The monthlong Hong Kong Arts Festival has been going strong for 36 years—so strong, in fact, that by this year’s opening day, Feb. 14, more than 90 percent of the tickets for the event’s 31 shows had already been sold. Of these productions, 22 were from abroad, 9 local. The range of the festival is huge—Pina Bausch to the Beijing Opera, American Repertory Theatre of Massachusetts to the London Philharmonic; Ornette Coleman to the Stuttgart Ballet. But I wasn’t about to schlep halfway around the world to hear or see stuff I could hear or see at home, so my ticket choices were Chinese all the way. (Never mind that I understand neither Cantonese, the Chinese spoken in Hong Kong, nor Mandarin, the primary Chinese on the mainland. These are not just variations on a common language—the written characters and the vocabulary are different. For example, in Cantonese, “thank you” is “m’goy,” while in Mandarin, it’s “xie xie.”)
This was not the first time I’ve had the exciting and sometimes bizarre experience of seeing plays in languages I don’t understand—Greek, Turkish, Hebrew, Arabic, Czech, Xhosa, Afrikaans. If there are surtitles (as there were in Hong Kong), you’re busy—your eyes are zooming between the stage and the words, especially if it’s a talky play. If there are no surtitles, you’re free to just watch—and it’s surprising how much you can tell from body language and inflection, especially if the actors are good. But Cantonese is a tonal language, which means that intonation gets you nowhere: Everything sounds to an American ear like a complaint or a mockery.
The first show of my lineup was appropriately full of complaints and mockeries—Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things, translated into Cantonese. Having seen the show brand new in New York, with intervals between scenes filled with Smashing Pumpkins at a million decibels, I remembered the play as being far nastier and fiercer than it seemed in this production. Surprisingly, this audience didn’t gasp when Evelyn revealed the play’s cruel twist (that her romantic makeover of Adam has actually been a thesis project): They laughed—to cover their nervousness, according to Gabriel Lee Chung-chuen, the director. He chose the play because he thought it would shock and challenge the primarily young Hong Kong audience. “The play is good for Hong Kong,” he reasoned, “a city that looks cosmopolitan but is superficial, concerned with the surface of things, where makeovers are a huge industry.”
This seems to echo the retiring British consul-general, Stephen Bradley, whose farewell speech, quoted that very morning in the South China Morning Post, chastised Hong Kong for being too money-minded: “Financial markets are not all that is needed to be a real international center. All great metropolises from ancient Alexandria onwards have also been, above all, intellectual and cultural centers.” Referring to the festival, he said that Hong Kong needed more than an annual one-month culture “binge.”
Louisa So, who played Evelyn, LaBute’s ruthless, manipulative graduate student, is a major star of stage and television in Hong Kong who always plays “goody roles,” Chung-chuen told me. “This broke her image—she never played a sex scene, never spoke foul language on stage. The show is sold out, partly because she is such a big draw. But it’s significant that nobody has come backstage to congratulate her.”
Hong Kong is a restrained society, still under the influence of Confucius, and is uncomfortable with sex talk. When I ask Chung-chuen about translating LaBute’s nasty language, he charmingly demonstrates the problem: He pronounces the word “fuck” easily, but when I ask him how it translates, he is obviously embarrassed to say the Cantonese “tiu.”
He feels American plays are harder to adapt for Chinese audiences than European plays—“the naturalism and the issues of race have no equivalent here.” Hong Kong’s homogeneity is startling to an American tourist used to the endless variety of people in our big cities.
The 13th-century playwright Guan Hanqing, often dubbed the Shakespeare of China, wrote under the rule of Kublai Khan. The Timeless Works of Guan Hanqing, three hourlong musical works presented by the Cantonese Opera, were performed by 18 high-precision singers/actors, and every movement of a finger, of a foot—perhaps even of an eyelid—was choreographed. The gorgeous costumes, makeup and glittering hair ornaments created a brilliant and thrilling spectacle. The audience—in a huge concert hall—was made up of clearly knowledgeable fans; stars were greeted with excited applause and many old people, on canes, were escorted by their grandchildren. The first and second pieces, Saving a Prostitute and The Riverside Pavilion, were surprisingly accessible and melodic comedies; their basic plots involve a woman outsmarting a lecherous villain by making him drunk. The third piece, all-male and involving a military conflict, was extreme in its atonality and stylizations and was greeted with enormous enthusiasm.
Despite Tolstoy’s declaration to the contrary, all unhappy families are alike, at least in family drama; the food in the kitchen may be different, but the issues are the same—generation gaps, messy marriages, neglected old people. Proving this universality was Family Protection Unit (FPU), a new musical comedy presented by the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, the city’s largest company. This cartoony show looked and sounded amateurish in both concept and performance, and the program synopsis included this unlikely note: “Just as all family ties are about to dissipate…Grandpa jumps from the building and disappears. This is similar to a family gathering when suddenly the smell of fart is detected by all, and everyone searches for the culprit. Searching for Grandpa, the Feng family enters into the world of home appliances….” This bizarre combination of vulgarity and fake goofiness pretty much defines the show.
Hong Kong is a dazzling city of sensational architecture, friendly, helpful people, and crowded, lively, immaculate, safe-feeling streets. The metro system is fabulous—every local station puts even our best airports to shame—as is the ferry system, taking commuters between the islands with the surprising combination of old-world charm and efficiency. The food is endlessly exotic to an American visitor. Shops for Chinese medicine (dried coiled snakes piled on a plate) mingle with Louis Vuitton—and, of course, Louis Vuitton knockoffs. There are brilliantly painted Buddhist and Taoist temples, where the air is redolent with incense and people pray with fervor at all times of day. But factor in these news tidbits from one March morning’s newspaper:
- Tang Wei, star of Ang Lee’s film Lust, Caution, has been banned from TV in China—Unilever’s six-figure ad campaign for Pond’s skin-care products in which she appears was ordered off the air with no explanation, other than a reference to the movie’s sex scenes (seven minutes of which were deleted from its Chinese version) and that the film is a “glorification of traitors and insulting to patriots.”
- Icelandic singer Bjork’s pro-Tibetan outburst at her Shanghai concert caused the Ministry of Culture to vow tighter controls over foreign performers.
- Theatre Ensemble, a nonprofit performance company in Hong Kong, one of 10 subsidized by the government, decided to go independent and refused government money in order to gain flexibility, forming a new company, PIP Cultural Industries.
Government hostility to artistic expression is hard to justify. But it’s the details of life as it is lived that are fascinating in their variations, including theatre customs: Actors bow sharply from the waist in a gesture that looks like a martial arts move; at theatre entrances, there are large wooden tripods holding huge bouquets of flowers with big congratulatory signs; and, most charming of all, tickets and business cards are not just handed out but presented—with both hands, and a slight bow. I finally got the hang of it.
The world’s full of places with revelatory theatre and festivals where world cultures meet and mix—add Hong Kong to your list.
Toby Zinman is a theatre critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer and professor of English at the University of the Arts. Her book, Edward Albee, was published by University of Michigan Press.