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Daniel York Loh - The Dao of Unrepresentative British Chinese Experience Interview

Daniel York Loh’s psychedelic, semi-autobiographical The Dao of Unrepresentative British Chinese Experience is premiering at Soho Theatre this June. 

This punk, rock and rap riff on what path you choose, which identity politics you embrace, or whether it’s easier to be a butterfly dreaming of being ‘Chinese’ is an original piece of gig theatre exploring race politics, mental health and personal testimony.

Based on Daniel’s own experiences, The Dao of Unrepresentative British Chinese Experience challenges the British Chinese stereotype of ‘model minority’; the quiet, high-achieving, polite and invisible individual. Through a blend of disruptive music, multimedia and a range of performance forms, Daniel and collaborator An-Ting 安婷 take us on a hilarious but touching journey through his struggles with drug addiction and journey into recovery, art and ‘activism’.

Semi-autobiographical, free-form and explosive, Daniel York Loh’s work is an exploration of race and identity politics, addiction, mental health, as well as personal and social history. It incorporates aspects of ancient Chinese philosophy as well as music written by An-Ting 安婷 and performed live by the cast, with an astonishing range of genres including punk, pop, psychedelia, electronica rap, and acid rock.

Ahead of the run we caught up with Daniel to learn more.

Where did your arts career begin?
I played guitar in punk rock bands when I was 14. No one elsein the band wanted to write songs so I did it. I guess it started there but I was in a place in the West Country (Bath) which at that time felt a long way from anywhere you could make any kind of ‘career’ in any kind of art. I got hooked on drugs and that led to lot of petty crime.

Then I went into rehab. A few years ago I was working with theatre director Justin Audibert who asked me how I came to the theatre. We both concluded that my route (or ‘Dao) into the industry isn’t available anymore. For a start the Department of Health & Social Security paid for my rehab. That process is a lot more complicated now. I put a lot of this into our play: things that seem like ‘period drama’, and the welfare state often feels like that now.

So I was a ‘recovering drug addict’ and ‘reformed criminal’ in Western-super-Mare in the late 1980s
A girl I knew in the female rehab centre invited me to watch her in a play at the local college of further education that a man called Steve Lewis directed - brilliantly on a budget of 10 pence. Steve passed away last year while I was making my West End debut (something that totally symbolises his profound effect on my life)

I was so inspired I told Steve I wanted to do drama and Steve signed me up for the GCSE course while I was claiming benefitwhich meant I could spend a measly 4 hours a week studying drama at the college but Steve told me I could come in as much as I liked and he’d just put down the 4 hours – again, I’m not sure any of this is possible in today’s Britain and this was very much the era when the welfare state was being systematically dismantled so I was probably one of the last to benefit from this stuff. 

I gave up my Thatcher ‘youth opportunities’ gardening job and the DSS refused to give me unemployment benefit for 6 weeks during which time I nearly got evicted because I couldn’t pay the rentI’m pretty sure Steve fronted me a few Wimpy meals

For the next year I virtually lived at the college. I acted in Shakespeare, Willy Russell’s Blood BrothersGrease, David Rudkin’s Burglers and The Revenger’s Tragedy before heading off to drama school which I got a student grant for – again something you can’t get in today’s Britain. ‘STOP. This is a period drama. Continue’ (That’s a line from the play).

Were there any people or performances that had a big impact on you?
Punk rock had a profound influence on me – particularly The Clash and an anarcho-punk band called Crass (ironic because those two hated each other but both had a certain political engagement that was my education basically). Later I went back through music. Jimi Hendrix blew my mind. Then the great songwriters – Dylan, Neil Young, Bob Marley, Springsteen – in terms of being storytellers. The great ‘ghetto tales’ soul of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Luther Vandross. Recently rappers like Kendrick Lamar and Stormzy.

Theatre wise there’s been so many things but I’d go back to the beginning and Steve Lewis (mentioned above). We were doing Blood Brothers by Willy Russell and Steve organised a college trip to Liverpool because he’d studied there. He might even have lent me the money to go because I was skint. We went to see The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht at Liverpool Everyman. It literally blew my mind. The serious playfulness, laugh out loud comedy, shocking drama, the fact the whole cast played the music live, the staging, the shift in genres, the pace, the power. And the politics. I heard an Asiaheritage director who was recently directing a Brecht play saying he wanted to make it ‘silly’ because ‘politics is boring’.  The trouble is that politics ISN’T boring. It’s far too compelling, visceral and terrifying. Politics these days is actually TOO interesting. More interesting than theatre much of the time.

Finally, I have to talk about the winter evening while I was at drama school and I went to one of those massive cinemas in Leicester Square to watch Farwell My Concubine by Chen Kaige. The screen was massive (they’ve broken all those big cinemas into small picture houses now). On that screen was 50 years of Chinese history told with such power and grace and poetry and amazing, brilliant actors (Leslie Cheung, Gong Li and Zhang Fengyi). It changed me in so many ways. I was nominally ‘Chinese’. I was told I was ‘Chinese’ since I was 3. And being ‘Chinese’ then meant being dull, ugly, weird and a figure of fun. So seeing that film in all it’s raging beauty was like an electric charge.

