A review of Performing the City: Finding a Place Called Home in Contemporary Hong Kong Activist Theatre, by Linda Lau
Linda Lau’s thesis, Performing the City: Finding a Place Called Home in Contemporary Hong Kong Activist Theatre, is a brilliant and long-awaited addition to the narrative of Hong Kong drama history. Her series of case studies of activist theatre performances from the 1980s to the 2000s fills the void left by existing scholarly studies on Hong Kong theatre. While previous studies are comprehensive and insightful, taking into account the contemporaneous sociocultural conditions like Lau does, they tend to cast the spotlight on the so-called mainstream drama performances. In her thesis, Lau challenges the definitions of many keywords pertinent to the post-coloniality of Hong Kong, such as home, identity and urban space, to which the activist theatre troupes seek to provide answers outside the realm constructed and controlled by the government and business conglomerates. Through her interviews with the practitioners of the activist theatre and analyses of their performances, she brings to light many inconvenient truths in the local society, making this thesis not only an important discourse in performance studies, but also, I imagine, a valuable reference for sociologists and anthropologists interested in Hong Kong and Asia. One of the strengths of Lau’s thesis is her extensive survey of the social, historical and political conditions in the post-colonial Hong Kong, which sets an interesting and highly informative background for the activist performances she discusses. This is important, especially for readers outside Hong Kong without the intimate knowledge of the local circumstances, because street performances are somewhat akin to problem plays, in the sense that they deal with contemporary controversy of public importance—e.g., crowded living environments, racial inequality, social immobility, ubiquitous consumerism—in vivid, responsibly accurate, but somewhat abstract and even cryptic representations. To say the least, these performances do not appear to contain telling and elaborate dialogs, but to make the meanings across they rather have to draw on spectators’ contextual knowledge and locational awareness. The introduction chapter, “The Hong Kong Labyrinth”, is a roadmap of the sociocultural evolution of Hong Kong from the 1980s to the 2000s, against which Lau broaches the subject of Hong Kong identity. She proposes that the concept of home is something of a misnomer for Hong Kong people, since Hong Kong is deprived of the “ability to navigate between the ethnic cultures, colonial identities and first and third world status”. This leads to “aligning oneself with either British colonial history or with Hong Kong’s Chinese ancestry, neither of which lend themselves to giving Hong Kongers an autonomous voice” (p. 19). Lau borrows Phillip Vannini’s concept and proposes that Hong Kong is a “complex labyrinth” with “disharmonious relationships between the city, body, performance, and space” (p. 24). In this connection, social activist theatre seek to “discover home in Hong Kong” by giving “performers and spectators an opportunity to ‘fin[d] pleasure in movement through space rather than in spatial status” (p. 25). Activist performance artists “created alternative frameworks for constructing identities that did not rely on the political status of the city, but conveyed tensions of everyday life based on the realities of its citizens.” They “resisted the urge for a single definition of the city and prioritized the subjective experience to describe the Hong Kong condition” (p. 26).
Space, or more precisely the lack of it, appears to the theme of Lau’s study of activist theatre in Hong Kong. The characters in the performances discussed in this thesis invariably suffer from claustrophobia. In Chapter 1 “Grotesque Suffering: Ricky Yeung’s Man and Cage,” Lau examines Yeung’s performance art work in 1987, considered by many to be one of the earliest activist theatre performances in Hong Kong. The performance was an outcry against “the suffering of the human body in the confinement of tight quarters” (p. 39). Performance artist Yeung was an accountant by profession, who lived in an apartment of less than 200 square feet. He felt somehow imprisoned and suffocated, both physically and mentally. In an attempt to vent his anger at the exorbitant urban density and crammed housing conditions, Yeung built an archaic bamboo cage in an exhibition chamber of the Ghost House in Wanchai. He painted his face white and his lips black, and splashed red paint all over his half-naked body. Looking like a beast, he lived 48 hours in the cage, occasionally crawling around, screaming and howling. Unlike in an enclosed theatre space, where the audience is afforded the security of darkness and anonymity, Yeung’s spectators in the open and well-lit room were expected to be shocked into reflection and reaction, but the majority of them simply beat a hasty retreat. Either way, Yeung believed that the viewer’s reality had been disturbed. His grotesque body in the performance, according to Lau, was a signifier of Hong Kong’s “status as neither a Chinese or British entity” (p. 56).
Chapter 2, “Collaboration in the Post-Colonial Millennium: Two Plays by the Asian People’s Theatre Festival Society” is a lament for lost home and displacement, in which Lau discusses two performances, namely The Life and Times of Ng Chung-yin (1998) and Big Wind (1994). The characters in these two plays are invariably voluntary exiles, who choose to disengage themselves from their native homes and move elsewhere for political, vocational or financial pursuits. Different ethnic origins notwithstanding, they seek to build and re-build a home in Hong Kong, but only to meet little success and huge frustration. Their tragic stories, Lau postulates, are an aftermath of oppressive capitalism and racism in the territory. The collaborative performances by artists from different regions are calls to arms to “a collective identity across disparate groups, one that celebrates the individual experience in its creation of a people’s history” (p. 137) in Hong Kong.
Chapter 3 is an analysis of two street performances: Frozen Times by FM Theatre Power and State Change by Hector Rodriguez and Vasco Pavia; both were winners in Hijacking the Public Sphere competition in the year 2008. The two performances took part in the thronged urban shopping malls, where performers had to squeeze into the crowds and made quirky body movements and sounds in order to interrupt the flow of traffic, of people and of everyday living” (p. 191). Their purpose was to reclaim public space and rekindle the need for subjectivity and individuality for the local people. On the one hand, the two performances mocked the city’s insatiable appetite for speed and material goods, which encroaches on the life of Hong Kongers, leaving little room for creativity and communication. On the other, the fact that the performances took place in outdoor non-governmental venues was, according to Lau, a biting satire on the government’s myopic refusal to fully open up the local art scene for groups whose convictions might run counter to the main melody of the authorities and corporations.
