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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

Shakespeare in Hong Kong

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 27

Hong Kong, a former British colony, has been staging and teaching Shakespeare plays for nearly 150 years. In this episode from our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast, we see how Shakespeare is stretched to tell a story of contemporary Hong Kong and colonialism in two important film adaptations of Romeo and JulietCrocodile River and Young Lovers. Then, in the 1980s, a local tradition of performing Shakespeare plays begins to merge with another art form—opera.

Alexa Huang, professor of English of George Washington University, is an expert on Sino-European cultural exchange and the globalization of Shakespeare. Adele Lee is a senior lecturer in English Literature at the University of Greenwich in England and the author of numerous articles about Shakespeare on film in Hong Kong. 

Huang and Lee are interviewed by Neva Grant. 

Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, or NPR One.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published July 1, 2015. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “This Orient Pearl,” was produced by Richard Paul; Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Laura Green at the Sound Company. 

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MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. This podcast is called “This Orient Pearl.”

The Folger is home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection. It’s also a place for us to question and explore Shakespeare’s legacy. That legacy includes recognizing how Shakespeare, as a touchstone for English culture and identity, was long used as an instrument of colonial indoctrination as the British built their empire. This podcast is one in a series looking at the role of Shakespeare in former British colonies. It takes us to Hong Kong which, as you’ll hear, has been staging and teaching Shakespeare plays for nearly 150 years.

Our guests are two Shakespeare scholars with a deep knowledge of the history and cultural significance of Shakespeare in Hong Kong. Alexa Huang, professor of English at George Washington University, is an expert in Sino-European cultural exchange and the globalization of Shakespeare. Adele Lee is a senior lecturer in English literature at the University of Greenwich in England and the author of numerous articles about Shakespeare on film in Hong Kong. They are interviewed by Neva Grant.

NEVA GRANT: Alexa, if you could put me in a theater in Hong Kong today… Imagine we’re sitting in the audience and watching a Shakespeare play today, in the present day, what would it look like? Who would be on stage and who would be with us in the audience?

ALEXA HUANG: I would say we would have well-hued audiences around us. Some of them may be there to be seen, rather than to see a play. What does it look like? I will give an analogy. It looks like a Royal Shakespeare Company production. It’s really polished. Its approach is conservative. They would try to give you a sense of authentic Shakespeare, but in the local language.

GRANT: And in terms of the costuming and the appearance, would these be Chinese, I mean, to put it quite bluntly, would these be Chinese people sort of dressed up in elaborate costumes, perhaps even in whiteface? I mean what or, I mean, who would we…

HUANG: Not in whiteface, not in that way, but yes, that’s a good… that’s an interesting question. In terms of stage set and costumes, if it’s a modernized Hamlet, you might see a Hamlet in a Western suit and wielding a pistol. It’s all… it becomes a reflection of the daily life in Hong Kong, so, completely modernized in terms of both the setting, the stage set, and the costumes.

GRANT: So let’s walk back into the past now, if we could, Alexa. And when do the British first come to Hong Kong and how soon after their arrival does Shakespeare come?

HUANG: The British officially arrived in 1842, when China ceded Hong Kong Island to Britain for 150 years. And Shakespeare followed really closely, because there were translations and rewritings of an encyclopedia of Britain being published in Shanghai and so on, so they circulated throughout the greater China. So the name Shakespeare, or Shashibiya, were quickly known, but not necessarily his plays. So people knew his name before his stories.

GRANT: So Alexa, we know that Shakespeare was performed all over Asia in the 19th century. Was there any kind of local tradition of Shakespeare performance in Hong Kong before the British even got there?

HUANG: Unfortunately, no. It started with English language productions, mostly for the expats. There was a rapid growth of foreign presence in treaty ports, so it’s not just Hong Kong, actually. Shanghai and Tianjin are treaty ports as well. And one example of the kind of early Shakespeare you would see in Hong Kong in English was, again, in the 1860s. The Hong Kong Amateur Dramatic Club, they staged a play called Shylock, or The Merchant of Venice Preserved. Not necessarily a straightforward production, but this is kind of a good example of what you might see during that time.

GRANT: And Adele, I’d like to turn to you and ask, when they did these types of performances that Alexa is talking about, were the Hong Kong Chinese even allowed to go or were the audiences all white?

ADELE LEE: Well, these performances were often limited to the foreign residents. There is a record of a few well-to-do Chinese having been invited to come along as well, but this was pretty atypical. So these performances were really for the expatriate community.

GRANT: So, just another example of the British sort of importing things that made them feel more at home, where, you know, whatever it might be. Their English breakfast, or their Shakespeare, or whatever it was.

