When Toronto-based actress and theatre director Jasmine Chen came to Richmond in 2016 for a professional workshop, she was impressed with the suburban city, diverse population and delicious Asian cuisine.
“Since then, I just kept being very curious about Richmond. The place is so unique because there is such a big Mandarin-speaking population,” said Chen, whose mother is from Taiwan and father from Singapore.
“I really wanted to keep connecting with that because growing up in Toronto...I didn’t have an opportunity to really practise my Chinese and I really felt that part of myself and my culture was missing.”
Two years later, Chen had a chance to utilise her passion for theatre and spur her curiosity when she became a resident artist at Gateway Theatre for one year. The residency was funded through the Ontario Arts Council.
Since her arrival last fall, Chen has focused her research on local residents who are trying to learn English or Mandarin — the two languages Chen speaks.
“Because it’s very easy for Richmondites to get by only speaking Mandarin or English, I was interested in who is actually making the effort and what are their personal reasons for doing this,” Chen said.
She had heard of Olympic Oval workers studying Chinese to better communicate with the children he teaches and their grandparents, and had met with seniors who are studying English to better communicate with their grandchildren.
“There is real exchange happening between generations within the community, which is so unique and special to this place,” said Chen.
She understands that language learning can be intimidating for many people, so Chen wants to find a fun way for that to happen.
Along with her collaborator Johnny Wu, Chen created a Language Exchange Game Show, which takes local residents on an adventure in to the city to play games and learn about another language.
People are mixed and divided into two groups, and they compete with each other. Sometimes they are asked to create a scene or a dance together, sing a song in a certain language or pop balloons and read loudly the words inside, explained Chen.
“In some of the teams there are people who know very little English, some have never spoken Mandarin in all their life, and some speak both languages and were able to translate,” said Chen.
“When you play a game, there is a goal you all have to work towards, a goal that gives you the motivation to work together.”
After a successful run last month, Chen and Wu will host the program again on March 23 and 24, and they hope eventually they can make it a long-term project in Richmond.
“It really feels like we are just getting started,” said Chen.
“Being an outsider gives you a different view. There is so much to appreciate here...so many good people in Richmond are really open minded and curious. That’s been a beautiful discovery. ” said Chen.
“There are so many communities that are divided by languages and cultures, but anytime you see that, there are always individuals and groups of people who are trying to break that divide.
"That’s what I choose to focus on.”