It’s Jim Chim’s world. We just live in it. As he prepares to play 50 characters in a one-man parody on our city’s ‘core values’, the Hong Kong theatre star gives Edmund Lee some personal insights into his political stance. Photography by Calvin Sit.
Hello, Jim Sir! So how did the idea for your new show Mr. Rubber Man first emerge?
It originated from the [Hong Kong Chief Executive] election. As Hongkongers we’re all very concerned – and worried – about the future ruler of our society. Initially, between Henry Tang and CY [Chief Executive-elect Leung Chun-ying], it’s obvious that the former had a greater chance of getting elected. It was fun, fear and self-pity all mixed together because if Tang was elected, Hong Kong would turn into ‘laugh and the city’. He’s just a joke. The realisation that such idiots actually stood a very good chance of governing Hong Kong made me feel like ‘ahhh, what kind of a world are we living in?’
It’s rather amazing to note that, if someone is idiotic enough, he can in fact lose in a rigged election.
Definitely. How idiotic is [Tang]? It’s like he’d inexplicably trip over himself while running towards the finishing line; he then stood up again and ran in the opposite direction. He’s that silly. But the largest problem is his [inability to] react to crisis. This is the basic criterion of being a politician, a boss, a chef or even an actor. I think even the mainland Chinese government was disappointed by him.
And what do you think about CY?
Now, to be honest, since he’s elected in any case, I do have my hopes [for him]. I’m not for the filibustering currently [continuing in Legco] or some of the other ways our friends of different political stances are dealing with it. Those ways would only create ‘troubles’. The game of politics has its own logic and, as an ordinary citizen of Hong Kong, I’m not seeing the constructive impact of [filibustering]; it only creates more obstacles and drives people to support CY Leung. People talk about the past history of Leung but the truth is, we don’t know much. You know, we also thought that Donald Tsang was a good option. [Chuckles coldly] Have we all forgotten how happy we were when Tung Chee-hwa stepped down and Tsang took the position? You could never have guessed [how it’d turn out]. Irrespective of the person’s past record, he can still turn out to be an idiot.
Would you classify Mr. Rubber Man as a political satire?
Oh, definitely. It’s on politics and on social issues. I’m not laughing at the political figures. I’m instead making fun of the overall mentality of Hong Kong people.
Are there any political topics you’ll definitely not play with?
I don’t think there’s any political topic I can’t touch on. I have my own political stance too. I’ve been working in China for the past few years and I feel that many [Hong Kong] people are failing to understand the Mainlanders because of their own prejudices. There are views on the Chinese central government as well as online chats about the Mainlanders that I don’t agree with. I think many of the Mainlanders are intelligent, ambitious, determined and full of hope. I’m proud [of them]. You only need to look at the cultural atmosphere there to see how [advanced] they are when compared to Hong Kong. So I won’t be parodying the central government – not that I’m in the pro-establishment camp but rather that I actually have a different viewpoint personally.
How would you distinguish your performances from, say, those by Zuni Icosahedron?
We’re very different. Zuni is doing civil education on political ideas whereas I’m taking a humourous approach to discuss values. I won’t teach my audiences what the [right] values are; I [only] laugh at some of the values of the people. We’re aiming to achieve different things.
Most of your works in the past few years have been either on topical issues in our pop culture or the society in general. If we consider that you started out doing absurdist plays, the transformation of your artistic practice has been quite drastic indeed.
Exactly. You’re really clever – you managed to raise this point! To understand the Jim Chim today you must look back to my past. This is a very important change for me in terms of my introduction to theatre, my reflection on theatre and my challenge on theatre – theatre and the form itself. I knew nothing at the beginning [even though] I was in awe of this art form. At one point it even became a superstition to me: I believed that the highest moral calibre of mankind can be expressed through theatre. For a very long time – for more than a dozen years or so – that was the way I worked. I found it very meaningful. I had great satisfaction… [but] it’s all inside me. I had no influence on society; I had no influence on the people around me; I had no influence on myself, even. I was only trying to pursue a better level of performance but was what I cared about shared by any others? I got to a point and then realised enough was enough.
So what changed about you?
