staging the poker game at Cenote, but I.m glad I came across the advertisement to eatingthegame while scouting around town. By the way, YES, theatres rent out their spaces for all sorts of things: plays, presentations, parties, you name it! You can rent them out by the hour, day, or week. The prices varied, but for the smaller theatres were very reasonable. But without further ado, if you.re wondering how the advertisement caught my eye, here it is:

Artist-entreprenuer Conor Wylie delivers a keynote speech from and between two worlds: Vancouver and China, West and East, business and culture, ethics and desire. Follow his enlightening journey into the world of foreign property investment, then join him for an exhilarating talk-back and post-show party.

What.s not to like about this! I can even learn about foreign property investment at this ‘keynote’ event and be entertained as well. More on foreign property investment in a second. But first, I should write a few words on the Metro Studio. It.s located in downtown Victoria on the corner of Johnson and Quadra. It.s in a sort of a ‘house’ that.s attached to the back of the Victoria Conservatory of Music. I can actually see it from my window while composing the blog, believe it or not–I wasn.t kidding when I said I lived in the theatre district! It.s my first time in the Metro Studio and boy am I impressed. Clean, spacious, and modern (though the ‘house’ which it.s in looks rather unassuming from the exterior. Seats are comfortable. One central aisle with two banks of seats arranged in nine rows. With ten seats a row total capacity is around 180. I believe its a slab on grade stage, meaning there.s no trap doors from underneath. All the walls and ceiling are painted black which give the space a larger feel (since black is the colour of the infinite void and the night sky). This was a one night show and I estimate the crowd at 50 or so. From what Wylie said, two rows (or 20 people) were family and friends. At $20 a ticket, this translates into a thousand dollars at the box office. Here.s the view from the back:

eatingthegame Metro Studio

Metro Studio from Top Row

On the left you can Remy Siu at the laptop running the lights and sound. There.s a skyline on the floor of the stage made of mahjong bricks. The large projection screen on the back shows the Vancouver harbour and different stills and motion clips are incorporated into the production.

This is my first time to a one man show, and there.s an immediacy and vivacity that.s gripping. That the actor is also the writer furthers bolsters the immediacy. There.s was never a moment where I was wondering, ‘Does he understand the lines?’. After watching eatingthegame and enjoying how crisply the lines are delivered, I.ve come to the realization that, in the past, if I was ever wondering, ‘Does the actor understand the lines?’ it means that the actor has most definitely not understood. Wylie made me realize that if you believe what you say, it comes out loud and clear: the well timed smirk, the millisecond delay for effect, intonation, sarcasm, and so on. Many things come together to make a line believable. When you have it, it comes out naturally.

eatingthegame is made up of a bunch of skits revolving around the idea of Wylie finding himself. It.s also heavily metatheatrical in that he.s constantly ‘breaking the illusion’ of theatre by direct audience address and references to his personal life and the writing/promotion of the play. For example, he plays a game with the audience, ‘White or Yellow?’. He.s half white half Chinese, and uses this game to explore stereotypes. ‘Christmas: white or yellow?’. ‘Kung-fu: white or yellow?’. Then there.s harder ones which drew confusion, then laughs from the audience: ‘Karate Kid: white or yellow?’ and ‘White rice: white or yellow?’.

There.s lots of positives to write about this thought provoking piece. It.s a lot fresher than the classic theatre. A lot more relevant too. Did I say that out loud? That must have been a slip. I want to return to a certain scene in which Wylie is approached by a certain Chinese businessman from the old country. He wants to do the ‘yolk’ business manoeuvre. The ‘yolk’ manoeuvre is where yellow money (the yolk) is disguised in a white business enterprise (the egg white) for the purpose of snapping up local real estate. The businessman wants to team up with Wylie to buy up the vacant Buckerfields lot in Victoria’s Chinatown district. Then they would build the ‘Grand Fortune’ condominiums (‘The Union‘, a five storey condo building was actually built on this lot in real life and finished last year). I think Wylie must make subtle changes to the show as he tours to give it local significance, kudos to him for that. This is a big thing these days.  In the last few days, for example, the National Pest ran an article ‘Prince Edward Island: The One Place in Canada Where Foreign Buyers Must Check In‘. Not to be outdone, Globe and Flail ran ‘In Vancouver Debate Swirls Around Jericho Lands‘. It.s all about real estate and affordability. There.s a fear that foreign money makes real estate more expensive for the locals. Victoria for the Victorians. Canada for Canadians. Sort of like ‘Mexico for the Mexicans’ in 1938. With loads of foreign investment, Mexico had been the second largest producer of oil in the world. They felt, however, that not enough profits were remaining in Mexico (which was true, Mexican workers would be paid half the wages of international workers). So they rose up against the evil corporate oppressor and expropriated all their assets, forming Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX). With the Great Depression still lingering and choked from foreign capital, oil production halved. So they got ‘Mexico for Mexicans’ but there wasn.t much left of Mexico to go around! Another unintended consequence was that the Allies wouldn.t do business with them anymore (since they took all their assets). They could only sell oil to the Axis powers. Unintended consequences everywhere. In 2014 Mexico opened its doors back to foreign investors. Let.s see how it works out.

