Bookcases reaching to the ceiling stand side by side in Pants Theatre Production’s studio, located in an industrial building in Kwai Chung, Tsuen Wan. They connect the studio entrance to the rehearsal room.
The books belong to artistic director Wu Hoi-fai, and the play he is preparing to stage is also related to a book.
In 2007, when Wu was studying for a master’s degree at the Central School of Speech and Drama at the University of London, one of his assignments involved the case of a Chinese takeaway owner who was beaten to death as he tried to fight off his attacker.
As he researched the lives of Chinese in Britain, that’s when he came across the book, a memoir titled Sweet Mandarin, written by British-born Chinese author Helen Tse.
Spanning almost 100 years, the book tells a true story in which the older generation toil endlessly in the catering industry, the most common business in the overseas Chinese community, to free their children from kitchen chores.
However, just when Tse’s parents thought their hard work had paid off, she decided to quit her law career to become a restaurateur, opening the now famous Chinese fusion restaurant Sweet Mandarin.
“As a British-born Chinese, she used to feel confused about her identity,” said Wu. “She did not even like the way she looked.”
But that changed after a family trip to Hong Kong, when she took a short hop across the border to Guangzhou to trace her family’s roots. “She was deeply moved by the stories about her family.”
Founded in 1995 by Wu, Pants Theatre Production describes itself as a social witness on stage and believes theater is a way to relate to society. “I hope our work inspires audiences to think,” Wu said.
He already had the idea of adapting Sweet Mandarin when he first read it.
Wu said the adaptation process started after 2010, when many Hongkongers began grappling with the notion of their cultural identity.
In the play, the family’s trip to Hong Kong and Guangzhou brings together all of the fragmented memories. Finally, Tse can see the entirety of who she is and embrace her identity, Wu said.
“Many people deny this part of their identity, but it doesn’t have to be this way,” Wu said.
He believes Hongkongers share a similar background with Tse. “We are often referred to as neither Eastern nor Western, but the truth is we have a ‘hybrid’ identity, a combination of Western and Chinese,” Wu said. “As a generation who grew up during the colonial period, shouldn’t we be more inclusive?”
Being comfortable in his own skin, he is in no hurry to join the recent emigration rush.
For him, the globalized world complicates our understanding of nationality and cultural identity and 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,” he said.
“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.”
While the original story focuses on Chinese journeys in diaspora communities and the lives of three generations of remarkable Chinese women, Wu wants his adaptation to be about more than that.
“It’s about following your heart to pursue your dreams, as an individual and as a family,” he said. “Looking at the bigger picture, it’s about how people support each other and stay together within the community through mutual respect – not just seniors telling you what to do, or even suppressing you.”
Just as Tse would not have understood the hardship of running a catering business without actually getting her hands dirty, younger generations should chart their own paths, no matter what parents tell them, Wu said.
In response to the unrest of the past year that has spilled sporadically into this year, Wu said young people should strive to see both the bad and the good with an open mind.
Premering in 2015, the Jockey Club New Art Power show is making its return at Sheung Wan Civic Centre from October 9 to 11.
Tickets are available at Urbtix and Popticket.
(This article was published at The Standard on September 11, 2020: Weekend Glitz: Listen to your heart )