Debuting at the Melbourne International Arts Festival this year, A Ghost in My Suitcase is the stage adaptation of Gabrielle Wang’s children’s book by the same name. The story charts the journey of a young Australian girl – Celeste – who goes to China to scatter her mother’s ashes. Born to a Chinese mother and a French father, the trip is intended to signify a coming of age and a discovery of identity.
A Ghost in My Suitcase delivers a lively and comical ghost-busters story that references the sights, sounds and smells of China. The characters are stylised towards easily recognisable tropes of Chinese pop culture that we are accustomed to receiving in the West – think Mr Miyagi and the Karate Kid. It is not clear whether this is intended for comedic value or is an integral part of Wang’s characters, and therefore is at times challenging to receive. But nevertheless, the story of a young girl’s uncovering of a supernatural family secret is interesting and captivated the audience.
Dubbed variously by the creators of the work as a story about identity and belonging, such ideas were alluded to in varying scenes of Celeste’s journey. However, these themes felt to be secondary to the character’s general overwhelm at being in Shanghai and witnessing its curiosities. The audience laughed along as she described the busy streets, the rickety frog-filled buses, and the fruit sellers on water taxis. Supported by bold and mesmerising set design and lilting video projections shot on-site in Shanghai, these moments were delightfully composed, provoking audible gasps from the audience.
Adapted as a play for children and families, A Ghost in My Suitcase drew upon familiar scenes of sibling rivalry and visits to grandparents’ house that many young Australian children would be familiar with. A Chinese-Australian play devised primarily in Perth, scenes of traditional Shanghai life were interpreted through the lens of the typical Aussie neighbourhood and the humour of its local nannas. On the one hand, this served to equalize the relationship between the two cultures and make the story accessible to an Australian audience. On the other hand, I was left wondering what else could have been explored about Chinese culture, language and embodiment, if the play attempted to provide a sense of cultural insight or education to its young audiences.
While such criticisms are difficult and nuanced to address, the question that arises in my mind regards how the challenges of cultural literacy are approached over a three-year development period – the time it took for this work to be developed – and who is responsible for the negotiations that are made. The story itself, being an interesting and enjoyable journey, offers many layers and complex trajectories from which to draw. Such tales, traversing several generations and nationalities, offer rich fodder for discussion about migration, language and heritage to a younger generation of Australians growing up in a very diverse cultural landscape. In this environment, who has the agency and skill to teach children what they need to know? How are we assisting children to better understand the world they are growing up in through the arts?
These and other questions are piqued in a work that is otherwise a fun night out for young families.
A Ghost in My Suitcase is presented at the Melbourne International Arts Festival by Barking Gecko Theatre and is co-directed by Matt Edgerton and Ching Ching Ho. Written by Gabrielle Wang, the book was adapted for the stage by Vanessa Bates.