FOOD and its relationship with love and survival are at the heart of a new play by York-born Mary Cooper, performed on tour to the accompaniment of a Chinese meal in Chinese restaurants...and at the Spurriergate Centre in York next week.

Written in collaboration with multi-lingual MW Sun, who studied linguistics at the University of York, From Shore To Shore/Piao Yang Guo Hai weaves together three stories from different generations of the British Chinese community, researched and recorded by Cooper and Sun over three years.

Directed by Yellow Earth co-founder David K S Tse for the On The Wire company, Cooper's play spans a century of Chinese history through its tales of love and loss, struggle and survival, wherein Cheung Wing is escaping from war, Mei Lan has had enough of the potato peeler and Yi Di wants the impossible: her parents’ approval.

From Shore To Shore brings together English, Mandarin and Cantonese in "an innovative blend, which communicates with all", performed by actor-musicians Alan Wai, Paula So Man Siu, Yvonne Wan, Jackie Lam, Dandan Liu and Jennifer Leong, along with multi-instrumentalist Angela Chan, who has played at the Glastonbury, Bestival, Green Man and Live At Leeds festivals.

Supported by the Business Confucius Institute at Leeds University and Arts Council England, the play was premiered at the Oriental City Restaurant in Leeds in mid-May and is touring Manchester, Oxford, London, Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh before finishing at York on June 9 and 10.

"From Shore To Shore draws on the stories of interviewees aged from 14 to 84, stories often hidden even from family members," says Mary Cooper. "The play reveals the long-view of migration: one of toil, endurance and success in the UK. It's been an extraordinary insight into an undiscovered side of Britain's rich contemporary diversity, reaffirming our common humanity in these divisive times.”

Mary, who was born in Tang Hall and attended Queen Anne's Grammar School for Girls in Clifton, left York at 18 to train as a journalist, working at the Bristol Evening Post for four years before reading interdisciplinary human studies at Bradford University. "It was the most fantastic course and while there I started writing at the university's Theatre in the Mill and then did an MA in theatre at Leeds University, and I've been writing professionally since 1986," she says.

She has written for BBC Radio 4, Channel 4 and Granada, as well as more than 20 plays commissioned for touring theatre, including a schools tour of Tidelines, produced by York Theatre Royal and directed by Amanda Smith when she was at the helm of York Young People's Theatre.

"Damian Cruden [the Theatre Royal's artistic director] and I have had discussions over the years about putting on a play, but for various reasons it never happened, but this time it has all worked out, through John Wilkinson at the Theatre Royal," says Mary.

From Shore To Shore emerged partly from her "other life", teaching creative writing at the University of Bolton, where she was approached in 2010 to run a course for Chinese writers from the Chinese Centre for Contemporary Art in Manchester. "The centre asked various universities to bid, and we won, and what I realised once we started the course was that I was hearing stories I'd never heard before; stories that needed to be heard," Mary recalls.

"That's why one of the students, Mimi [MW Sun], and I started interviewing people in English, Mandarin and Cantonese in 2014. We interviewed face to face, working with Chinese community organisations, like the Leeds Chinese School, Leeds Chinese Community Association and Leeds Chinese Church, and the way it worked was that I interviewed them in depth – still using my Teeline shorthand from my journalism days – and I didn't use any material unless they were happy with the transcript, so they had control over it, as my work is based on trust because it's sensitive material.

"I would do the interviews with the British-born Chinese but Mimi was vital for the elders and for working with me on incorporating Mandarin and Cantonese in the script, though the play's totally accessible to everyone because anything you won't understand through language, you will understand through drama."

A draft version of Mary's play was presented at the Oriental City in 2015, also testing the idea of serving Chinese food as part of the evening. "That went so well that we then applied for more significant funding for this year's tour, and we've since done subsequent re-drafts," she says. "A play is never finished and even now I would tweak it: people say a play is never written, it's re-written, just like a poem is never finished, it's abandoned!"

The play spans stories from the war refugee generation, who fled from China to Hong Kong, then Britain; the generation who came to work in the Chinese restaurants and takeaways and the new generation of students coming here for myriad educational possibilities. "They're now the fastest-growing ethnic community in Britain but it's the one we hear least about..."

...until now, until From Shore To Shore.

On The Wire presents From Shore To Shore/Piao Yang Guo Hai at the Spurriergate Centre, York, on June 9 and 10, 8pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at The Spurriergate Centre will be transformed into a Chinese restaurant with family-style food from Sunrise restaurant, Gillygate, for a two-course meal for each ticket holder.