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New play from Gibsons' Peter Hill takes hard look at subtle racism

'The Chinese Student' premieres in a reading at Heritage Playhouse this Sunday
A.Peter Hill
Playwright Peter Hill outside his home in Gibsons.

Bigotry can take many forms, sometimes hiding behind stated aims of protecting social and cultural “norms” and “standards.”

That’s a theme that Gibsons author Peter Hill explores in his new play, The Chinese Student, which premiers in a reading by Off the Page at the Heritage Playhouse in Gibsons this Sunday, Dec. 5.

Locally known as a performing musician, Hill is a retired teacher who taught high school English in Vancouver for decades, during a wave of increased Chinese immigration to British Columbia. The Chinese Student is fictional, but Hill is addressing real concerns that played out among his colleagues during his teaching years: As the number of immigrant Chinese students grew, so did the issue of how strictly to grade their academic work when English was not their first language.

By adding a romantic element to the plot, Hill makes a major character’s motives even more questionable.

“It’s about a couple of teachers,” Hill said in an interview. “One who’s quite worried about standards changing in high schools. She happens to be a woman and the other teacher happens to be a man and he’s interested in her. So, he’s getting more interested in her problem than probably he should, as her interest in standards borders on racism.”

The play also shows how bigoted assumptions tend to spill over. “You can have Chinese families that are third- and fourth generation and as much a fabric of British Columbia life as any group, and yet still, in some cases, they’re considered new arrivals,” said Hill.

“We do have to make sure [as teachers] that everybody speaks and writes properly,” Hill added. “But it’s when you start to kind of cook the books in that direction that it becomes problematic.”

A third character is a Chinese-Canadian trying to talk sense to his smitten friend who’s falling for the prejudiced teacher. “He’s saying, ‘Are you sure what you’re doing here is the right thing?’”

Whether conscience and common sense win out over romance and bigotry, Hill won’t reveal. “You’ll have to come and see,” he said.

Featured actors for the reading are Patrick Visser, Tara Fynn, Henry Mah, Stephanie Wong, and Ginny Blattler. Playwright Hill will be on hand for a later talkback with the audience and cast.

Showtime is 1 p.m. Admission is by donation, and proof of vaccination is required.