For the second chapter of the Opium Museum trilogy following 2017's 'Ghost of Showa' I chose to focus on Olive Yang, the first opium warlord in Northeast Burma in the 1950's, as a cipher to represent the binary divisions between the low lying valley states and the renegade 'anarchistic' populations living in the mountains who live at altitudes above 400mtrs in order to evade state power. She ran the burgeoning opium trade, growing poppys in the mountainous Kokang state on the border between the Shan states and Western China and organized trade routes for the raw opium to be traded for gold in the markets of Tachilek on the tri-state border between Thailand, Burma and Laos. Opium played a central role in the development of the modern asian state, as these illicit flows of narcotics gave the hilltribe people that Olive worked with and lived amongst a cash crop which allowed them to (just barely) survive. However, the trail of state interests which ultimately benefited from the opium trade; state drug monopolies, licit and illicit taxes, also becomes a medium which unites the state and those that try to live outside of it, subsumed within the labour relations of a proto-global capitalist drug economy. <b></b>At the same time, it was not just various Asian states that benefited from the opium trade, the US played a key role in funding Olive in her early days, as an ally against the Southward communist pressure from China and her direct benefactors, the defeated Kuomingtang army retreating, like the hilltribes, to the impassable mountains of Northern Burma. It was the money and arms the US provided to Olive and the Kuomingtang in the early days of the cold war which allowed them to industrialize their poppy plantations. Later, it was the pure grade heroin available to US soldiers fighting in the Vietnam war which ended up on the streets of US cities and led to the drug epidemic which would prompt Richard Nixon to declare a 'war on drugs' in 1973, which I see as a continuation of the opium wars between the East and West in the 19th century which were also foundational moments in the formation of the modern Asian state.
DIRECTOR, WRITER: Royce Ng
PERFORMERS: Royce Ng
SOUND DESIGN: John Bartley
ANIMATION: Zheng Mahler Studio
TECHNICAL DIRECTOR: Michele Piazzi
QUEEN ZOMIA is co-produced by the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, South Korea (MMCA), New Vision Arts Festival, Hong Kong, Kampnagel, Hamburg, Germany and the Zürcher Theater Spektakel, Zurich, Switzerland. The piece was developed during 2017/2018 at Eaton Hotel artists residency in Hong Kong, Ne’na Contemporary artists residency program in Chiangmai, Thailand and at Piazzi Studio’s in Berlin.
2019 Zürcher Theater Spektakel, Zurich, Switzerland
2018 National Museum of Modern and Conteporary Art (MMCA), Seoul, Korea
2018 Kampnagel, Hamburg, Germany
2018 New Vision Art Festival, Hong Kong
I traveled to Thailand twice and tried to meet Olive Yang's son who lives in Chiangmai but was unsuccessful, so I've slightly shifted the emphasis of the performance from a direct biography of Olive, which would have been difficult to do in the confines of a one hour performance anyway, to using her story as a way to talk about larger themes. While in Thailand, I tried to find opium but was also unsuccessful though I did travel to the Golden Triangle, to the abandoned compound of the former drug lord Khun Sa, the Kuomingtang village of Mae Salong on the Thai-Myanmar border and a few opium museums in the region. I guess a part of the irony of my research and, with a bearing on the question of global drug policies today, it was ultimately easier to find opium in Berlin than in SE Asia, a point which I also speak about in the performance.
In general, my team tried re-create the experience of taking opium through aesthetic means, manipulating images, colour, light, sound and atmosphere to create a completely immersive, sensory experience for the audience. It is meant to be an opium dream poem in the mode of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan' or Thomas De Quincey's 'Confessions of an English Opium Eater'.
The technology which I'm using is actually incredibly old and points to the history of the theatre as a space of illusion, as I am using the 'pepper's ghost' trick, which basically is a way of conjuring a hologram or spectre on the stage using a combination of mirrors, lighting and reflections. It was used in phantasmagoria shows in Victorian England during the spiritualist crazes in the late 19th century. We're updating it by using projectors and 3D holographic plastic to turn my 3D animations into holograms on the stage which I, as the 'lecturer', can use as hallucinogenic materializations of my narrative.
I've been doing a lot of thinking about drugs, not just opium but psychedelics and their role vis a vis the state and culture in general. I was running a reading group with the Hong Kong based American anthropologist Gordon Matthews on psychedelics and technology, and what I've come to understand is that drugs are simply shortcuts to altered states of consciousness, spiritual, religious and liminal experiences which are at the core centre of most cultures throughout history. Think of the Elusinian mysteries in Classical Greece, to the role of ayuhuasca is Indian societies in Columbia, opium in Asia, to Terrence McKenna's 'stoned ape' theory of evolution and of course the role of alcohol, the most dangerous of them all. Rather than seeing drugs as being pushed to the outer limits of society, I see them more and more as the absent center around which we structure out cultures. So, there will be continuing efforts to suppress drugs, and efforts to make them more accessible, but the nature of these experiences themselves can be accessed through many paths; meditation, death and artistic experience itself (in which I find myself humbly engaged) and my interest at the moment is in continuing to explore their convergence through art.