Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Days in Hong Kong

I arrived in Hong Kong on Friday afternoon, and left on Monday night. I’m writing this on the second plane, from Doha to Athens: I’ll finally be back at about half past one Tuesday afternoon. It sounds like a crazy schedule, and it is – but for Hong Kong craziness seems rather appropriate. The city is everything you expect and more. In the narrow strip that runs along the north side of Hong Kong Island are crowded soaring skyscrapers, packed between the waterfront and the rapidly rising Victoria Peak. This intensity of pinnacles gives the whole financial district the feel of a cathedral of capitalism. And I thought Shanghai was extreme. This place makes no excuses – its every pore breathes money. There are shops in every MTR station; every subway is also a shopping centre. When you leave the Peak Tram to walk out and gaze down at the harbour from the wooded hill, you have to ascend several escalators in a multi-storey shopping centre to get there. Hong Kong just makes money, and spends it. Or pops over to Macao and gambles it.

This is a peculiar place to be talking about culture, and the food of the spirit – but maybe this is our common dilemma in the 21st century and Hong Kong simply writes it large. The Festival Symposium, which I attend as a member of the British Council’s Connections through Culture delegation, is all about Festivals, and especially Festivals in Asia. With one significant exception (of which more anon) there’s a competitive subtext between Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul: all vying to be the biggest, the most impressive, the most prestigious. Values of this kind have very little to do with cultural needs, and everything to do with metropolitan marketing.

Not, of course, that this precludes these Festivals from programming significant and challenging work. I’m honest about the reason for coming: I want to get the Trilogy seen in Asia. So I’m selling as furiously as the next person. In this environment, I find it easier than in my own polite culture of circuits and networks. Here, it’s expected; and a certain pushiness is actually a contribution to a friendly discussion.

The UK’s circuits and networks turn out in force. One of the fringe benefits of this meeting, which I’d not really expected, was the large number of British people I got to talk to, many of whom I’d been phoning and emailing for years but never actually met. Laura Collier is here from the Traverse in Edinburgh, and seems excited to discuss Dilemma and Origins. I chat to people from Northern Broadsides, Natural Theatre, and a new Northern Irish cultural exchange company. Deborah Shaw is here from the RSC, and I’m thrilled that she starts our conversation by saying how interested she is in all that Border Crossings is doing. Nice to know we’re so present on the radar of significant figures. The very first person I see as I walk into the Novotel for our Friday night rendezvous is William Wong, who assisted me on Dis-Orientations, and is now networking his way around Asia (as a Hong Kong person, William is a very smooth networker). His presence gives the whole event the feel of a mini-reunion; especially since Meijing is here (my translator on that first trip to Shanghai, and now the Council’s CtC Manager in Beiing); as is Ophelia Huang (who is brokering discussions in Shanghai, and introduces me to the Director of the Shanghai Festival – he asks if the show is available this year…..); and Queenie Lau, the Council’s Arts Manager in Hong Kong, bears a marked resemblance to Zhang Ruihong (same hairstyle, same smile). When Ieng Un pops over from Macao to have lunch with me on Monday and discuss the next stages of the project, there’s a real sense that something is building up.

On Friday night we were bussed across Hong Kong to the Kwai Tsing Theatre (900 seats and a vast stage), to see My Life as a Dancer – the Evolution. This is a Festival Commission, involving 16 contemporary dancer-choreographers from Hong Kong collaborating to make a sort of variety programme. As usual with mixed bills it was …. well, mixed. I liked a crazy sequence with the whole cast in bright orange dresses, going very anarchic as light turned the skin blue but left the dresses orange and zingy. There was also a strange and fascinating sequence with a small platform used as a kind of imprisoning hovercraft, with a woman caught on it being moved by men who yelled into radios as they danced: something with a bit of edge here.

It’s very hard to tell just how edgy one’s allowed to be in contemporary Chinese theatre. Ophelia and I catch up on the discussions with Director You at the Yue Company. He’s very keen to continue the collaboration, she says, but is still concerned to read the full script in Chinese before moving towards any performances in China. Fair enough, I suppose. As Benny Chia, the Director of the Fringe Club, remarks at the Symposium – collaboration doesn’t just mean “working together”; it can also imply “assisting the enemy”. Certainly the Symposium doesn’t give much sense of any radical new theatre emerging in China. Lu Kaiwang, the Director of the recently-created International Festival of Theatre in Beijing, talks about a Festival dedicated to Ibsen, another to Chekhov, and one coming up around good old Shakespeare. The invited companies to date are the stalwarts of naturalism, and the Chinese companies appear to be trying to imitate them: Lu shows some images of Chinese actors with spirit-gummed European beards. When he’s pushed a bit, he happily admits that these productions were chosen precisely because of their irrelevance: the less something has to say, the more chance there is of getting to say it.

