Do the wright thing
In a theatre scene flooded with translated plays and literary adaptations, Winnie Chau goes searching for the few playwrights who are bringing originality to the stagnant stage.
At an Asian drama festival in Kobe, Japan, in 2007, actor Eric Tang Chi-kin was a cast member accompanying revered thespian figure Chung King-fai, whose piece in the fest represented Hong Kong. The Korean contingent staged a play about kimchi, whereas the one from Shanghai centred on traditional family values. Predictably – if embarrassingly – Hong Kong brought along a translated rendition of American playwright Ernest Thompson’s On Golden Pond. “I thought ‘what a great pity’,” recalls Tang. “The audience wouldn’t learn more about Hong Kong or our artistic attributes after the show.”
The episode in Kobe implies two probabilities. Either there aren’t presentable playwrights in Hong Kong or they don’t have an outlet to present their works. The recent scene shift in local theatre means both eventualities are only half-truths. More than a handful of new voices (Tang is one of them) are happily taking up a task that was once considered thankless.
“Good plays are indeed hard to get but there are many who want to write plays,” observes veteran playwright Paul Poon wai-sum. With more than 50 works under his belt – and still producing two every year – Poon is best known for his narrative eccentricities and peculiar sentiments towards Hong Kong that have been considered ‘absurdist’, but Poon maintains that it’s a misnomer. Everyone in the field respectfully addresses Poon as ‘Ah Sir’, largely due to his mentoring role. He initiated the annual Playwright Scheme in 2006, which has since attracted a wide spectrum of aspiring writers – from respected directors to young actors.
“A script is not completed until it’s staged,” he says. “One of the factors that makes it hard to nurture playwrights is because it’s not easy to stage a play.” Alas, Poon, who is also Prospects Theatre’s artistic director, can only afford to stage one play from all the submissions, although all participants (up to 21 last year) get a public reading session of their works.
Poon returned to Hong Kong from the US in the late 80s. He witnessed an increasing number of original plays prompted by the city’s identity crisis around the time of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984. But it was translated plays which dominated the local theatre scene – and that’s still the case today. “Translated plays are all readily available: they have been staged in different places with records, good or bad. It’s like shopping in the supermarket,” Poon explains. “It’s a convenience.”
Full-time playwrights Candace Chong Mui-ngam and Harriet Chung divide their time between writing new works and translating foreign plays, among other teaching jobs to sustain their living. “It’s especially hard to be a full-time playwright in Hong Kong,” says Chong. Like Chung, she found her heart in the theatre after graduating with a BA in psychology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “In the UK, if you spend five years to write a successful play, it can earn you enough royalties from local and overseas productions to survive financially until the next play. In Hong Kong, [the lifespan of] a play is over in one weekend,” says Chong.
Most of Harriet Chung’s plays are commissioned assignments that come with specific requirements. But so far, Chung hasn’t been really working against her will. From literary plays to popular musicals, Chung’s works deliver a strong social perspective via her black humour. Her coming production A Kid’s Story explores the world around an autistic child. Its first run was critically acclaimed by doctors and social workers. Chung is a regular participant of the Playwright Scheme, a platform that ‘forces her to produce new works without a bottom line’ and ‘disregard her audience’.
Both Chong and Chung think many local plays are too audience-friendly. “Don’t see [the audience] as foolish – they are actually very clever. Nor should we see them as easily impatient. The more we spoon-feed them, the more we put them in their comfort zone and the lazier they become,” says Chong. Characterised by their meticulous plots and psychological depth, Chong’s works are certainly a compliment
on her audience’s intelligence.
“The greatest scriptwriters in Hong Kong are in the theatre, not the film industry and definitely not in television broadcasting,” contends Cheung Fei-fan. A graduate of Baptist University, with a degree in film and television, Cheung juggles a day job with his playwriting. His works, which may at first appear unrefined, come with a socio-philosophical undertone against the realistic setting of Hong Kong.
“Sometimes, I imagine myself as a singer-songwriter,” Tang muses backstage at the re-run of True Man Show in Showroom, which is written by the 28-year-old – and also stars him. “The more I act, [the more] I realise I can turn my creativity and actor instincts into words.” Tang favours an open-ended interweaving narration for his plays where he gives daily banalities a mischievous twist. True Man is set in the showroom of IKEA where a dispirited shop assistant doubles his workplace as his lodgings to save the commuting time from his home in Tin Shui Wai.
It is perhaps a good sign that there are hardly any stylistic or thematic characteristics shared by these emerging playwrights. “The only thing they shared is their passion in playwriting,” offers Poon. “So, I am optimistic… you can say so… it’s optimism with prudence.” He has more faith than his words would suggest.
A Kid’s Story and Cricket in My Life are at Cultural Centre’s Studio Theatre respectively Aug 11-14 and Aug 25-28. Both performed in Cantonese. Tickets: 2734 9009; www.urbtix.hk.