You can choose to be a child Buddha, a cherub or a fierce stone lion in this immersive online event that borrows from basic gaming tech. Part of the Chinese Arts Now festival, Every Dollar is a Soldier/With Money You’re a Dragon is a virtual promenade performance, taking place in a digital version of ornate neo-Gothic gallery Two Temple Place, London.
Each spectator chooses a themed avatar (I go with an elegant Tang Court Lady) and uses their keyboard to travel around the space like a chess piece, following a glowing orb that guides you to the next piece of action.
There is much that’s like a real promenade performance: getting a bit lost, feeling that you might have just missed something important, other people getting in your way – although they’re not normally embodying the shape of a Xi’an horse from the terracotta army.
Writer/actor Daniel York Loh appears looming overhead, god-like, speaking to us as William Waldorf Astor, once the richest man in America and the original owner of Two Temple Place. Astor recalls his great grandfather, who a century earlier had emigrated to New York from Germany, and made his fortune trading furs and smuggling opium into China.
York Loh contrasts this exceptional immigrant story with those of Chinese migrants through history, always “othered” as one homogenous mass, “exploited cockle picker, DVD seller, bat-eater, disease carrier …” They toil for the profits of others, or shiver in the rotten tenements that Astor’s father owned, we hear, as dancer Si Rawlinson’s hands make graceful gestures of repetitive graft.
Astor arrived in London tormented by political failure and family friction, and you can hear the self-loathing in the curled lip of York Loh’s delivery. The haunted, disjointed mood is underscored by An-Ting Chan’s music: the delicate flickering strings of Cheng Yu’s pipa and lonely voice of the bowed erhu played by Wang Xiao.
The content is fairly slight, but York Loh gives texture to historical biography and migrant fates; opportunities, advantages and prejudices shifting over the years. Promenade performances often rely on the unconventionality of the setting in place of narrative development or denouement, and there’s some of that here, but as digital arts fatigue sets in, the novelty of it all goes a long way.