Be Wide-open, be Wise and, be Wild - Freedom and (in)tolerance in Hong Kong Theatre
文︰張秉權 | 上載日期︰2019年7月4日 | 文章類別︰四海聲評


主題︰Freedom and (in)tolerance in Hong Kong Theatre
藝術類別︰戲劇 »

Blue or Yellow

“Life will be much easier only if we become color blind,” Dayo Wong Tze-wah, a popular Hong Kong stand-up comedian who presented his farewell performance to approximately 260,000 audience in last July,[1] made this ridiculous remark and gained recognition from the audience. He used this metaphor to satirize Hong Kong people as irrationally dividing into two separate camps. The fact is that during the Umbrella Movement in 2014 people were eager to proactively or reactively express their political views, taking “yellow” and “blue” to conveniently identify their stands – the former representing the anti-government camp and the latter the pro-government counterpart. Since then this differentiation remains so that any normal discussion on social issues seems difficult. As a sense of separatism or exclusivism spread, some even finger-point the Mainland visitors as “locusts”, who come shopping in Hong Kong would only cause troubles and damages.  


This regrettable division of political ideas, existing in every circle of our social life, has its perennial background. Most Hong Kong citizens had a wishful expectation of the “One Country, Two Systems” pledge promulgated by the Central government in the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1984 and had the thought of enjoying universal suffrage to elect the Chief Executive in a not-too-far future. However, the Central government has her definition of universal suffrage and demonizes the many people’s expectation only emphasizing the “two systems” and is an incorrect interpretation adopted from the west. In the eyes of the Central government which pays more attention on “one country”, universal suffrage should develop gradually and under her full control, guaranteeing that the elected Chief Executive hundred per cent politically reliable. As such, the gap between the Central government and the majority of Hong Kong citizens, particularly the younger generations, seems inevitable. This is why a series of political and social chaos happen after the handover in 1997. The Umbrella Movement in 2014 calling for “genuine universal suffrage” which caught worldwide eyesight was surely one of the most important events in Hong Kong history.


After the Movement, two major sentiments keep prevailing: quite a number of young people who took part actively in the Movement fall into a sense of failure, immerse in the feeling of powerlessness and see the future gloomy and hopeless, some even searching ways to escape from Hong Kong; and a larger number of people turn inward-looking, laying back to their “echo chamber”, ignoring any different opinions and the society therefore becoming more and more dividing.[2] Dayo Wong’s remark serves as an accurate description of this phenomenon, in a softer style though.



Lack of mutual trust

Why and how the Hong Kong society comes to this situation? All is because of the lack of mutual trust between the people and the governments: the Hong Kong government, and more importantly, the Central government in Beijing.

To trace the background briefly: A large portion of Hong Kong people are those “refugees” coming southward from mainland China in the past decades, in pursuit of a peaceful haven where they could lead a better life free from endless political movements. This explains why quite a number of people here maintained a skeptical view on the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, and tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents chose migrating to other countries before and after the signing of the Declaration. Most Hong Kong people who chose to stay had a complicated attitude on the 1997 handover. On one side, they welcomed the returning to the big Chinese family, regarding this historical event as resuming national dignity; on the other side, they had some disbelieving feeling, considering the Chinese Communist Party not trustworthy. As such, it is logical that people expected Hong Kong could have a kind of “firewall” which help separate from the Mainland. Deng Xiaoping’s proposal of “One Country, Two Systems” is surely an innovative model designed to deal with this perplexed reality in a pragmatic way.


We had a better period in the mid 1980s when the Mainland enjoyed a relatively liberal leadership and a more democratic reform seemed glimmering ahead. However, the Tiananmen Square Massacre on June 4th1989 ended the dream all of a sudden and the situation turn worse. More than one million Hong Kong people marched to express support and sympathy on the Beijing students. Some local pro-democrats later withdrew from the “Basic Law Drafting Committee” to demonstrate their protest. The withdrawal of them led to the consequence that the Basic Law which meant to be the constitution of Hong Kong after 1997 eventually made deliberately rigid, indicating that the Beijing government did worry about Hong Kong’s possibility of continuing to be a trouble-maker, or to be an “anti-China base” influenced by foreign hostile powers.