LEE: [LAUGH] Yeah. Fish and chips.

GRANT: Right.

HUANG: And I would say that Merchant of Venice, the choice of a mercantile-themed play in a trade colony, of course, doesn’t seem coincidental, right? So in terms of their choices of plays to put on, there’s some connection with the nature of Hong Kong being a trade colony at that time.

GRANT: Alexa, let’s step back a bit and talk a little bit about colonization in Hong Kong in general, because it’s kind of a different story than the one about the British colonization of, say, India or Africa, right?

HUANG: Right. If you compare Hong Kong as a post-colonial location compared to Singapore and India, it is very unique, in that the Brits may bring their full English breakfast and fish and chips, but the local Cantonese-speaking population, they keep their zao cha or, you know, morning tea tradition, alive. You’ll get up early and go to a tea house and have dim sum. So, in many ways, Hong Kong was not fully colonized and when it comes to Shakespeare, there’s nothing really to resist. That’s why we don’t necessarily see irreverent approaches to Shakespeare, the way you would see it in India or Singapore.

The other part, and this might be a total generalization, but there’s the stereotype which many Hong Kong people play up as well, that the city is all about making money. It’s a commercial city, it’s a trading port, there’s not much culture, people don’t care about culture. So Shakespeare, along with the colonizers, doesn’t always seem important.

GRANT: Right, and what you’re also saying, there was just a spirit of less resistance generally to colonization as well, right?

HUANG: Right. And in fact, Mao Zedong came up with this phrase, “semi-colonization,” to describe the situation of Hong Kong and Shanghai. By that he means, officially, those territories are under, are being governed by foreign entities, but those places are not fully colonized.

GRANT: Adele?

LEE: I always view Hong Kong as kind of a theoretical conundrum. It doesn’t fit post-colonial paradigms. Chinese Shakespeare in general doesn’t fit easily into the post-colonial theoretical models. The problem with Hong Kong was, unlike India and Anglophone Africa and other former colonies, it saw itself as being re-colonized by the mainland. And then the run-up to the 1997 handover, people in Hong Kong were clinging onto their British cultural heritage. I would fear that they would lose the freedoms they enjoyed under British rule, when the mainland China took over at the end of the 20th century. And Shakespeare is something that the Hong Kong Chinese might hold onto, as a form of protest, almost, against mainland China. Shakespeare could be used as a way for them to distinguish themselves from the less enlightened mainland.

HUANG: Yes, I agree with what Adele said, I thought that’s really interesting, because very often when we talk about globalization and localization, people think that the foreign power, the global, is oppressive. It’s here to oppress the people, and the local is the hero. But in this case, the mainland Chinese government, the local, is in a controversial way the oppressor, and so they turn to the foreign entity. The global becomes the agent that might liberate them.

GRANT: That really is… that’s just so turning everything on its head. So we’ve been talking a little bit about Shakespeare on stage in Hong Kong, let’s talk about Shakespeare in the schools. When would we have started to see Shakespeare introduced in schools?

LEE: Well, famous scenes and poetry from Shakespeare featured in high school texts very soon after colonization in 1842, and Shakespeare was first studied in earnest in 1882, when his works became part of the curriculum at the Hong Kong Central School, that is, the first centralized government school in the territory. A 19th-century British educator, Frederick Stewart, claimed that the Chinese have no education in the real sense of the word, and only with a higher idea of British civilization and institutions could the Chinese know the true essence of education. And Shakespeare was an instrumental part of this endeavor, to encourage the Hong Kong Chinese to think in line with and share the same values and beliefs as the British. So he was introduced into the school system at a very early stage.

GRANT: And what about age? I mean, at what age would students have been exposed to it?

LEE: Oh, from a very early age. From the age of eight.

GRANT: And just like eight-year-olds here, they probably struggled with it. [LAUGHS]

LEE: [LAUGH] Yeah, they [INAUDIBLE] children in Shakespeare. But I think they saw it as kind of bad-tasting medicine. It’ll do them good, we’ll teach them morals, teach them values, and also that it would help them later in life, you know, to get into university, to get into civil service, so Shakespeare was viewed as a kind of ticket to social advancement.

GRANT: And a way of teaching English?

LEE: Of course. I mean, Shakespeare is still taught in Hong Kong, primarily as a means of acquiring the English language. That’s a bit blind sided, given that Shakespeare didn’t write in standard English, but yes.

GRANT: But there’s actually more to it than that, right? Because you’ve written, in fact, that he was there to promote certain values and beliefs in a sense of the general greatness of the British culture.