Where did the inspiration go for this piece?
It’s a psychedelic punk rock riff on what path you choose, which identity politics you embrace or whether it’s easier to be a butterfly dreaming of being ‘Chinese’.  Semi-autobiographical (with the emphasis very much on ‘semi’) it fuses music and theatre to create a cosmological acid trip tone poem of drug addiction, Daoism, crime, recovery, activism, disillusionment and spiritual enlightenment. 

An-Ting 安婷who is the composer on Daowas Artistic Director of Kakilang and asked me to apply to be Associate Artistic DirectorKakilang is a company that platforms work from diverse Southeast & East Asian perspectives When I joined Kakiling, An-Ting suggested I write something based on my life - aspects of which I’d told her about. I started work then I realised the ‘play’ could only be conceived as a form of ‘gig theatre’ (halfway between a dramatic theatre piece and a rock concert). Because all I heard in the story was the music of my life. 

The basic theme was born out of displacement which I’ve felt throughout my life. And it ties in with the fact that I was writing it around the ten year anniversary of the protest against East & Southeast Asian exclusion from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of the Yuan Dynasty classic The Orphan of Zhao. There’s no doubt in my mind that that protest fundamentally changed British theatre. Very soon after, the Act For Change campaign group started and our stages and screens really have become incrementally more diverse. And the term ‘representation’ became vogue. But then I started realising that I personally could never ‘represent’ without being ‘unrepresentative’. Because I’m mixed race, I didn’t get good grades at school, I wasn’t a ‘model minority’, nice ‘Chinese’ boy/girl. I was a drug addict and a (very) petty criminal then I was an actor but being an actor didn’t ‘save me’ from a life of crime, it very nearly drove me back to it! 

Along with that I’d got very interested in ancient Chinese philosophy, And Daoism seemed perfect for this. Dao means ‘path’ or ‘way’. It’s about trying to find your Dao in a world that’s troubled and violent and angry and hungry. And in particular I thought of the Fourth Century BCE Daoist philosopher, Zhuangzi, who famously has a dream that he was a butterfly but then wondered if he was in fact a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi dreaming he was a butterfly…

And in my play the protagonist has a dream that they’re ‘Chinese’. 

How have you approached the writing and development of the show?
In a spirit of wild experimentation. Really, I’ve never worked in this way before. And this has basically been my journey with Kakilang(formerly named Chinese Arts Now). It began in 2020 with a thing called Invisible Harmony 无形的和That was with a company called Papergang but I remember going to An-Ting, who was Artistic Director at the time, and saying ‘I’ve got this kind of rap/poetry and an amazing dancer called Julia Cheng and I don’t know what we’re making but…’ and she programmed it at Southbank Centre. Then after that An-Ting commissioned me to create every dollar is a soldier/with money you’re a dragon with her (album link ) which won a Digital Culture Award. 

And now this. I began by reading Daoism - Zhuangzi as mentioned, but also Laozi who was probably the original Daoist philosopher – then I just wrote and wrote. With no structure in mind and no form – very Daoist in fact. One scene I wrote (which I cut) was literally just a word collage. One scene (which is in) is just a picture of the cosmic I Ching divination wheel which, to me is such an iconic and epochal visualisation of the whole cycle of life and all its possibilities. We also did an I Ching session in the Kakilang office one day. 

The first things I wrote were the opening speech – which I tried to cut but An-Ting urged me not to – and Virtuosity  – an epic rap detailing the night I stole a car and got chased down narrow provincial roads that just aren’t meant to be taken at 100 mph. And I went from there. Then, slowly, over two research workshops, the story structure emerged. The structure is still very much an acid trip though.

Do you have a target audience in mind when you’re writing a show?
I want to tackle big subjects with big themes that ask big questions about humanity. So my target audience is anyone and everyone in all honesty. That may sound glib but I do think that a precise story has universal appeal. 

Dao is all about not fitting in anywhere. So essentially that means no one can be excluded from the story. It’s as much about not being ‘Chinese’ as is it is about being ‘Chinese’. And it’s also about growing up in modern Britain. As an actor, I’ve been lucky enough to play Jack Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde five times with a company called Wild Rice in Singapore, Macau and Brisbane. I got from that why exactly Wilde’s play resonates so strongly with audiences. Yes, it’s hilarious but it’s also about identity. There’s a moment where Jack Worthing asks Lady Bracknell to ‘kindly inform me who I am’. And that makes the play huge because we all need to know who we are. That line changed me as an artist in so many ways.

I will say as well that as someone of East/Southeast Asian heritage, I always feel that the prevalent view in the ‘West’ is people from those heritages is us killing and oppressing each other plus there’s also a notable history of censoring and suppressing artists. So a theatre with people of Southeast and East Asian heritages in the audience engaging and enjoying is meaningful to me on so many levels

How would you describe your writing style to anyone who hasn’t encountered you before?
Wild as the wind. 

I don’t have one form but I think that cuts across all the genres I’ve written in.

