Pants Theatre Production

Hongkongers have a “hybrid” identity — a combination of Western and Chinese

Pants Theatre Production’s Sweet Mandarin tells the story of the remarkable journey of three sisters who are the third-generation descendants of Hong Kong immigrants. Born and raised in the UK, they were uncomfortable with their Chinese identity until a family trip to Hong Kong changed their minds. While the play is about various generations of diasporas being torn between their roots and the society in which they live, Wu Hoi-fai, Artistic Director of Pants Theatre Production and the director of the play, did not expect its rerun in 2020 would come in the midst of such an unstable political climate. “To go, or not to go – that is the question.”

For years, discussions about the cultural identity of Hong Kong people have been the centre of attention, especially during the current wave of mass emigration. Questions like “Who am I?” or “Where are my roots?” consistently arise. Is the way in which East meets West in the story something Hongkongers will be able to relate to? “Some might say Hong Kong people are neither Eastern nor Western, but the truth is we have a genuinely ‘hybrid’ identity — a combination of Western and Chinese!”

Text: Ho Siu-bun
Translation: Perfect Ink Media
Photos: Michael CW Chiu

The moment you truly feel like a “Hongkonger”

“Premiered in 2015, the play Sweet Mandarin is making its return amid a new wave of mass emigration. Now, that I did not see coming…”

Since 2010, many Hongkongers have been struggling with defining their own cultural identity. Some identify as Hong Kong Chinese, while others consider themselves born and bred Hongkongers. When asked about the moment he truly felt like a Hongkonger, Wu recalled a time when he was away from his homeland. “In 2007, when I was studying for a Master’s degree in London, one of my assignments was about the murder of a Chinese takeaway owner who was beaten to death as he tried to fight off his harasser.” As he researched about Chinese living in the UK, he came across a memoir titled Sweet Mandarin.

The book was written by a British-born Chinese author Helen Tse, who is a third-generation descendant of Chinese immigrants. Her grandmother moved from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, and later emigrated to the UK with her children to start a new life working in the catering trade. The Tse sisters, Helen, Lisa and Janet, became professionals in different fields. Just when their parents thought their hard work to free their family’s younger generation from the chore of kitchen work had paid off, Helen decided to give up her lawyer job to become a restaurateur, opening the now-famous Chinese fusion restaurant “Sweet Mandarin”. Despite misgivings from her parents at the beginning, the restaurant has received great acclaim and she subsequently recounted her family’s remarkable journey in her memoir of the same name, from which the play is adapted.

 In the play, Lily the grandmother fled from Guangzhou to Hong Kong with his father when she was young and she later emigrated to the U.K. to open her restaurant. (Photo: C. Production House)

“Helen, as the new generation of British-born Chinese (BBC), once felt confused and did not want to accept her Chinese identity. She did not even like the way she looked.” But everything started to change after a family trip to Hong Kong and a root-tracing journey to Guangzhou. “She was deeply moved by the stories about her family. Not long after returning to the UK, she decided to give up her full-time job and set up her own restaurant.”

“The family trip to Hong Kong and Guangzhou brought together all of the fragmented memories. Finally she could see the whole picture of who she is and reconstruct her British-born Chinese identity.” He continued, “Many people deny this part of their identity, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Hong Kong shares a similar background to Helen. We are often referred to as neither Eastern nor Western, but the truth is we have a genuinely ‘hybrid’ identity — a combination of Western and Chinese! As a generation who grew up during the colonial period, shouldn’t we be more inclusive?”

The family trip changed Helen and she could see the whole picture of who she is as a British-born Chinese. She also began to have an idea of leaving her lawyer job and setting up a restaurant.

A “field trip” to Manchester

Since this is a story about three generations of Chinese women, capturing the tenderness and resilience of women may be out of reach of a male playwright. As such, when Wu decided to adapt this story, he hoped that he could find a female playwright. “Cheang Tik-ki came to our drama workshop when she first started playwriting. Knowing that her play was well received and also won a competition held by Cinematic Theatre, I certainly had confidence in her.”

Wu’s plan to adapt Sweet Mandarin into a play was originated in 2007-08 when he was studying in London and he got the permission from Helen by email. The project was finally set in motion a few years later. He even paid a visit to Manchester with Cheang, where they had a chat with Helen in person. “In the story, it was mentioned that her grandmother used to live in a small town when she first arrived in the UK, and so we went for a quick tour in that area. Having the chance to actually see the place where it all started certainly helped the playwright do her job.”