LEE: Yeah, absolutely. I mean Shakespeare was an ideological tool in establishing the authority of the British in Hong Kong. You know, he was an instrument of domination, if you like, and viewed by the British as a necessary part of school activity. Knowledge of Shakespeare meant that students in Hong Kong were acquiring the same mindset as their oppressors and they were being sort of molded to think in line with the British, to adopt their customs, their values, their beliefs.

GRANT: Adele, there’s something you said in an article about this idea that Shakespeare is universal, right? It’s something we talk about a lot, but you point out that the idea became this sort of tool to create a sense of racial superiority and, of course, white racial superiority.

LEE: Yes, well, what universal… there’s no such thing as universalism. I mean, what universalism actually describes, of course, is values, beliefs, and characteristics of those occupying a position of cultural centrality, and to masquerade these values as universal is really just the West’s way of foisting their ideas on the colonized other.

GRANT: Was that overt? I mean, do you think that that was sort of covert or overt in terms of its intentionality?

LEE: No, because it wouldn’t be effective [LAUGH] if it was stated overtly. You wanted to jump in?

HUANG: Right, I agree with Adele, I don’t think… I think it’s very covert, it’s never stated. But at the same time, there’s this sense that Shakespeare is… it’s larger than life. It’s, of course he’s British, represents British values, but at the same time he’s universal. So there are two conflicting strains. If he’s universal, he should be on your must-read list, right? Never mind his Britishness and that transcends, that’s like… that helped the entire project work even better because it’s far… it transcends the British governors, it transcends colonization, transcends time and location.

GRANT: So Alexa, you mentioned earlier that there was no early tradition of Shakespeare being performed by locals in Hong Kong, but I gather that started to change a little bit as we move much further into the 1980s. Can you talk about what happened?

HUANG: Yes. Along with a large number of directors who returned from their study in the West, Tang Shu-wing from Paris, for example, and others from America, from London, they brought back new methodologies. And so there is new life in Hong Kong theater, mostly in the huaju spoken drama tradition, Western-style spoken drama tradition, but increasingly also Chinese opera, the operatic version. The most popular genre is Cantonese opera, so in both the traditional and modern kind of Western-style theaters, there are innovations, and there are also directors of Chinese descent who worked in the West, such as Daniel Yung, who retired from the Colorado Shakespeare Festival and moved to Hong Kong. So it is after this time we begin to see bilingual productions, we begin to see hybrid approaches that mix some traditional elements and some more Western-style elements. We no longer see the more or less mindless imitation of Western productions, with prosthetic noses and blonde wigs.

GRANT: Is Shakespeare done primarily in English today in Hong Kong or is it mostly in Cantonese?

HUANG: It’s mostly in Cantonese, with a few nights in Mandarin, because there is a bilingual population there. So if they can afford it, they would… they will often have two casts. Exactly the same production, and it’s like a carbon copy, but they will have Mandarin lines, and if they are even more successful, they will tour to Taiwan and mainland China.

GRANT: Meanwhile, as I understand it, some of the most sort of experimental and exciting adaptation of Shakespeare is actually happening in film.

LEE: Yes, well, the Hong Kong film industry is, or certainly was in the past, particularly vibrant, experimental, and less conservative than the theater scene in Hong Kong. Hong Kong film, the industry, of course, hasn’t… isn’t associated with the highbrow, and is often criticized for lacking in artistic merit, and when we think about Hong Kong film, we automatically associate it with the gangster genre and kung fu action, and basically, the opposite to everything that Shakespeare represents.

HUANG: Right, right.

LEE: Indeed, Hong Kong films are often disparaged in the very terms, “It’s certainly not Shakespeare,” yet there have been several film adaptations, including adaptation of The Merchant of Venice, called Pound of Flesh, and even John Woo’s gangster film, Just Heroes, could be read as a loose retelling of King Lear, set within a triad family.

GRANT: And who’s going to these films? Are they popular? Are they, you know, say, as popular as a Bruce Lee movie?

LEE: Yeah, they’re extremely… they were extremely popular films and commercially successful films. And they often weren’t even aware, probably, that they were watching a Shakespeare film, they were watching a film based on a Shakespeare play.

HUANG: I think that’s the major difference. In theater, first and foremost, people are going to the theater for a night of Shakespeare.

LEE: Yeah.

HUANG: Right? And secondly, perhaps this renowned actor is, you know, so and so, on stage as well, their favorite actor. But in film, it’s the opposite.

LEE: Mm-hmm.

GRANT: Yeah. So if I could, Adele, I’d love for you to talk about two film adaptations in particular, because they’re really great demonstrations of how Shakespeare is stretched to tell a story of contemporary Hong Kong and colonialism, so could you tell us first about the film Crocodile River?

