It didn’t take Steven Hao long to figure out he wasn’t one for the Chinese system.
At 10 years old, he had made up his mind he wanted to live in Canada.
To his immense pleasure, his parents were not only OK with that, his mom brought him here just one year later. He’s now a 16-year-old Claremont student in Grade 11, and has been here five-and-a-half years.
“In China, in Grade 1, you go up on a stage, and you’re taught an oath, in which you swear your life to the communist government,” Hao recalled. “They put a red scarf around you, and you’re so proud of yourself, and you’re brainwashed [that China’s system is the best] until you’re older and can see how other countries work.”
Growing up as an ambitious child actor in Xi’an was limiting. But leaving China wasn’t about escaping the communist government or school system. It was about finding opportunity to be on stage, which he’s found much of.
This fall Hao was a member of the ensemble in the Victoria Opera Society’s production of Chorus Line and between Christmas and New Year’s Day he’ll star as Tweedle Dee in Kaleidoscope’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (the holiday pantomime borrows a few characters from other classics).
“I always did well in school, so I wasn’t escaping the strict school system. But when the teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I wanted to be a clown, because Chinese stage acting didn’t look fun. My teacher interrupted and shutdown the idea before I could finish my sentence.”
Chinese stage acting, as far as Hao’s foreseeable future was concerned, was mostly historical re-enactments. None of it offered the colourful and creative freedom he identified with from watching Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean.
“I started questioning why can’t that work? Why can’t I be a Mr. Bean? The teachers told me I won’t make it in the real world.”
Well, Hao is in Saanich now. Whether it’s part of the real world is debatable. And he’s already been in too many shows to count on one hand. Last year he was in both of Claremont’s productions, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Crazy, a musical.
This year he will be in Claremont’s Up the Down Staircase in February, and Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella in May.
“I like all acting, I just like being on stage. It feels good, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing up there,” Hao said.
When he got here, Hao spoke little English.
The adjustment of coming to a free culture where people can speak their mind took some getting used to.
“I couldn’t believe all the people saying [then prime minister] Stephen Harper sucks,” Hao said. “And when I learned he was the PM, I was just shocked. If you talked about your PM or president like that in China you could be killed.”
At first, Hao thought maybe there was more freedom afforded to Saanich youths, until he realized the whole country had these freedoms.
In middle school drama class Hao had fun but didn’t get any of the jokes. So he watched old episodes of Whose Line Is It Anyways? and other shows to try and understand why the jokes were funny.
“That led to me getting into theatre in Victoria, which has been a great thing to do.,” Hao said. “When I was in China, my father would take me travelling on summer break. He believed I’d learn more from seeing places rather than reading about it in a book. I don’t know why Canada, but at 10, I really wanted to go to Canada, and my father was proud that I made the decision myself.”
Hao’s father remains in China while Hao lives near Claremont with his mother. Visiting happens less now as he’s not used to the smog.
“I miss my dad but when I go back my nose doesn’t work.”
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs plays Dec. 27 to 29 at the McPherson Theatre.