Jovanni Sy is a playwright, director, actor, and the Artistic Director of Gateway Theatre. His latest play, Nine Dragons, a detective story set in 1920s colonial Hong Kong, premiered at Vertigo Theatre in Calgary in September 2017 and transferred to Winnipeg’s Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre before coming to Gateway Theatre in April 2018.
Jovanni’s play A Taste of Empire was nominated for two Dora Awards including Outstanding New Play. A Taste of Empire and Nine Dragons are both published by Talonbooks. Jovanni is currently co-writing a new play with Leanna Brodie at Playwrights Theatre Centre.
INTERVIEW WITH JOVANNI SY
Q: Your play Nine Dragons is a noir crime thriller set in colonial Hong Kong. What inspired you to tell the story in this particular setting?
A: When I first visited Hong Kong in 2006, I absolutely fell in love with it. It’s an amazing city and it’s become like a second artistic home to me. Interestingly, I have no familial ties to the place—my family is ethnically Chinese from the Philippines and I don’t speak Cantonese. But something about Hong Kong’s relentless drive and energy really connected with me.
Most of my writing has examined what it’s like to be the other, to reside on the margins. I’m particularly interested in how this plays out in colonial societies because—let’s face it—even in today’s pluralistic, multicultural Canada, we’re still informed by our colonial, settler past.
So with Nine Dragons, I’ve married my love of Hong Kong with my impulse to look at contemporary Canadian society through the lens of a colonial construct from the past.
Q: Period pieces can be tricky and many writers stumble over the details. How much research went into the writing of the play and how did it influence your writing process?
A: I read quite a bit about Hong Kong during the 1920’s. I also collected many images and even some rare film footage from the time. But since many of my characters are British-influenced, the dialogue flowed rather freely. You see, I confess that I’ve spent countless hours reading books and watching plays and movies about Edwardian and Georgian England. So watching all those E.M. Forster books and Merchant Ivory films finally paid off!
Q: For Nine Dragons, did you have the entire plot mapped out before you sat down to write? Or did the story reveal itself through the writing?
A: I had it mostly mapped out except for the ending, which changed several times before I found the resolution that seemed right. I’ve always tend to write somewhat architecturally, meaning that I like to see the whole structure before I write a word of dialogue.