Back to eatingthegame. Wylie turns down the offer to do the yolk manoeuvre and build the ‘Grand Fortune’ condos in historic Chinatown. The foreign businessman is evil (he owns corporations and kills people) and Wylie is concerned about affordability and gentrification. Where would the Chinese live? How would the Victorians fare? The logic of this is beyond me. Wouldn.t supply and demand say that if you build more condos (more supply) affordability would get better? As to where the Chinese would live in Chinatown: well, the Buckerfields lot is bare land! It.s not like building something there is taking away someone else.s house. But I get his point which is that foreign ownership drives up prices. His example doesn.t quite work though. But it.s more dramatic. A better example is if they had built this place and a Chinese mogul comes in and buys two floors. But that.s less dramatic.

Part of the message of eatingthegame seems to be to think local, do the right thing, Victoria for Victorians, and Canada for Canadians. Here.s my question: where did the Chinese businessman get his money? I.m typing on a MacBook Pro. Maybe you have an iPhone. They.re both ‘Designed in California and Made in China’. 50 percent of my clothes are ‘made in China’. The Chinese businessman gets his money from you and me, my friend: from all the iPhones, clothing, computer parts, steel (the Blue Bridge is being replaced by Chinese steel), textiles, medical imaging devices (yes, they make most of this stuff, believe it or not), and so on that China produces. The Chinese workers slave away to produce this stuff for us. We buy it and give them dollars in return. They save their money (something we.ve forgotten how to do), pool it together, and make a bid to buy Canadian property. But wait, now we.re thinking of charging them another 10 or 20 percent ‘foreign property owner tax’? Or maybe make it more onerous like in PEI so as to deter foreign property owners altogether. To me, this seems like saying: ‘Hey, sell us iPhones and we.ll give you millions of dollars. But don.t think about spending the money here because you can.t’. Then what.s the purpose of money? Money just really is, at bottom, an IOU. And what good is an IOU if you don.t accept it? So this is my first objection: foreign buyers have money to spend on property because we give it to them. If we don.t want them to drive up local real estate, why are we giving them our money? But if we give them our money, it seems like we have a moral obligation to live up to this IOU that we.ve written them. If we accept the advantages of globalization, then we must also accept its discontents.

I.m not saying affordability in Vancouver or Victoria isn.t a problem. It strikes me that the camps that are into reducing foreign ownership aren.t really solutions oriented. Look at PEI. Yes, things are affordable. $170,000 is the median price for a single family detached house. But look, it.s still ‘unaffordable’ to people in PEI because of the shortage of jobs! That.s why young workers have been moving out of PEI. If PEI opened their doors to foreign investors and money, the median price for real estate will go up. Yes. But then so will the opportunities for PEIers.

What about all the Victorians in Victoria and all the Vancouverites in Vancouver that benefit from rising real estate? Do we take away from their happy days to make ownership more affordable?

In Vancouver, a square foot of new condo costs about $850. In Victoria, about $550. So about $275k for a 500 sq/ft pad in Victoria and just over $400k for the same in Vancouver. Pricey. Yes. What about renting? It.s a smoking hot deal right now. Twenty years ago, you could buy a house in Gordon Head in Victoria (university district) for $200k. Today that same house would be almost triple: $550k give or take. Twenty years ago, the rent for a place like that would be $1600/month. Today, it rents for $2500/month. For the rents to have maintained pace with the property value, it would rent for $4400/month today. Which it doesn.t. Looking at the rent/property value ratios over the last twenty years, renting looks like a smoking hot deal. Of course don.t tell this to the people who are decrying foreign property investors.

So that was my rant. And that.s the purpose of good theatre. It makes us think. Forces us to react. That I ranted, then, is a sign that eatingthegame works. I.m Edwin Wong, and, until next time, I.ll be Doing Melpomene’s Work.

PS ‘eating the game’ is a phrase used by a mahjong player who has cleaned up the competition.

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