Mission Im/possible: In Search of Identity and the Aesthetics of Hong Kong Contemporary Theatre

Bernice Kwok-wai Chan*


Hong Kong, a borrowed place where her stories are always narrated by others. Theatre, a mediated platform where theatre makers look for ways to voice out their concerns and at the same time, audiences who expect to hear resonance of their lives and times. Theatre makers should never forget that the mission of live drama is to unfold realities through creative expression, images and ideas. This task is a never-ending mission for playwrights in Hong Kong. This article provides an overview of Hong Kong’s contemporary theatre life through two basic perspectives: the  work of young playwrights and the impact of venue policy on the present development of local performing arts.
Keywords: Hong Kong, drama, playwrights, identity, performance venues, contemporary writing

In 2006, Prospects Theatre Company, Theatre Ensemble and Hong Kong Arts Centre joined hands to launch the first episode of Playwright Scheme; a decision that turned a new page for developing original plays in Hong Kong. The scheme emphasized the importance of a “work-in-progress” and aimed not to produce work on-stage, but to nurture local playwriting talent.

Such a scheme is needed in Hong Kong because the most prestigious theatre companies do not prioritize new writing for the stage. Take, for example, the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre and Chung Ying Theatre Company (established in 1977 and 1979, respectively). These flagship companies are directly supported by the Hong Kong government, but nurturing young playwrights is not a particular focus for them. Rather, they concentrate their efforts on making high quality productions, ranging from local to international work, and from classical to contemporary theatre. They aim at building an audience and serving the community. By contrast, small professional theatre companies, mostly subsidized by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC), have a dedicated and vibrant commitment to the development of the work of new playwrights.

In 2019–20, HKADC supported 16 theatre groups, producing works such as original musicals, children’s theatre, translated plays, multi-media performance and documentary theatre. However, as the playwright scheme’s Chinese title (Crouching Tigers, Hidden Dragons) suggests, the creative potential of new stage writing in Hong Kong is longing to be discovered and unleashed.

Poon Wai-sum is a seasoned writer, one of the most significant local playwrights in Hong Kong and the leading curator of the Playwright Scheme. His progressive, long-term vision was to build an open platform for playwriting, which would promote a new wave of stage writing in Hong Kong and help to develop original new works. In an interview, he explained the reason for starting the project. He was, he explained, very dubious about the sustainability of the prevailing model of theatre in Hong Kong at that moment, which relied mainly on presenting translated texts.

The poster image of Playwright Scheme in 2013. Photo: Prospects Theatre Company

Poon’s opinions on the position of new playwriting in Hong Kong matter, particularly because he is an important local playwright. His most acclaimed play series, called the Insect Series, was first staged in 1997. It was an iconic series of dramas documenting Hong Kong people’s anxiety about the handover of sovereignty from the British to the Chinese government. The first episode of the Insect Series, The Cockroach that Flies Like a Helicopter (1997), successfully reflected daily life around a typical street stall in Hong Kong selling coffee, milk tea and sandwiches. The play depicts the conflict between the mother and daughter who run the stall, the absence of the physically disabled father; relations which are exacerbated by the limited living and working space the characters have to endure. Although physically absent in the play, the father is, significantly, the most influential member of the family. In fact, his absent presence determines the destiny of the other two family members.

Dreaming of flying like a giant cockroach (a household insect that is common in Hong Kong), the young generation in Hong Kong in the 1990s looked forward to their unpredictable future in a very positive, yet humble, way. In the last scene in Poon’s play, this metaphor expresses vividly the urgency of protecting our identity. From the middle of the 1980s to the late 1990s (the socio-cultural and political turning point for Hong Kong) and into the new millennium, new playwriting gained significant creative momentum.

The establishment of HKADC in 1995 contributed to this wave of development by giving financial support to small professional theatre groups. These companies focused on the discussion of cultural identity and the anxiety of confronting the change of sovereignty. However, this wave of theatrical creativity peaked before the actual realization of the “One County, Two Systems” policy, and at a time when the anxiety was still relatively “imaginable.” When this political experiment came into practice, Hong Kong encountered the most difficult of challenges, which has proved to be a complicated issue, and one that is not easy to resolve.

Local playwrights were looking for ways to voice their concerns about the new political reality. At the same time, audiences expected to see their lives and concerns reflected on the stage. After completing the Insect Series in 2003, Poon started another series discussing the situation of those Hong Kong people who travel and work in the Pearl River Delta Region of China. It was a year in which Hong Kong suffered from the SARS virus, and there was a large protest opposing an attempt to implement the Basic Law Article 23 (which attempted to implement the Hong Kong national security law).

