Performance review: 我咽下一枚铁做的月亮 I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron, Dunstan Playhouse

Poetry revealing the despair of a factory worker was turned into songs that tugged at the heartstrings.
I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron. Image is a man sitting at a grand piano playing and singing, while on a screen behind him are translations of Chinese poetry into English.

An Australian premiere at this year’s OzAsia Festival, 我咽下一枚铁做的月亮 I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron was a stage performance by composer and performer Njo Kong Kie, adapted from the poetry of Xu Lizhi (1990–2014).

Xu was a factory worker at Foxconn in Shenzhen, China – the world’s largest manufacturer of electronics, including Apple products. In 2014, after his suicide, media attention was given to Xu’s poetry, much of which revealed the harsh and inhumane working conditions under which he and his fellow workers were placed.

Xu’s works capture the despair of living in crammed and toxic conditions, of physical exhaustion where day and night seem to melt away, and of the longing for love, family and dreams. All of this was translated by Njo for the musical score and lyrics in 我咽下一枚铁做的月亮 I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron. The show took its title from the opening line of a Xu poem dated 19 December 2013.


Xu Lizhi ‘I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron’ 19 December 2013

As performer Njo made a palpable impact on a simple yet effective set, featuring a grand piano and a grey cube that doubled up as a screw, the sun and the moon. His heartfelt compositions were complemented by his impressive vocal range, which conveyed the raw emotional power of Xu’s poetry. Njo presented diverse genres of music and performance, ranging from the more conversational one-man duet (between the factory line supervisor and Xu himself) and operatic monologues, to tunes reminiscent of Chinese folk songs.

In Njo’s mastery of the instrument, the grand piano became a theatrical device. While the performance was dominated by Njo’s singing, he also intermittently interacted with the piano, using it as a shelter or standing by its side like an old friend. Projections added to the visual component of the performance, mostly utilised to provide Chinese-to-English translations of Xu’s poetry, but also offering video snippets of nostalgic domestic scenes related to the words.

While Charlie Chaplin’s iconic 1936 film, Modern Times, used humour to interrogate the human condition of industrial labour, Xu’s poetry was a much more straightforward wake-up call confronting audiences with the reality. However, there was also a poignant beauty in Xu’s observations and self-reflections, and this was given another life after Xu ended his own, through the voice and performance of Njo.

Read: Music review: Cécile McLorin Salvant, QPAC

Xu’s was a life cut short, and while sometimes there is the tendency to sensationalise or romanticise such tragedy, Njo remained humble throughout his performance. 我咽下一枚铁做的月亮 I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron was an ode to those who are lost and trying to find their way home – there was sadness, with a tinge of hope.

我咽下一枚铁做的月亮 I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron
Poet: Xu Lizhi
Composer, Director, Performer and Co-Producer: Njo Kong Kie
Set and Lighting Designer: Fung Kwok Kee Gabriel
Photographer/Filmmaker: Ao Ieong Weng Fong
Sound Designer and Engineer: Ryan McNabb
Video Designer (Text): Nicholas Yee
Vocal Coach: Stacie Dunlop
Movement Coach: William Yong
Drama Coach and English Translator: Derek Kwan
Associate Producer (Toronto Premiere): Kevin Matthew Wong

我咽下一枚铁做的月亮 I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron was performed on 25 and 26 October at Dunstan Playhouse as part of OzAsia Festival 2023.

This writer travelled to Adelaide as a guest of OzAsia Festival and the Adelaide Festival Centre.

Celina Lei is an arts writer and editor at ArtsHub. She acquired her M.A in Art, Law and Business in New York with a B.A. in Art History and Philosophy from the University of Melbourne. She has previously worked across global art hubs in Beijing, Hong Kong and New York in both the commercial art sector and art criticism. Most recently she took part in drafting NAVA’s revised Code of Practice - Art Fairs. Celina is based in Naarm/Melbourne. Instagram: @lleizy_