LEE: Yeah, sure, I mean, in Crocodile River, which is directed by Lo Wei, who’s better known as the director of The Big Boss, a film starring Bruce Lee, it is a very loose retelling of Romeo and Juliet, and it’s a film that radically worked the play so that it addresses the fears and concerns of Hong Kong people. It’s a film that explores the generational conflicts. Rebellion against authority, police corruption, and the widening social divide in Hong Kong, with a particular focus on the rift between parents and their children in the territory. And this rift, it is suggested, it hasn’t been exacerbated by the British. So in Crocodile River, the Romeo and Juliet figures, what divides them, what keeps them apart, it is implied, is kind of the British presence in Hong Kong, which served to divide families. You’ve got these traditionally Chinese parents and their dangerously westernized children. So it’s ironic, really, that Shakespeare, in this context, was used to criticize the role of the British in the colony. You don’t see that kind of political appropriation happening on the stages of Hong Kong.

GRANT: So that film, Crocodile River, that we were just talking about was produced back in 1964, not long after, I guess, when West Side Story came out in the United States. It’s kind of an interesting connection.

LEE: Yeah, there’s a strong influence of West Side Story.

GRANT: Yeah, I can imagine. So let’s talk about another film that came about a little over 10 years later, 1978, it’s called Young Lovers.

LEE: Again, another radical reworking of Romeo and Juliet. Another film that is bold, ambitious, that isn’t afraid to take liberties with the Shakespearean text. And this story, in the Romeo and Juliet story, in that it’s getting remolded so that it’s made to address all the fears and concerns of people in the territory at that time. I mean in it, they have the Romeo and Juliet characters caught in a class divide, but it’s implied throughout the film that this class divide is, again, as a result of the British presence. And during the 1970s, low taxation, low public expenditure, police corruption. It was a time of civil unrest.

GRANT: It’s not hard to imagine that a modern day or contemporary version of that would place the hostility in the hands of the Chinese, not the British.

LEE: [LAUGH] Probably, yeah.

GRANT: The mainland Chinese.

LEE: Yes, you’re right.

GRANT: Adele, I imagine that as things get tighter in mainland China, as the Communist Party asserts more and more control, do you see this desire to stage apolitical Shakespeare continuing in Hong Kong, or are people standing up against the mainland and staging Shakespeare that’s challenging?

LEE: I think the desire to stage political Shakespeare and the freedom to stage political Shakespeare are two different things. I mean, as you say, the mainland is beginning to tighten its grip and theater practitioners are very conscious that they are being closely monitored, I mean, they have to be careful. They are being censored, they are being watched. And so, and that might be one of the reasons for the perceived conservatism of Hong Kong theater, why so many productions from our perspective seem very apolitical and why people are drawn to productions that seem to serve for the purpose of entertainment only, rather than being thought provoking or politically provocative. So I think we’ll get probably more… the approach to Shakespeare become more apolitical.

GRANT: Mm. It’s a shame.

HUANG: I think more artistically innovative.

LEE: Yes.

HUANG: I didn’t want to give the wrong impression of maybe Shakespeare on stage today is boring. I have two very quick examples, one is called Hamletmachine or Hamlet b., it was 2010, was staged in Hong Kong. It’s a brilliant production of a reinterpretation of Ophelia. In one of the most striking scenes, you see an Ophelia floating in a shallow stream onstage. But she clutches a crimson luxury handbag and the projected tagline above, they are talking about how we live by object time, we are obsessed with objects. So that’s kind of a not-so-subtle critique of the Hong Kong material culture and so on.

GRANT: Yeah, it’s fascinating.

HUANG: Yeah. There is also Tang Shu-wing’s Titus 2.0, it’s Titus Andronicus. It got invited to the London Globe during the Olympics, so that’s a big deal. And it’s in Cantonese, it’s a black box production. He used actress who dressed up the same, exactly the same. They even look similar, so he’s trying to construct the idea that the faces of evil are somewhat interchangeable. So that’s another… it’s not an overtly political production, but again, that’s one example from just… a very recent example from Hong Kong that is apolitical but it does sneak in some subtle critique and at the same time it is artistically very innovative. So you do have that, it’s not all conservatism.

GRANT: Well, those are actually two really cool examples of innovation coming into Shakespearean theater in Hong Kong, and that’s where we’re going to leave things today. My guests have been Alexa Huang and Adele Lee. Thanks so much for joining us.

LEE: Thank you.

HUANG: Thank you.

WITMORE: Adele Lee is a senior lecturer in English literature at the University of Greenwich. Alexa Huang is a professor of English at George Washington University. They were interviewed by Neva Grant.

“This Orient Pearl” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Laura Green at the Sound Company.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.