Produced by an experimental theatre company, called Zuni Icosahedron, East Wing West Wing (2003) was claimed to be the first political comedy theatre series in contemporary Hong Kong performance history. It succeeded in receiving lots of public attention. On the one hand, the dramatic and sarcastic presentation of didactic lectures in the theatre enabled, in the words of the creators, “audiences to delve into political issues amidst laughter,” ultimately revealing the creator’s political intention. On the other hand, it also brought a new aesthetic insight to local productions. However, it is arguable that a comedic approach might not be able to explore complicated political issues in suitable depth.

Young voices matter. Poon articulated the urgency of discussing Hong Kong on stage, but the lack of platforms had limited the possibility of presenting emerging playwrights’ new works. The Playwright Scheme has presented over 200 new plays, in the form of play readings, since 2006. Later, The Open Platform, initiated by the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre in 2013, produced almost 20 new works by emerging playwrights.

Wong Wing-sze has been writing plays since 2001 and won Best Script at the 2011 Hong Kong Drama Awards for her play, The Truth About Lying. Photo: HK Magazine

The Truth About Lying (2010) was written by one of Hong Kong’s most promising young playwrights, Wong Wing-sze, and it was first to read, as part of the scheme, in 2008. Staged in the Hong Kong Arts Festival’s Hong Kong New Works series, the play was situated in a legal firm specializing in divorce law. Wong forensically examined the delicate situation of love and marriage. She acknowledged in an interview that her drama connected metaphorically with the cultural and social uniqueness of Hong Kong.

The East-meets-West culture of Hong Kong creates ideological conflicts in love relationships. The sharpness of Wong’s observation created a realistic depiction of Hong Kong; one which considered the society from a very different perspective than that of the playwrights of the previous generation.

Wu King-yeung, another emerging playwright, presented Searching for the Happy Man in the Playwright Scheme in 2010. A play criticizing urban development, it was produced by Prospects Theatre Company in 2011. Wu published a Facebook post describing the intention of writing this play. He wrote that he felt “hurt” by the homogeneity and ubiquity of shopping mall culture in the city. The malls, as he revealed in the play, largely killed Hong Kong’s creative energy.

Ivan Kwok’s play Principle (2017) was first presented as a performed reading in the Reader’s Theatre, organized by the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre. The drama is situated in a high school, where the implementation of new rules creates conflicts between the new principal, teachers and students. This play realistically reflects the socio-cultural conflict that happened in Hong Kong. Instead of merely depicting the anxiety within the changing Hong Kong, young playwrights like Kwok are looking for innovative, metaphorical ways to extend the spectrum of their social and political concerns.

The Hong Kong Arts Festival, one of the most significant art events in Hong Kong, has been commissioning new works since the 1990s and intends to create more opportunities for emerging playwrights in the next ten years. The French Kiss by Chong Mui-ngam was staged by the Festival in 2005, to great acclaim. The playwright returned to the Festival with Murder in San Jose (2009 and 2011) and Wild Boar (2012). Chong’s works explore human psychological struggles, and are characterized by both sophisticated character development and their insightful consideration of universal issues for humanity. Wild Boar was inspired by a newspaper report about a small drama group which was going to stage a play about the Tiananmen Square incident, and which received threatening phone calls. Chong’s concern about freedom of expression drove her to write the play.

Produced by Stage 64 in 2019, May 35th marked the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Incident. Photo: Cheung Chi-wai, courtesy of Stage 64

In Chong’s drama, the roar of a wild boar is a metaphor for the people’s voice demanding truth and justice. This play now looks like a premonition of the huge Umbrella Movement protests in 2014 and the Water Revolution in 2019. In 2019, Chong herself actually experienced a threat similar to that considered by the play. Her play May 35th was premiered by the Stage 64, coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident. The drama’s ambiguous title implied its subject, which remains a highly sensitive topic to discuss in China. The play does not eschew the political implications of the events of 1989. However, rather than reenact the protests and repression, it focuses upon the trauma of the family members of the people who were sacrificed. This memorializing of the victims was represented on a Hong Kong stage by means of a poetic representation of a “square.” This artistic approach to an unspeakable incident, carrying as it does a longing for liberty, is an articulation of the uniqueness of Hong Kong’s identity.