In 2003, the relation between the Central government and Hong Kong people went worse once again. About 500,000 people took on the street on July 1 of the year. It was the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day supposed to be joyfully celebrated. But people chose to go the opposite way instead. They claimed a halt in the legislation of the Basic Law Article 23, actually the National Security Legislation, opining that it would significantly restrict the freedom of speech, of the press and of any creative activities that Hong Kong people have been enjoying so far. The introduction of Article 23 legislation was then left aside due to the protest, though seemingly indicating that Beijing did learn to listen to the people’s voice, but the mutual trust was irreparably damaged once again. Since then, July 1 marches have been organized every year to demand for democracy, universal suffrage, rights of minorities, protection of freedom of speech, and a variety of other political and social concerns.


These are the background of the Umbrella Movement in 2014. This 79-day social unstable incident was a reaction to the Central government’s decision of imposing a harsh screening of the candidates for Chief Executive election, to ensure that all candidates are patriotic and acceptable by the central government. All pan-democracy camp supporters disapproved the screening and criticized the so-called “universal suffrage” introduced by the Central government was nothing but a fake. And this was why “genuine universal suffrage” became the core request of the protestors and later it evolved into the Occupy Central Movement, or Umbrella Movement. It is sad, or even frustrated, that the Movement seems gaining no any positive result and the possibility of enjoying “genuine universal suffrage” looks even gloomier. Up to now, the governments, Beijing and Hong Kong, have not issued any road map for this goal of political reform.


How the situation comes to this point has very complicated causes. And certain consequences turn to causes leading to further suspicion and separation. May it be called a “collective karma”?



Tête-bêche (2018)

The theatre is more or less a mirror reflecting collective sentiments. Most of theatre shows served to express the immediate emotion right after the “failure” of realizing an idealistic political reform wish, only possessing certain therapeutic effect but having limited artistic merit. Lucky is that we have no any noticeable performances that aim to enlarge the gap of society. On the contrary, some recent theatre performances deliberately intend to emerge the contrasting poles.


An acclaimed play Tête-bêche (2018) produced by On and On Theatre Workshop is worth analysis. The play is adapted from a famous novel, bearing the same title, written by the late renowned literary master Liu Yichang (1918-2018). “Tête-bêche” is a French term in philately, calling a joined pair of stamps in which one is upside-down in relation to the other, produced intentionally or accidentally. Liu takes this term to describe the relationship between two persons and their accidental encounter in the 1970s. Shun is a late-middle age man coming from Shanghai and Ah Hang is a young Hong Kong girl. They wander around the city’s street corners, experiencing similar and even the same situations but with somehow different or opposite feelings. Shun indulges in his memories and sees the society goes too fast, while Ah Hang is a simple-minded girl immersing herself in naïve daydreams – one day she will be a favorite movie-star. They eventually happen to sit next to each other in a cinema, watching the same movie but with contrasting feelings. They then leave the cinema, going their own ways, only with some impressions of the casual encounter in their mind.


Benefit from a novella written by Tung Kai-cheung who is also a very prolific writer, this adapted play introduces two new characters to echo Liu’s masterpiece – a young Hong Kong male photographer who still indulges into the mood of failure of the Umbrella Movement, and a young Mainland girl who comes to Hong Kong to experience something new. The photographer takes with him a big self-made model of Hong Kong, though broken, which supposed presenting to his client in Shenzhen, a neighboring city in southern China. The Mainland girl chooses following Shun’s footsteps described in Liu Yichang’s novel in order to explore the interesting Hong Kong much deeper. And these two young ones happen to stay at the same café in Mongkok – not only a district Shun and Ah Hang spent their time decades ago, but also where the Umbrella Movement and a civil unrest in 2016 took place.[3] In the café, the photographer waits for his client’s phone call which determines whether his model will still be useful, and the girl concentrates to read her book, the novel Tê te-bê che. After a certain period of observation and guessing, the photographer gives up waiting and takes initiative to break the mutual suspicion. He approaches the girl and presents his model of the city to her.


