The Sun worshippers
There’s only one Sun Yat-sen. But as Winnie Chau finds out on the centenary of the Xinhai Revolution, there are more than a few interpretations of his life.
The signature pencil moustache of Sun Yat-sen is absent from Ko Tin-lung’s face. The 53-year-old actor has spared himself of the panache of his character and yet, wittingly or unwittingly, exudes a sense of self-assurance as he talks. Just as we’re quietly gauging if the revolutionary colossus of modern China is about to be diminished by yet another high-flown artistic interpretation on the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution, Ko begins to debunk his character’s impeccable heroic image by pointing out the Cantonese-speaking political figure’s imprecise Putonghua pronunciation. Imitating what he heard from Sun’s Putonghua speech at a museum in Shanghai, Ko pronounces ge ming (revolution) at a high pitch where the tone is slightly distorted, bringing on an unintended comic effect.
It’s this critical distance between the actor and his character, rather than their similar height, age and background (which Ko repeatedly emphasises in the interview), that would make Chung Ying Theatre Company’s rendition of Sun Yat-sen’s story a reassuring one. Echoes of the Tieshizi Hutong takes place at Sun’s deathbed where he reminisces about his past – to be visualised in a series of anachronistic episodes on stage.
“The idea behind the script is, first of all, not to glorify the character and accomplishments [of Sun]. It’s important not to adopt a flattering tone to depict this significant figure, who has his ordinary side as a regular person,” stresses Lo King-man, director and co-writer of Echoes. Also known as ‘Father of Hong Kong Opera’, Lo returns to the theatre – after 30 years and more than 80 operatic productions – to co-write with Ko, Chung Ying’s artistic director. On top of Sun’s 10 failed revolutionary attempts before the victory of the Xinhai Revolution, the play makes space for his sentimental side and his various relationships. Ko relates: “A Japanese friend once asked Sun about the most important thing in his life. He said, ‘revolution’. The friend pressed on – ‘what follows that?’ ‘Women’ was Sun’s answer.”
“Nothing in [the play] is fabricated,” Ko says. “Lo has read more than 50 books [on the subject].” That said, the dialogue between Sun and his female companions, while part of which is converted from their real-life correspondences, has made allowance for artistic imagination. What fascinated Lo most, over his two-year research for Echoes, has been the obscured role of Chen Cui-fen, Sun’s unsung lover and soulmate. Chen followed Sun in the toughest 20 years of his life and persuaded his first wife to assent to a divorce, so that Sun could marry his young lover Soong Chingling. “I don’t think we should take [Chen] out of the picture for the sake of political correctness in [the writing of] history,” Lo remarks, fully mindful of the many official accounts that have been protective of Sun’s image as a political leader.
“Everyone has a rather superficial impression of Sun Yat-sen. Everyone calls him the ‘Father of the Nation’ under the impression that he was formidable,” says Ko. “No-one had seen him cry, yet I believe he was a sensitive person. He must have cried and told people off. And he had certainly been a romantic person. Otherwise, where did so many women come from [in his life]?”
After all the vivid anecdotes told with the conceit of a bystander in history’s grand narrative, our conversation eventually finds its way to the present and future: the prospects of Echoes and historical plays in local theatre. “Tickets for these kinds of plays cannot be sold easily in Hong Kong,” Ko admits, despite the recent wave of films on the Xinhai Revolution and the fact that Echoes is, according to the actor, the first ever Hong Kong play centred heavily on Sun Yat-sen.
Ko’s artistic direction in Chung Ying is in fact in line with Sun’s revolutionary spirit. Amid the city’s growing apathy towards history, the theatre company insists on producing historical plays and ‘human stories about Hong Kong’ season after season. “It’s as if the weight of history is now taken up by theatre companies,” says Ko, “but we are pleased to do that.”
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Sun Yat-sen has given his silent consent to another stage rendering of his life story this fortnight. Opera Hong Kong is going to present the world premiere of Dr Sun Yat-sen, led by acclaimed tenor Warren Mok (pictured below) in the role of Sun. The three-act opera revolves around Sun’s romantic relationship with Soong Chingling and his comradeship with her father, Charlie Soong. Librettist Candace Chong Mui-ngam was inspired by the wedding gift from Charlie Soong, who was once against his daughter’s marriage with his best friend.
The Putonghua lyrics, along with some English dialogue in the prologue and interludes, are set to composer Huang Ruo’s music, performed by the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra. “It’s not strictly Western operatic style or Chinese folk style,” Huang explains. “For me, it was [not only] a matter of serving the text, but also serving the character. Sun Yat-Sen’s first wife, for example, is more [traditional] Chinese – with bound feet, from a traditional village – so she has more Chinese vocal ornaments. Compared to Soong Chingling, there’s a world of difference.”
Echoes of the Tieshizi Hutong 鐵獅子胡同的回音 is performed at Kwai Tsing Theatre’s Auditorium on Oct 23, 26-30, in Cantonese. Dr Sun Yat-sen 中山逸仙 is performed at Cultural Centre’s Grand Theatre Oct 13-16, in Putonghua with English and Chinese surtitles. Tickets: 2734 9009; www.urbtix.hk.