Chong’s May 35th re-examines the historical burden of the pursuit of democracy in China. However, the play has further interpreted by the director, Lee Chun-chow, to have cultural and social resonances with Hong Kong in the twenty-first century. The Water Revolution has changed profoundly the attitude of the young generation towards China, which, in turn, has reinforced their sense of Hong Kong identity. Whilst the play might be guilty of over-simplification in its comparison of the Tiananmen Square incident with the Hong Kong movement of 2019, the sincerity and courage of the production team received tremendous support from the audience.

The play was staged at the Shouson Theatre of the Hong Kong Arts Centre, which was established in the late 1970s and is one of the very few independent, non-governmental performing arts venues in Hong Kong. The production, which faced numerous crises, was only able to go ahead thanks to the support of the Hong Kong Arts Centre. Over 70 percent of the performance venues in Hong Kong (such as the Hong Kong Cultural Centre and Hong Kong City Hall) are operated by the Hong Kong government under the auspices of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, which is the city’s major theatre presenter. The government can quite simply create obstacles to the creation of theatre works and influence the ecology and long-term development of the local performing arts.

There are 14 government-managed venues in Hong Kong. They operate on a fair reservations policy which seeks to distribute performance slots evenly among performing art groups. Presenting long-run productions in government-managed venues is always a complicated issue in Hong Kong. Furthermore, many theatre practitioners worry about indirect censorship in staging productions in those venues. By contrast, many newly established venues, such as the Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts (which opened in 2018) and the Freespace, operated by West Kowloon Cultural District (established in 2019), are said to be artistically independent. However, after the Hong Kong national security law has passed in 2020, freedom of expression on the Hong Kong stage has become a very delicate matter.

Many small theatre companies in Hong Kong are exploring the aesthetic possibilities of staging plays on a small scale in experimental venues. Loft Stage (established in 2001), for example, is a creative hub that has attempted to develop an alternative performance space in an industrial buildings complex. It has encouraged many small theatre companies, such as Wedraman and Drama Gallery, to set up black box theatres in industrial buildings. It later initiated discussions with live music houses, which were also located in industrial buildings, with the aim of relaxing the regulations with regard to the operation of alternative performance venues. However, the rules, which have hardly changed, continue to discourage the further development of these alternative stages. The number of independent black box theatres dropped from 15 in 2011 to fewer than five in 2020. Today, the few that do exist keep a low profile. The Cattle Depot Theatre (which is located in the Cattle Depot Artist Village) is regarded as an extraordinary case among the alternative venues. It is operated by On & On Theatre Workshop, a small theatre company supported financially by the HKADC.

Chan Ping-chi. Photo: Liu Ka-lam, courtesy of IATC (HK)

Led by artistic director Chan Ping-chiu, a renowned theatre director and playwright, On & On Theatre Workshop has been supporting many emerging local theatre makers’ debuts in the Cattle Depot Theatre. In 2006, when the first edition of the Playwright Scheme was launched, Chan supported the translation and presentation of contemporary European plays. Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis and Crave were first introduced in the Contemporary Playwright Series. Later, more names, like Caryl Churchill, Martin Crimp, Elfriede Jelinek, Marius von Mayenburg and Bernard- Marie Koltès, were introduced, either by way of stage productions or in play readings. In 2012, On & On Theatre Workshop curated a flagship project named Contemporary Writing for Theatre in the independent and self-operated Cattle Depot Theatre. This project has made a significant contribution to the development of pioneering forms of playwriting and of contemporary forms of theatre and performance in Hong Kong.

Who Killed the Elephant was the first original play produced by the Contemporary Writing for Theatre. Photo: Carmen SO, courtesy of On & On Theatre Workshop

The Contemporary Writing for Theatre project declares itself committed to drawing “references from European new writing to investigate the boundary of text-based theatre in relation to the changing socio-cultural and political landscapes of our times.” It has offered theatre artists and audiences in Hong Kong the opportunity to understand more profoundly the concerns and viewpoints of international playwrights. In its first phase, the project focused on presenting translated plays. Later, it staged new works of emerging playwrights who were interested in exploring new forms of narration in the theatre. Written and directed by Vee Leong, Who Killed the Elephant (2012) was the first original play produced by the Contemporary Writing for Theatre.

Inspired by the structure of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, the play rethought concepts “on discipline, identity and state surveillance,” and discussed the development of these concepts “in relation to the colonial past and (neo-)colonial present of Hong Kong.” The play also intended to investigate the poetics and politics of language, in which authoritarianism and violence were delicately hidden. Leong is an active member of the Contemporary Writing for Theatre project team. Her dual role as writer-director enables her to pursue her experiment strategically. She can express her concerns precisely, using innovative theatrical and performance vocabularies to deliver new forms of narration.