Wong/Yellow (Photographer):         This (model) is for you.

Lam/Blue (Mainland girl):                   Oh…, what a big gift! 


What worth to notice is that the last names of these two young ones Wong (Huang) and Lam literally mean Yellow and Blue respectively. There are numerous possible names to select and there must be a meaningful reason for the playwrights to take this choice. Yellow and blue. This is obviously a metaphor calling for camp reconciliation. Hong Kong now as a “broken city” does need this kind of reconciliation, from both the pro- and anti- establishment camps.


The play is co-written by Chan Ping-chiu and Wong Ching-yan, with Chan being the director as well. They skillfully create “tê te-bê che” relation between these two pairs with a team of excellent designers. In the acting area, there are different models and mirrors, successfully create interesting and fascinating effect of comparison, contrast and juxtaposition. No wonder that the play was just gained the awards of “Play Script of the Year” and also “Scenography of the Year” in the Theatre Critics’ Awards presented by the IATC(HK). Accidental encounter is the same. The pair of four decades ago remain pass-by strangers at the end, but the nowadays pair go the other way around. They break the ice and start to communicate, and might even develop a closer and more meaningful relationship. Who knows? Although this reconciliation may only be a wishful hope as Wong (Yellow) and Lam (Blue) do not know each other well, what this play wants to express is still worth appreciation. After suffering from division and confrontation for some years, Hong Kong people do need to learn how to be open-minded and patient enough to listen to others who have different views.


Learning to be more open-minded does not mean yielding certain basic principles. For example, freedom of speech and of the press are what need to firmly uphold. 



Six Stabs (2014)

There are evidences that freedom of the press has been gradually diminishing in the city. Certain media have their new owners, most of whom have major business interests in Mainland China or are even members of political bodies. Some newspapers apparently turned mild in attitude and failed to play their watchdog role which they have performed well in the past. Evidenced self-censorship of the press has happened. Among all these worries, the knife attack on Kevin Lau Chun-to on Feb 26, 2014 (before the Umbrella Movement) is a case to be particularly remembered.


Lau, former editor-in-chief of Ming Pao, a famous and influential Hong Kong daily newspaper, was attacked in the street by two men and suffered six stab wounds to his back and legs. He was rushed to hospital where he underwent emergency surgery. The police later caught two suspected whom confessed guilty for the crime but told the court that they were paid to do so without knowing any particular reason. As the case was obviously not related to money nor love affairs, everyone believed that Lau must be victimized only because of his profession – a media man. The attack was an alarm, serving as a clear signal to intimidate Lau, and the other media professionals as well. This was surely a threat to freedom of the Hong Kong press.


The case triggered much reaction in the society and Lau received a massive support. A short play named Six Stabs was created and presented on Apr 13, less than two months later, at the public area leading to the entrance of the Hong Kong Arts Centre. The play, done by a team of theatre practitioners involving also theatre critics, journalists and scholars, demonstrated how the theatre people react to the violence timely, though in a rather minimal manner. This was a way to express collective anger and a clear voice showing firm support to the press.



No News is True News (2018)

As this threat to the freedom of the press continue to loom, a play named No News is True News (2018) produced by Windmill Grass Theatre drew much attention and was very well received. The play, written by Wong Kwok-kui and directed by Chan Chu-hei, later gained the Best Drama Production, Best Actress in a Leading Role and Best Play script at the 28th Hong Kong Drama Awards.


