It’s three days before the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover, and yet Loong Man-hong — an acclaimed playwright who has written extensively on the city’s transitions — is nonchalant about the occasion.
“I think I’m not that different from the average resident: I won’t say that I am for or against celebrating the handover [anniversary],” Loong says with a shrug.
Listening to Loong, who is soft-spoken and modest to a fault, one can be forgiven for believing he’s just another “average resident”. He’s anything but: just this year, his stage trilogy A Floating Family had a sold-out run at the Hong Kong Arts Festival, and he won the Best Screenplay Award for Trivisa at the Hong Kong Film Awards.
Coincidentally, both works touch on Hong Kong’s transitions. A Floating Family is set around three distinct moments of Hong Kong history: the handover in 1997, the SARS outbreak in 2003, and the Chief Executive election in 2017. As for Trivisa, it is a crime drama which doubles as a political allegory for the end of the colonial era.
Loong feels Hong Kong has definitely changed twenty years on from the handover. But besides the usual gripes — Mandarin-speaking tourists and so on — Loong likes to return to a favourite theme: family.
Family is the backbone of Loong’s work. His comedy for Chung Ying Theatre, A Big Big Day, is about family secrets unveiled before a wedding, and Hong Kong Repertory Theatre’s surrealistic drama The Abandoned Harbour examines a family’s reactions to a drying Victoria Harbour. Not to mention the recent A Floating Family, which is structured around three family dinners.
“[Family] is very important to me – I wouldn’t have thought of it this way in 1997,” he says.
He observed that our understanding of family has become increasingly blurred in 2017 — possibly because families nowadays do not have as many children. A kid may grow up as an only child, or come from a broken family.
“If I write a play about a family in 2017, maybe people would still resonate with it. But if I did this 10 years later, people would feel distant from it – they wouldn’t understand,” he says. “My understanding of family values is very different as I was brought up in the 70s.”
For the next generation, the pressure to prove themselves is higher than ever before. For young people who want to take an unorthodox path, Loong says “[their parents] might not see a lot of the possibilities, and this is a shame.”
As for himself, Loong is the youngest of four siblings, and he says he belongs to a healthy family — so healthy that he felt “slightly protected”. Fortunately, he had parents that supported his career, and he graduated from the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts’ School of Drama in 1997.
Thus began his two-decade journey in the theatre industry. His first job was with Television Broadcasts Limited. Even when he was writing screenplays, Loong was strongly influenced by theatre productions of the late 1990s.
“I think it was a lot more vibrant and experimental right before and after 1997 — they asked a lot of questions about our identity before 1997.”
Loong mentions Theatre Resolu’s 1993 production Two Civic Servants in a Skyscraper 離地三百七十五米又如何, which examined reactions to the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Staged at the Shouson Theatre, the performance was also known for its experimental visual imagery.
For him, going to the theatre was happier back in the day. Loong said that while there are more performances now, “they are less adventurous than before.” But of course, he also sympathises with the financial pressure felt by theatre practitioners today.
Throughout Loong’s career, one thing that has remained constant is a sense of powerlessness. He says that it stems from the job nature of a writer in the theatre and film industry. And like any good writer, he wrote this into his work, but in a rather unlikely place: the character Kwai Ching-hung in Trivisa, a ruthless criminal boss played by Gordon Lam Ka-tung.
Kwai is a killer nearing retirement, and is given the opportunity to work with two other crime bosses for the mythical “one last job.”
“Regardless of whether [Kwai] is a criminal or not, he is forced to do one last job. We wanted to portray a man, in his 50s, who was about to retire. That sense of powerlessness is similar to mine,” Loong says.
Like in Trivisa, the biggest problem with Hong Kong’s theatre scene is that it is only a young person’s game. “Unless you teach drama classes, you have to ask yourself whether you can survive in this unstable industry when you reach 30 years old,” he says. “The majority [of actors] are 20 to 30 years old. This is not an industry.”
Loong is still optimistic, but he fears fewer people will work in theatre on a full-time basis. As of now, only the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre and Chung Ying Theatre offer full-time career paths for actors.
“If you spend four to five years studying it full time, then — assuming you like it — you’d want to do it full time. But are there enough job opportunities? Probably not. By the time you’re 30, you’ll have doubts on whether you can continue doing this,” Loong says.
So what will the next 20 years bring? Loong’s hope is that Hong Kong theatre will find space to include everyone. “I hope that there will be actors of all ages and more playwrights. Then, we can preserve our culture and creativity for the future.”
Still / Loud’s Holmes Chan contributed reporting and editing.