The Contemporary Writing for Theatre project has constantly introduced contemporary plays written by international playwrights, thereby creating the conditions for new, original attempts at innovative theatre making by artists in Hong Kong. The project has presented more than 30 translated plays and 15 original plays in the past eight years. It has contributed significantly to the development of playwriting in Hong Kong and, through international exchange projects, extended its influence to Macau and Taiwan.

A Concise History of Future China received recognition in the Berliner Festspoele Theatertreffen Stückemarkt 2016. Photo: Cheung Chi-wai, courtesy of Festival Office, Leisure and Cultural Services Department

Hong Kong theatre makers have embraced the idea of exporting their own, original productions around the world, rather than merely importing works from overseas. Hong Kong producers have, in the past, been reluctant to try to export local shows overseas; however, the challenge of the language barrier has not discouraged emerging playwrights from seeking a global audience for their work. For instance, Hong Kong writer-director Yan Pat-to (another member of the Contemporary Writing for Theatre team) received recognition at the Berliner Festspoele Theatertreffen Stückemarkt (BFTS) in 2016.

A Concise History of Future China (2016), produced by Reframe Theatre Company, was the first Chinese play to be selected by the BFTS. Festival jury member Kathrin Roggla highlighted the play’s “highly concentrated poetical interweaving,” noting Yan’s intention “to elaborate the cruel phantasms of a contemporary society of asynchronies.” Over the last decade, Hong Kong has witnessed the emergence of many small, professional theatre groups that are determined to operate out with the annual grant structure of HKADC. This include: Reframe Theatre Company; Théâtre de la Feuille (established in 2010); Heteroglossia (established in 2013); and Rooftop Productions (established in 2014). They prefer to receive project funding from HKADC or to explore alternative financial resources, in order to remain flexible in their theatre making.

In 2015, HKADC released a report on the Arts Practitioners in Drama Sector for 2011/12. It recorded that there were about 3,800 practitioners participating in 400 local productions. Ma Fung-kwok (a member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region for the sports, performing arts, culture and publication sector) observed that many practitioners work as freelancers in the creative industries. Speaking in an interview about the government’s financial support for artists, designers, technical crew members and arts educators during the pandemic, he estimated that “more than half of about 100,000 practitioners in the sector have not received any support.”

Other research conducted by a group of independent artists in July 2020 observed that over 80 percent of the 300 interviewees participating in the survey had lost most of their income since the onset of the pandemic. The development of contemporary theatre in Hong Kong is affected by both the pandemic and the complicated political situation. These conditions force emerging theatre makers to look for alternative and innovative ways to survive as artists.

The first Hong Kong Annual Arts Survey was conducted in 2007–08 by the HKADC. The recorded attendance for theatre productions in that year was 716,000; the latest recorded figure (for 2017–18) was 781,000. The audience has increased in the last ten years, and has included new and younger theatregoers. What will they expect from the theatre and performance of the future?

It seems that Hong Kong’s contemporary original plays are becoming a focus for international audiences and academic study. The increasingly complicated socio-political situation in Hong Kong, with its inherent issues of conflict, identity, protest and social anxiety, is likely to generate an ever more vibrant environment for playwrights to express their artistic dynamism. However, playwrights should be wary of staging plays just for the sake of being political; because repeating slogans or representing emotional scenarios could quickly draw the audience’s attention, but we need artistic strategy to express ourselves. Theatre makers should never forget that the mission of live drama is to unfold realities through creative expression, images and ideas. This task is a never-ending mission for playwrights in Hong Kong. 

*Bernice Kwok-wai Chan is currently the General Manager of the International Association of Theatre Critics (Hong Kong) and an examiner for the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (Drama Committee). She is also a panel member of the Hong Kong Drama Awards, The Hong Kong Theatre Libre and the IATC (HK) Critics’ Awards. She is also an executive committee member of the International Association of Libraries, Museums, Archives and Documentation Centres of the Performing Arts (SIBMAS). She received the Hong Kong Arts Development Council-University of Leeds-Chevening Scholarships in 2005 and obtained her Master of Arts in Theatre Studies from the University of Leeds (UK). Chan has curated and edited over 50 publishing projects about performing arts. Her recent editorial projects have included Ten Years of A City: Selected Hong Kong Plays (2003–2012), which was awarded the 11th Hong Kong Book Prize in 2018.

Copyright © 2020 Bernice Kwok-wai Chan
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