Rebecca, a news report anchor of the major local TV channel, gets a video from her source, recording a secret meeting between the favorite Chief Executive candidate, who has close connection with the Northern power, and an underground society, revealing that there is very likely some dirty collusion exists. To acknowledge the public interest, Rebecca is eager to put the video on air but is declined by her boss Mr. Liu, telling her that this “breaking news” is not sufficiently evidenced. This is apparently a kind of self-censorship, indicating that the TV channel has chosen succumbing to the power. Rebecca’s confrontation with Liu develops and the lines below are particularly heartbreaking:

Rebecca: As a professional journalist, I can only follow our School’s motto: “Truth is Virtue”.


Liu:  It’s already 20 years after the handover and we’ve enjoyed our freedom for such a long time, longer than we did expect. What a gain! … The party will soon be over and I will leave – actually I have made plan for my whole family. It’s nothing wrong to strive for our own good.


Rebecca knows that her husband will not stand for her due to his personal interest with the Mainland, she then seeks support from a web station run by her college mate and from her previous university mentor. However, all her efforts later are proved in vain. She finds her being neglected or even betrayed. At the end of the story she is forced to keep silent, being relegated to report sport news at airtime. The protagonist stays firm in the play and states clearly that she will not give up, and even call upon all the citizen to safeguard the freedom. Her concluding speech is such powerful:

After working as a journalist for about eight years, I fully understand that there is no absolute objective news report. In this “post-truth era”, ten people will have ten perspectives. Every medium has its business or even political concern and will try effort to channel the public to receive its “truth”. Therefore, if the public do want to know the truth, the only way is relying on yourself. Go out to observe and to make your own judgment! Ten people will come up with ten conclusions and one hundred people will have one hundred conclusions. I believe that only through free argument and comparison among different perspectives we will have an image closest to the fact.


It is surely a meaningful and significant performance. Wong Kowk-kui shows his courage in voicing the frustration, the anger and the unyielding will to safeguard freedom of the press. Under the superb direction of Chan Chu-hei, rich texture of stage effects is created and the play does have very powerful moments. Acting is also of high quality. But in terms of characterization, Rebecca needs to have greater complexity as the main character of a play with such a significant theme. She is a sort of “lonely hero(ine)”, having good and strong will, but is not capable enough to fight this difficult battle. She fails to connect with others. She has no one good friend in her reporting team. We could not see how she tries to improve her marital relation and make easier communication with her husband. Her failure more and less evidences her being unwise, or untactful. Her final call is for sure lofty and encouraging, but practically very unlikely to achieve. Ordinary people do not have much time and opportunity to “go out to observe and to make (their) own judgment”.


No News is True News clearly demonstrates a fear of losing freedom of the press – and this is seemingly a trend destined of no return. The play is successful in terms of the fact that it accurately hits the collective feelings of the Hong Kong people, especially the intellectual mass who choose to go to the theatre to share our concern for the future of the society. 


Standing up firm is ethics. Standing up well is wisdom. How to be wise and ethical is something that everyone, including the arts practitioners and critics have to consider. Rebecca might be regarded as a respectable model but not that worth following. She successfully sets an example of failure.



Wild Boar (2012)

Standing up well doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to hesitate in taking action. Choosing to stay silent is by no means an option. In a depressing moment like now, being wild is definitely important. While a fear of losing our freedom of speech and expression has been lingering in the city for some years, Wild Boar (2012)[4] written by Cancer Chong Mui-ngam should have been introduced in more details.


Chong wrote her “playwright’s notes” for the script which explicitly explained why she make this work:

A news story published two years ago caught my attention: a theatre group fell victim to intimidation for preparing a play about June 4th. When I saw the name of the director, I was sure this was not a publicity gimmick – he is an old schoolmate whom I trust and respect. I called him and learnt that pressure was exerted on the team, and some production staff even decided to call it quits. While I was angered by this deplorable change on this “creative environment”, I was heartened to learn that people cared enough to report this kind of news, that we could still openly expose such injustice.

How a seedlings flourishes depends on its surrounding climate: what nurtured my play from concept to finished script are the storms and vicissitudes our city has ridden in the recent past.