There’s an evolution in my view on theatre: if I really think that art serves as an inspiration for others, it must be able to connect with the people. With more people. Am I capable of doing that? I think so. And I’m willing to do that. So I insist on doing comedies because I see how powerful they are. I’ve adopted a very audience-friendly format to do my comedies. If you’ve watched my absurdist plays in the past, [you’ll realise] I’m still using those [same techniques] in my current works. The only [difference] is that [my recent comedies] are not ‘absurdist’ in that they require you to think – you don’t need to think – because the reality is absurd enough as it is. I’m very sure that my audiences are influenced by me after laughing along with the shows. I want them to know that Jim Chim is in synch with their thoughts – and not just on stage.
I know you’ll also be addressing in your show the ‘Article 23 of the internet’ (the Copyright (Amendment) Bill 2011, which controversially seeks to extend copyright infringement rules to the production of derivative works on the internet). Are you personally worried about the bill?
No, I’m not worried. If the bill is passed I’ll [continue to] use my creativity to do my job. To be honest, I’m not worried at all. If this place can’t accept me, I’ll take my creative work somewhere else. This I understand: first, it’s very difficult for the bill to get passed; secondly, this whole scenario is a joke. This Article 23 thing is really out of touch with our time.
It’s a step back.
It’s a huge step backwards. Andy Warhol was doing derivative works several decades ago; to a certain extent, all creative works take their inspirations from something [else]. Everyone in the creative industry knows that. The government is presenting the bill for the industry – which is the music industry really – but even the record labels understand that the market has changed its format. The only [real market] is the live concerts. Nowadays, people have realised how you can sell only several thousand copies of your new album but you can reach hundreds of thousands of internet users with your music. Which do you prefer? Do you want to sell the thousand copies and be a singer in the studio? Or do you want to let all the people hear your music and make you a star? The rules have changed.
I see that you’ve long been putting clips of your performances online.
Yes, yes. I see this as the new platform. My stage is not restricted to the theatre space any more; it encompasses my press conferences, my nonsensical music videos and my [performance] clips. I’m looking for new approaches to [reach the audience].
So how are you feeling about the current state of your company PIP Theatre?
Strictly speaking, PIP Theatre is a [privately-owned commercial] company. I’m no longer running a theatre group per se because it’d [limit] my works to the [traditional] mode of production. I will keep doing theatre works [but] I don’t conceptualise my productions as being one new show after another. I don’t aim to be ‘prolific’ – although I’m prolific enough – but I want each of my works to be able to run for 100 shows at least. It is with 100 shows that my creativity won’t be wasted. One hundred shows at least. For the better shows I’ll further amplify them. That’s how the works earn their lasting influences.
Mr. Rubber Man 硬膠先生勇救核心價值 is performed at Cultural Centre’s Grand Theatre, Jun 21-30, in Cantonese. Tickets: 2734 9009; www.urbtix.hk.
The five career-defining performances of the theatre veteran:
“My first post-graduation performance was in the UK. It was even covered in Time Out London! It’s by my teacher, [British physical theatre director] David Glass. The experience opened my eyes to world theatre, to the fact that theatre doesn’t have to cling on language and to how we develop a rapport with the audience.”
Collection of Limbs 多手多腳
“My first one-man show. It’s a mime performance I gave at [Arts Centre’s] McAulay Studio – without government subsidy. I knocked on the doors of Alliance Française to ask for a subsidy and managed to get a few thousand dollars. I even did an ‘overseas’ performance in Shenzhen! I just wanted to do it – and I did it. I was 25 then.”
Man of La Tiger 男人之虎
“The show represents a breakthrough on various fronts. First, it shows that you can do long-run shows in Hong Kong. [Secondly,] it’s a one-man show – and for one person to do 159 performances… I’ve broken a lot of records in Hong Kong. Over 100,000 people have come to see my show; it’s history.”
My Life as A TV 萬千師奶賀台慶
“All the roles I played in this show were women. What’s so remarkable about this work is that I improvised the 13 females and one male character roles within 14 hours – on two [consecutive] days, in which I completed the whole script. I improvised a new role every time I changed my outfit. It established my aptitude for playing women.”
MicroSex Office 潮性辦公室
“This is the [first] work that I managed to turn into a long-running series, even though I’m not performing on stage [Chim was the director of the first run]. It’s been a success – and will be reaching its 100th show soon. We’re even touring a modified version of the work across mainland China.”