Hong Kong, of course, is not like mainland China, and retains a significantly higher level of free expression. I see Falun Gong supporters protesting by the Star Ferry, as they do outside the Chinese Embassy in London, with images of alleged torture on the mainland. Grace Lang, the Programming Director of the Hong Kong Festival, is very open to the idea of the Trilogy coming here in 2009, and is genuinely excited about work which says something immediate. At the same time, she too has to be cautious. She had looked at Nixon in China once; but Chairman Mao having a blow-job from his Secretary is too much even for the SAR. I decide to tell her from the outset about the political and sexual elements in our work – she doesn’t seem fazed.

Censorship and democracy, free expression and clamp-down: the balance feels very delicate, even in this space which is not quite China. The South China Morning Post is full of the re-election of Donald Tsang to be Chief Executive of the SAR, and the spin being put on it is that this is a blow for democracy – though how that is possible when the electorate is 800 and the population is 7 million I do not know. Not that an Englishman has any right to criticise: it wasn’t until the tenure of the very last Governor, Chris Patten, that the British took any steps at all towards democratising this place – it’s only when it looks like somebody else’s despotism will take over from our own that we suddenly get worked up about political freedom.

In the midst of all this, two remarkable women shine out as beacons of hope. One of them is Ary Sutedja, who isn’t actually from China at all, but Indonesia, where she runs the JakArt Festival. Indonesia has very different problems from China (and from the West), though the globalisation demon is significantly present there too. At the end of a morning which has been filled with discussions of multiple funding sources, and glib comments from British producers about never turning money down, Ary tells us about the making of art with no resources at all except for passion and goodwill. She tells us how, when she finally got government backing, a civil servant turned up with the grant having removed 40% as the customary corruption figure, and she had felt obliged to reject the rest so as to avoid being implicated in this institutionalised bribery. It’s a very salutary moment. A lot of tired and cynical bureaucrats suddenly start to count their blessings.

The other remarkable woman in Jin Xing. I had wanted to meet her since reading her story in Laurence Senelick’s book The Changing Room, and since Xu Zheng told me I had to talk to her. Jin Xing was born a man, and even became a Colonel in the Chinese army, before having a sex change. The fact that this was possible, and that it was done so openly that she could make dance pieces about it, suggests either that she has the most forceful personality, or that China is in some ways more liberal than we suspect, or a bit of both. Probably both. Jin Xing is now China’s leading contemporary dance practitioner, based in Shanghai, and runs a new Festival called Shanghai Dance. She is also one of the few Chinese artists who can say whatever they like and get away with it. Her contributions to the Symposium are outspoken, outrageous and right: she lays into the star system, and the West’s ongoing exoticisation of Chinese culture. Over a glass of wine, I tell her about the Trilogy in far more detail than I’ve dared discuss it with anybody else here so far. Her response is the one I’d hoped for: fascination. “You must bring it to my Festival”, she says. I decide I’d better point out it’s theatre with dance in it, not the other way round. She welcomes that. I hope this works out: this would be a natural home for this work.

More surprises on Saturday night, when we go to the Studio Theatre at the vast Hong Kong Arts Centre to see Lost Village. This is a brave commission from the Festival, bringing together mainland Chinese and Japanese theatre-makers to look at history and how we deal with it. There’s even a reference to the recent row over Japanese school history text-books. Again, I find myself wrong-footed and surprised about what can be done, and is being done, in contemporary Asian theatre. The play isn’t entirely successful for me – the various storylines never quite gel, and don’t seem to relate dramaturgically to the grand themes which keep getting trumpeted. This may be partly an issue of accessibility: to my ear, Chinese and Japanese sound horribly similar, and if I look up to see the supertitle, I often miss which character is speaking. Lots of lessons on the language question. But I just love the fact that the play is being done at all.

Sunday is my tourist day, and I cram in all I can. There’s a fun exhibition at the Museum of Art about Chinglish – the emerging Hong Kong hybrid language which, the curator argues with some force, may turn out to be the world language of the 21st century. The heavy polluted mist which has hung over the City since I arrived, lifts for an hour or two, and I take the Star Ferry across the harbour, and the tram up to the Peak. I do a spot of shopping in Temple Street night market, and sink a sun-downing beer in Lan Kwai Fong, where I get talking to some German businessmen en route to Shenzhen. “Hong Kong still feels very British”, they say. “They queue up. Not like China, where you just get hit by a wave of people.”

I have dinner at the Yung Kee Restaurant: one of the fifteen best in the world, according to some American magazine. The roast goose is famous: Yung Kee has it own farm to ensure the quality. This, plus vegetables in oyster sauce, fried rice with prawns and two glasses of very good red set me back HK$300, which is about £20. This may be the capitalist city run mad, but it is also remarkably cheap. Yet another little mystery in the globalised world.

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