         Dedicated to the wild boars of the city.[5]


The play centers on a taciturn professor who conducts research on local oral history and builds a voluminous web archive suddenly disappears mysteriously. Seasoned journalist Ruan looks into the case but finds himself muffled by the newspaper for which he works. Ruan finds that, “when the public right to know infringes upon the private gains of corporations, the public’s voice is stifled, shifted, or even twisted.”[6] So he resigns and starts his own newspaper. Although he has capable and intelligent support from his wife Tricia, and the help of Johnny, his former student, the preliminary difficulties of starting a newspaper are intensified by the pressure from all quarters. Meanwhile, a development project called the “Perfect City” has covertly started. Though the project has not been officially approved by the government, collusion has been achieved between the government and the big businessmen who have already made a pact. In the project, the city will be redeveloped: some districts wiped out, others combined, and the traffic network improved. The city is redesigned as concentric circles: every circle is graded according to social status. Poor people can only dwell, or be resettled, in the outer rim, or even underground.


While a series of obstacles exist on the road Ruan striving for justice, the appearance of Karrie, a restaurant waitress, plays a particularly important role. She claims that she is only a common person and blames Ruan as merely an idealist who doesn’t understand what the project means to the poor and what they are striving for. She said,

I believe freedom is a luxury that we simply can’t afford! Freedom only comes from politicians’ lips, it never exists in the real world! There’s only unemployment, depression, sickness and death in the real world! Those without clothing die first in deep winter, those without income starve to death during economic downturns. We must have faith in an economically strong country, because only in such heydays can we partake in the profits. If the country suffers economically, poor people are the first to perish! As long as there’s food on the table above us, we can at least pick up the scraps. Why would we mind that the food comes from someone else’s table? Let them have their special rights! Let them control everything! One day the Perfect City will be the centre of the world, we’ll exceed everyone in science and medical advances, then we’ll naturally also benefit… I can see it. It won’t be long.


         We’ve already given up. Please don’t continue to fight for us.[7]

In order to defend the public good of her eye, Karrie even supports the government to close down Ruan’s newspaper. Allowing Ruan to create such uncomfortable noise not only destroys the serenity of the city, but also extinguishes the hopes of many people.[8] This populist philosophy really makes Ruan puzzled and startled.


At the end of the play, Ruan was bullet-shot by someone and saved from death. His weaker side comes out. He uses the material the missing professor left to bargain with the government, and promises to cover up the truth which reveals the danger and unreliability of the Perfect City project, only to trade off some improvement promised by the government. He agrees to assist the government, taking charge of the News Building. He claims that this is the only way out, can he do good for the city.


But Johnny refuses to follow. He feels deeply disappointed and argues that this is pointless but only betraying the principles Ruan has been upholding for years. He chooses to leave his long respectable teacher, finding his own way to fight against the establishment. As a dissident of the city he is a lonely wild boar. 


Choosing to compromise seems more rational. Fighting like a wild boar to push and shove a way to the truth may probably come to lead a misery life – being attacked by humans and come to all wounds. Do truth and freedom really represent the ultimate goal and worth this sacrifice?



To stay wild, or be domesticated?

We know the importance of being wide-open and being wild. But, how to go wisely is yet to know.


Wong presents the Hong Kong model to Lam, showing friendly gesture. This also demonstrates wide-openness. But it does not guarantee a successful reconciliation.

To a certain extent, Wong has abandoned his strength and energy once he possessed in the Mongkok streets. Rebecca, though standing firm all the way, cannot avoid the fate of being mute and her unjustly ill-treated arrangement gets no any support. She calls upon the people to observe and record the truth by our own but whether this could be achieved is really in doubt. The above characters seem not wise enough in order to realize their initial goal.


