Meet Me in Hong Kong: Rich Mix at Arts Fest Honors Tradition Yet Pushes Limits on Sex and Language

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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.")

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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. …