Throughout her thesis Lau passionately celebrates the liberating power of the activist performance artists in Hong Kong, who “has (sic) used theatre as a means of empowerment, protest, and collective action” (p.3), while criticizing the intervention and manipulation of the local government, which uses “arts as a cultural tool to control the masses” (p.3). There has thus been a need for the activist theatre to become “a mode of resistance to the everyday” and to offer “a way to encourage its participants to re-imagine and to use space in different ways, and thus to find home in a landscape that seeks to dislocate it” (p. 4). This line of reasoning is sensible and such appeal is especially poignant in this post-colonial era when the new sovereign nation China is known for its use of art and media as political propaganda. Since the handover, Hong Kong seems to stand an increasingly slim chance to be immune from such influence. Lau appears to posit the activist theatre on the periphery and the government-subsidized art scene on the centre. Here, the definition of “activist theatre” and the centre–periphery relationship should be considered more carefully. Lau defines “activist and social/political theatre as works by artists who in turn define their work as such. These politically conscious artists are committed to social justice and work with the public to encourage everyday citizens to exercise their creativity through the arts” (p. 7). She does not pinpoint the role that government authorities play in the biosphere of activist theatre, but the performance groups discussed in the thesis invariably either defy or are denied governmental support. On the other hand, “[b]uilding institutional frameworks for the arts and culture are important for the government, namely to encourage the growth of local Hong Kong culture while maintaining control over this creative production. The installation of such institutions promotes the acceptance of performing arts into mainstream society, but only within the limitations of a particular tradition and framework” (p. 27). What is hinted is the discriminating effect of official censorship, which the anti-establishment and somewhat “leftist”(p. 20) penchant of the activist theatre is not likely to pass. As one can imagine, government intervention, overt or covert, is perhaps ubiquitous all around the world; it would be naïve to suppose that Hong Kong is an exception. However, according to my research and my conversations with the local theatre practitioners and government officials in charge of arts and cultural affairs, there has not been explicit and systematic censorship in the theatre scene; although there might be self-censorship among performance troupes vying for government and corporate subsidy, which is unfortunate and saddening. The Hong Kong theatre scene is—to a large extent—free and vibrant. It should be noted that there are drama performances which receive government subsidy (in terms of money and performance venues) and at the same satirize the government and business conglomerates. For example, the “East Wing West Wing” series by Zuni Icosahedron has a long history of twelve seasons from 2003 to 2014. The “Little Hong” series by W Theatre has boasted five hugely popular seasons since 2007. On the promotional literature of both series, there are even endorsements by government officials and politicians, who themselves are objects of ridicule in those political comedies. There is a fascinating and delicate balancing act—between the artistic, the political and the commercial—in action. These performance groups and their performances might be considered “mainstream” and “commercial”, but it is undeniable that they are as politically conscious as the activist theatre performances Lau discusses.
In her study of activist theatre Lau paints a grim picture of Hong Kong identity. She points out that “to step outside of Hong Kong and to claim an identity of this paradoxical identity is problematic, as it typically leads to aligning oneself with either British colonial history or with Hong Kong’s Chinese ancestry, neither of which lend themselves to giving Hong Kongers an autonomous voice” (p. 19). This echoes recent interdisciplinary studies on Hong Kong which work toward a deconstruction of various dialectal pairs: the private and the public spheres, the British colonizer and the colonized, Beijing and the Hong Kong SAR, and Hong Kong and the rest of the world. For Hong Kong, the idea of the territory as home can no longer be conceived as reflecting a coherent and distinct identity, leading to what I call a “homeless at home” situation in my study of translated theatre in Hong Kong. Lau proposes that activist theatre seeks to change the concept of home and amputate Hong Kong from its history (p. 20). The new concept of home, as illustrated in her analysis of the activist theatre performances, is at best a work-in-progress, encumbered by problems such as lack of space, racial discrimination and ubiquitous consumerism. With activist theatre, the focus appears to be on the present, the here and now. While I agree that the existing home is in certain ways inadequate for the growth of an independent identity, I also believe that the homeless-at-home situation has been conducive to an outreaching tendency among Hong Kongers placing prominence on translated theatre in the territory. Rather than a single geographical location, home can be re-imagined as a home network which is spread across different geopolitical and cultural borders and redefined through exchanges. Gilbert Fong proposes the theory of “suspended identities”, which states that identity discourses are in a constant state of flux, with some discourses relatively more stable and dominant than others. In translated theatre, the suspension of identities facilitates the reception of foreign elements and the conception of a new identity arrangement. The ownership of more than one home, as well as the ease of movement between different homes, may offer some comfort and constancy in a homeless-at-home situation. I propose the term “identity translation” to explain how Hong Kongers try to strengthen the coherence among the various homes they have been able to acquire and how they make sense of the newly acquired identity discourses that come with each additional home. Such mobility, flexibility and optimism are especially noticeable in translated theatre. On the other hand, original plays tend to put across a “no-change” attitude as a way of survival. Fraught with homelessness, the characters in original plays affirm the importance of home and attempt to retrieve a somewhat remote “authentic” home. The concept of home in Hong Kong differs across activist theatre, translated theatre and original theatre; future comparative studies will broaden Hong Kong theatre studies and, like Linda Lau’s dissertation, will be an important contribution to the study of Hong Kong performing arts.
School of Translation
Hang Seng Management College, Hong Kong
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Tufts University. 2013. 225 pp. Primary supervisor: Monica White Ndounou.
Image: Photo by Author.