How important has the collaboration with An-Ting 安婷 been for this project?
It’s An-Ting’s show as well as mine as far as I’m concerned. I’d love to adequately credit that but I wrote the words and the story so in theatre billing that’s what goes on the poster. An-Ting is more than just a ‘composer’ though she is a phenomenal composer (check out her Spotify ). 

She was also the catalyst of DaoI’d told her the odd story about my life and she suggested I write something based on it. She was the first person who read it and she was the first person I discussed it with dramaturgically. She wrote an instrumental piece towards the end that I perform on the guitar because she felt strongly (and rightly) that it needed that slight place without words before continuing. 

I’ve been gifted with amazing collaborators on this – director Alice Kornitzer, the two performers Melody ChikakaneBrown and Aruhan Galieva, all the designers… within that, An-Ting is absolutely integral. 

How did you decide which bits in the piece would be autobiographical and the bits that wouldn’t?
Well, I knew there were scenes that were basically occurrences in my life. But I embellished and poeticised and mythologised. This wasn’t to make it more ‘glamourous’ but to open it out by making fiction out of fact. Oscar Wilde again: ‘only that which is fake is real and only what’s ‘real’ isfake’ (I’ve probably paraphrased that). If drama is too factual it doesn’t bring people in in my experience. It’s what becomes larger, more dream-like, more soulful that reaches audiences.

Then there were stories from Zhuangzi which I basically adapted. An example of this is that there’s two characters called Cloud and Obscure. Zhuangzi often writes these jagged little duologues. I did my own version. I suppose loosely speaking, Cloud and Obscure is two sides of me (older and younger, younger and older) talking to each other. But is it? Maybe it’s the audience debating with itself. I try never to be too literal. But you can see here how what is a two and a half thousand year old philosophical text becomes kind of ‘autobiographical’ but then becomes something else altogether. 

I also took two Zhuangzi stories – the butterfly dream (as mentioned above) and the ‘useless tree’ – and put my own spin on them. The autobiographical elements run through the whole evening but they’re never that literal or rigid. It’s a dream after all. 

How does the ‘gig-theatre’ element fit into the story?
Music and songs influence me more than anything. And live music in theatre is especially exciting. Kakilang’s remit is that we’re an ‘interdisciplinary’ company but I think theatre in its essence is an interdisciplinary medium. At some point, very early on, I just thought this was a gig piece. I played in bands when I was a teenager, that was the world I knew and the idea of the cast (and I had no idea how big the cast was at that point) becoming a band just seemed magical to me. I’ve had to practice like crazy to get better on the guitar as I’ve not had the opportunity to play consistently throughout my adult life but that’s the show we set out to make from virtually the start. 

It's also another medium for storytelling. There’s a Bruce Springsteen lyric ‘we learned more from a three-minute record than we ever did at school’. You can get a lot across in a song and the combination of song and rap with the dramatic scenes keeps the us and the audience in a state of constant surprise.  

What keeps you inspired?
As I said above, music. But honestly the world itself and especially right now. Not to be too much of a downer but I think humanity is in a dark place at the moment. There’s war, genocide, oppression, fascism, authoritarian politics on the rise, open hate-mongering and of course, the big one, the climate. 
All this and we often don’t seem to know what the truth is any more. The internet and social media – which seemed to liberate us for a while – is now awash with conspiracy theories and whole alternative worlds created in febrile echo chambers. I listened to a radio series by the journalist Gabriel Gatehouse called The Coming Storm. One of the interviewees proudly said ‘we don’t bother with what’s truthful anymore. You can pick your own truth’. 

And you see this all the time – with Brexit, Trump, the ongoing genocide in Gaza – politicians, government spokespeople and the media will not hesitate to lie to you and sometimes you can even see them looking at you like they know you know it’s a lie but even if you prove it they’re never going to back down because they know that if they shout loud enough people will go with them.
Really, I look at all that and I don’t know how to even stop myself from grabbing the mike so to speak. 

Plus, the state of theatre and how it’s funded and whether the audience can even afford to come and watch. Maybe we won’t even have the opportunity to make theatre for very much longer. So let’s grab that while we can.

What do you hope an audience member takes away from seeing the show?
That it’s okay not to ‘fit in’. In fact it’s more than okay, it’s beautiful not to fit in. You can be anything you want. Because ‘this butterfly can sing’ to quote one of the lines in the play. In a way the play is about being a damaged butterfly. Again the Zhuangzi dream of being a butterfly but then wondering if he was in fact a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi dreaming he was a butterfly…

And that’s another big theme in the play: it’s okay to dream.

I can say all this but as a writer I’m more of a questioner than an answerer. Daoism is very much about finding your own way. It’s the polar opposite of definitive. So no one’s telling you how you should react to this play. You take what you want and fly in the breeze (another line in the show).

It’s your own ‘Dao’.

Where can people see the show and follow your journey beyond?
The Dao of Unrepresentative British Chinese Experience will be found at Soho Theatre June 19th – July 13th 7:15pm plus there’s matinees here and there. Tickets are available from

I’m on Twitter (X) @DanielYorkLoh Instagram @danielyorkloh and I have a website

Kakilang is on Twitter (X) @KakilangArts Instagram @kakilangarts and website you can sign up for our new letter.

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