Academic journal article Comparative Drama

"Together Again": Theater in Postcolonial Hong Kong

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

"Together Again": Theater in Postcolonial Hong Kong

Article excerpt

As the midnight handover approached on 30 June 1997, the fashionable Central district on Hong Kong Island was abuzz with merriment and apprehension. (1) A traditional meeting place for the young and trendy, the bars and bistros of Lan Kwai Fong heard talk of nothing else but the imminent return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule. In more demure quarters of the territory, restaurants and hotels catered for those who wanted company rather than cacophony at this most momentous point of Hong Kong's twentieth-century history. Some offered Western buffets until midnight and Eastern cuisine thereafter. Union Jacks and Chinese flags mingled, but everyone knew that the mainland Chinese and British legations, mutually embittered, were holding separate transfer ceremonies at separate locations. The last colonial Governor, Chris Patten, bade a tearful farewell to Government House, his home of five years, and with his family boarded the royal yacht Britannia, moored in Victoria Harbour. At the stroke of midnight more than a century of British rule came to an end, and Hong Kong stood united with China once again. Soon, the television directors were focusing on truckloads of Chinese troops crossing the border into what was now the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of Hong Kong. The soldiers stood bolt upright to attention in the back of their vehicles. The rain poured down on them, but their faces remained expressionless, unflinching.

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Hong Kong's artistic community must have witnessed these events with mixed feelings. To say that Hong Kong theater had flourished unfettered under British rule would be misleading. Certainly, in the early 1990s there had been a tolerance of Hong Kong's widening range of theatrical propensities. Full male nudity came to the Hong Kong stage for the first time in 1990 with Zuni Icosahedron's production of The Deep Structure of Chinese (Hong Kong) Culture; the Hong Kong Arts Centre offered a season of gay film and theater in 1993; and a production in the 1994 Hong Kong Festival and Fringe program caused a sensation by presenting simulated sex onstage. At the time, such license would have been unthinkable on the Chinese mainland. But there had also been a form of censorship in Hong Kong, often subtle, that militated against drama of extreme political intent. The colonial administration may have had its differences with Beijing, but it did not encourage drama that offended mainland Chinese sensitivities--or, indeed, its own sensitivities. Some artistic groups and individuals saw the handover as a legitimate cue for protests against colonialism. In September 1996, local artist Pun Singlui defaced a statue of Queen Victoria in Victoria Park by hurling red paint over it and flattening the monarch's nose. Pun then poured paint over himself as he admired his handiwork. He argued that he was merely protesting a "dull, colonial culture." (2) A local magistrate handed out a four-week jail sentence and the Urban Council banned Pun from its annual artists' seminar. If the act struck a chord, it was a muted one. Fellow artists came to his defense, but the clamor died down quickly.

At the opening of 1997, concerns seemed to be less about the colonial past and more about the postcolonial future. In January of that year, an ongoing project titled "Journey to the East 97" invited six directors from Hong Kong, the Chinese mainland, and Taiwan to set out in search of a "new" Chinese theater. Each directed a short original piece using a format sometimes used in Chinese opera--"one table, two chairs" (3) (a delightful reworking of the "one country, two systems" epithet that defined the mainland Chinese political approach to Hong Kong in the run-up to the handover). Edward Lam Yik-wah, a Hong Kong director, reworked a familiar theme of the early 1990s: the question of Hong Kong's identity in relation to China and, particularly, Shanghai. This had become a familiar theme of pre-1997 Hong Kong theater. While a British colony, Hong Kong could read@ distinguish itself from its metropolitan counterparts on the Chinese mainland but, with the return to Chinese sovereignty, many feared that the territory would become just another city in China. …

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