Ruan, once even more “wild” than Rebecca, has exerted much effort in the struggle, turns to choose compromise in the end. Has he made a wise choice? Ruan decides to give in. He frankly admits that he is too practical and calls himself “a faux-idealist”, a “nice guy” who cares about the big picture and therefore is easy to compromise.[9] He chooses to compromise in order to realize “a little sliver of freedom for information and dissemination without hurting urban development.” He makes this compromise because he believes that the government has understood “that to promote the Perfect City, they must be open and democratic to a certain extent”[10] and, on the other hand, he finds that fairness and freedom are not important to the common people who would choose the betterment of their living,[11] just as what Karrie has said to him. 


Johnny, the then student of Ruan, once worships Ruan much because this teacher is capable of preserving his “primal voices” despite everything he has gone through.[12] But now Johnny chooses to go his own way, defending his belief. He said,

Truth cannot be bargained! If something happened, it should be recorded. … History and news might have different perspectives, but intrinsically they share a fundamental principle – seeking the truth! [13]


Johnny is destined lonely. He is one of the wild boars, though being hurt by the hunters, standing firm on the ground and voicing woeful cries. Candace Chong dedicated her salute to “the wild boars of the city” through her play. This was surely a sad but encouraging fable. But when considering the reality, we know that wild boars are destined staying in the rural area and their numbers are diminishing. How to remain wild and negotiate with the establishment, how to struggle in the slim and difficult path, avoiding being silenced just as Rebecca, nor being criticized as paid off with the government just as Ruan, is really a difficult and blood-shedding dilemma. Staying wild or, sooner or later, being domesticated? Perhaps we have to admit that we as common people are not wise enough.   


Tracing back to the Chinese history, whether to be a revolutionist or a reformist has been a hot debate for more than a hundred years. The former embraces radical change and the latter stands for gradual progress to avoid violence. It was as early as a debate between Sun Yat-sen and Kang Youwei around the late 19th and the early 20th century. Sun being the leader of 1911 Revolution which successfully overthrew China’s last imperial dynasty has been praised “Father of the Republic of China”. However, Kang being a loser as his idea to introduce reformation movement and to advocate a constitutional monarchy have never been realized, his idea of “Datong” (The Great Society) has still been remembered and discussed all these years. The crossroads comes up for Ruan and Johnny is not strange to us.



To stay wild, and…

Hong Kong theatre has created such characters on the stage, voicing our determination to defend our freedom, and our wish to mend the gap created by division. However, we know that though the voice is here but it perhaps is not heard, or at least not carefully heard. As such, the only way we can go is: keep upholding our principle and try our best to perform our role in every position, keep thinking of how to be a real Hong Kong citizen, and to …


stay alert.

[1] This farewell talk performance was very well received, with full house for 26 shows and 10,000 attendees per show. While black market and ticket touting exists, tickets for Wong’s performance was resold on website with a seven-fold price increase. Two mainland scalpers, coming to Hong Kong as tourists, pleaded guilty for selling tickets for Wong’s show and were each jailed for two months.

[2] What even worse is a sense of hatred has been spreading around. A son of a high official died accidentally and malicious words posted on university campus, “congratulating” her for losing her son.

[3] The Umbrella Movement mainly happened at Admiralty Hong Kong, but spread around the Causeway Bay and Mongkok, the two major commercial areas in Hong Kong Island and Kowloon peninsula. The Mongkok unrest occurred in early 2016 can be seen as the aftermath of the Umbrella Movement.    

[4] The play has been produced twice in Hong Kong, with its premiere in Feb 2012 by the Hong Kong Arts Festival, directed by Olivia Yan Wing-pui, and re-run in Jul 2014 by We Draman Group, directed by Desmond Tang Wai-kit.

[5] Wild Boar (2012) by Candace Chong Mui-ngam, English Translation by Joanna C. Lee and Ken Smith, Hong Kong Arts Festival. p.4.

[6] Ibid, p.10.

[7] ibid, p. 102-104.

[8] Ibid, p.96.

[9] Ibid, p.136.

[10] Ibid, p.150.

[11] Ibid, p.140.

[12] Ibid, p.122.

[13] Ibid, p.150.