While the original story focuses on the journey of Chinese people in diaspora communities, what message does Wu want to deliver as a director? “It’s about following your heart in pursuit of your dreams, as an individual and as a family. In particular, it’s how people support each other and stay together within the community through mutual respect. Suppression never does any good. It doesn’t matter how good the seniors think their advice is. The younger generation will understand in its own course, just as Helen would not have understood the hardship of running a catering business without actually getting her hands dirty.”

The older Chinese generation labors day and night in order to free their younger generation of the chore of the kitchen. “It doesn’t matter how good the seniors think their advice is. The younger generation will understand in its own course, just as Helen would not have understood the hardship of running a catering business without actually getting her hands dirty.” (Photo: C. Production House)

A world without national borders

Influenced by Chinese culture and the parents’ expectations, the Tse sisters were all professionals in different fields with stable and impressive incomes. Wu’s decision to study English at the university was a similar situation.

Wu has had his fair share of ups and downs along his artistic journey. Having had a taste of drama production in secondary school, he ended up studying English in university according to his teacher’s suggestion, despite the fact he had always been fascinated by Chinese language. However, it didn’t stop him from spending a significant amount of his time in the university’s drama club. Indeed, some of his classmates even thought that he majored in drama. “In those days, there were only a few large theatre companies in Hong Kong. Lacking smaller companies in which I could start my professional career in theatre production, I started working as an English teacher after graduation.” As soon as he saved up enough money, he enrolled in a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree programme, majoring in Directing at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA). “My mother didn’t stop me, probably because I am the youngest at home, and there was no major financial burden on my shoulders, nor the kind of difficulties Helen once faced. She only warned me that I would be losing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year without my teaching job!” After graduating from the academy, he worked in arts administration for three years, but theatre was where his heart remained.

In a few years, he became a lecturer and served for 10 years (2001-2011) at the HKAPA. Although he had the chance to work in the world of theatre, he was constantly overwhelmed by the day-to-day administrative work that came with the job. He finally stepped down and devoted himself to using his creativity for a greater good. In 1995, he and his friends had founded an amateur theatre company called Pants Theatre Production. With the consent of several founding members, it was incorporated and registered as a non-profit company in 2012, and he officially became the Artistic Director.

“’Grounded in theatre with a focus on society’ has always been the mission of Pants Theatre Production. With a vigilant eye on our community and supported by rigorous research, our theatrical endeavour as an artistic response and contribution to our society pushes the boundaries of theatre aesthetics. Ultimately, we strive to be a catalyst for social change.” But much still remains to be done. “Entertainment takes many forms. Our theatre works explore the relationship between individuals and the community. I hope our work can inspire thinking.”

“Our theatre works explore the relationship between individuals and the community. I hope our work can inspire thinking.” Wu Hoi-fai, Artistic Director of Pants Theatre Production and the director of the play said.

Sweet Mandarin was also featured by Shanghai’s 1862 Theatre. In the Hong Kong premier, the play was very well received among teachers and students from international schools. “Female students, who were probably thinking about their own future, saw Helen as their elder sister. They were moved by the evocative journey of these women and her courage to pursue her dreams against all odds. The play also touches upon the notion of harmony between Chinese and Western cultures, which also has a strong impact upon the audience.”

With no fixed troupe, most of the roles have been recast. But it would be interesting to see what sort of  the emotional impact the play would have on the audience given the drastic changes in the social climate compared to a few years ago.

“Back in the 1980s, I was often asked if I’d like to move somewhere else. I was just a kid, and it wasn’t really up to me to decide. However, our globalised world today has complicated our understanding of nationality and cultural identity. The concept of national borders has started to lose its meaning. It doesn’t matter where you go or what nationality you hold, be it British, Australian or Canadian, it doesn’t mean you have to deny your Chinese identity. Being Chinese is a nationality. It does not, in any way, represent support for any political party. I do not deny my Chinese identity, but I’m also a Hongkonger. And I’m at peace with that.”

Most of the roles in Sweet Mandarin have been recast. Law, Wong and Ko will tell the story of the three generations of the Chinese women in this re-run. (Left: Law Ching Sum, Middle: Wong Hiu Yee, Right: Ko Siu Man)

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