Looking for theatre in Hong Kong? It’s fairly common to catch sight of a bright advertisement for an international touring show as it sweeps past on the side of a bus, but there’s a whole slew of talented theatre companies waiting in the wings in quieter offerings all over town. The trouble is finding them.
The bustling market neighbourhood of Sai Wan Ho, on the east end of Hong Kong Island, is hardly the first place you would expect to find one of Hong Kong’s most industrious young theatre companies. The civic centre complex here is concealed inside a grey building on a main road, where residents stream from the subway into a wet market like ants swarming to a watermelon slice. But the theatre inside has comfy seats and a wide stage and is, at the moment, a frequent home to the Absolutely Fabulous Theatre Connection.
The company really is quite fabulous. Founded in 2008 and fronted by Artistic Director Dr. Vicky Ooi, a well-known and awarded director, Absolutely Fabulous was initially created as a learning theatre to bring theatrical experiences to secondary schoolers. Since then, its high quality English and bilingual performances of adapted classics have attracted audiences of all ages. Students attend during daylight hours followed by the general public at night.
Sai Wan Ho Civic Centre, a multi-use venue run by the government’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), was not Ooi’s top venue choice when the government announced a 2008 scheme to partner spaces with performing groups. But Absolutely Fabulous didn’t have the weight to swing some of the bigger auditoriums, such as Kwai Tsing Theatre, and Ooi saw potential in the medium-sized civic space. A pitch went ahead outlining the company’s mission to create accessible programmes with cross-generational appeal and was won. “The centre was traditionally used for Chinese opera, and while we didn’t want to stop that, we said we wanted to bring younger audiences to the area. And we have!” says Ooi, with a triumphant grin.
“Normally, any programme in Hong Kong in English is geared towards the older venues,” she says. She wanted to change that. The company has found its niche in adapting classics for the stage, with titles like Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby and Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. Over 13,000 seats have been sold for the next show, a reworked Les Misérables, which will run in March.
While Sai Wan Ho isn’t exactly London’s West End, an MTR exit literally minutes from the theatre’s doors makes the location accessible and a 10-minute stroll from the bustling market area leads to a serene waterfront with a line of restaurants. Among them, Wildfire serves up pizzas from its stone oven, and decent Thai and Chinese restaurants are close by. It seems in Sai Wan Ho it is unexpectedly possible to enjoy a real “night out at the theatre”.
What makes Hong Kong theatre hard to navigate is a lack of publicity. Information can be found on the tourist site Discover Hong Kong, and on Urbtix, which also sells tickets to the events, but has an complicated way of categorising events, as well as a slow server. Individual venue websites offer information, although government-run sites tend only to publish the next month’s performances. Signing up for mailouts with individual performing companies is the most comprehensive way to keep updated. Achieve this by stashing away armfuls of brochures from the stands found at venue entrances, and then looking up websites, or of course, refer to this handy story, which contains links to many venues and companies.
In Shep Kip Mei – Sham Shui Po, another company is breathing new life into an older building. The JCCAC, or the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, is an artists’ colony housed in a converted factory estate with about 140 artists working in ceramics, handicrafts, design, music, film and performing arts. It is open to visitors from 10am to 10pm daily. The cultural space has a grassroots ambience, with a teahouse, café and one of Hong Kong’s few black box theatres. The smaller size of the unadorned darkened room attracts burgeoning companies, easing up ticket sales pressure and giving room for imaginative stagings that frequently bring audience into close contact with actors. Sometimes action will take place among the crowd, rather than on a stage in front of them as with more traditional spaces.
Theatre founder Grace Cheng, of the performing company Just Education Services Organisation, deemed the diminutive space ideal for her upcoming improvisation show Comedy for Any Language. Part of its Theatresports programme of interactive, responsive theatre, the audience at the show is invited to suggest revealing themes or situations to two improv teams that compete against each other, often with comedic results. A cast of locals and expatriates has their different languages cascading, slipping and sliding into one another.
Hidden in another creative hub in To Kwa Wan, at the Cattle Depot Artist Village is the Cattle Depot Theatre, run by the visionary On & On Theatre Workshop, a local player first established in 1998. When the company moved to its permanent location at the Cattle Village in 2001, it became the first space to be run directly by a local theatre company, giving it full autonomy over the shows it produces as well as the ability to rent out the space to other performers, The theatre has developed quite a reputation as a location to view explorative and avant-garde pieces. Proving that small spaces do not hinder big talents, On & On now also runs shows away from the art hub, on bigger stages across town and on tours overseas.
After many years working collaboratively with companies from overseas, and translating foreign texts to be performed in Hong Kong, since 2015 the resident company has shifted focus to creating works that address more local issues. In May it will re-run a new adaption of its attention-grabbing Postcolonial Affairs of Food and the Heart, a retelling of the novel by Leung Ping-kwan, one of Hong Kong’s most celebrated literary talents to be staged at Tsim Sha Tsui’s Cultural Centre. The show depicts Hong Kong just before and after the 1997 handover, and details how people form relationships through food. The show, first performed in 2014, was described as an in-your-face piece of theatre. It won a Hong Kong Drama Award for Best Production and a Best Director Award for Chan Ping-chiu. The play will run in Cantonese, and will be sur-titled in English if resources allow – check with the theatre closer to the run.
Back on Hong Kong Island the circus is coming to town. Wales’ awesome contemporary circus NoFit State travels with its own staging rigs, sound systems and lights but performing in a big top can still make it difficult to find collaborators. After its search for a large enough green space to run its Circus Bianco show in Hong Kong floundered, the LCSD proposed the Queen Elizabeth Stadium in Causeway Bay, which is more usually the location for the concerts of big Cantopop stars. The circus brings an unexpected change of direction to the venue. Acrobats in the circus make use of the space’s higher reaches, dangling daringly overhead, swinging from flying trapezes or treading the delicate thread of a tight wire, while under them jugglers toss balls in a smooth speeding flow.
Among the professionals staging shows and threading its boards, the Kwai Tsing Auditorium Theatre is a revered space. With the deepest stage in Hong Kong, companies favour the venue’s impressive hydraulics and almost 900 seats. The theatre’s glass-topped foyer and a tented restaurant that sits in the outside courtyard,, The Alchemist, is visible from the platform of Kwai Chung MTR station just opposite.
At the end of February, the Hong Kong Dance Company makes use of that immense space with Dream of the Past: Chinese Court Dances, a vivid showcase of China’s ancient court dances. Known for large scale, dramatic retellings and beautifully envisioned performances of Chinese dance, both in traditional form and with modern new approaches, the company requires venues able to accommodate audiences of between 800 and 1,500 members. “The stage, including the side stages and backstage must be able to cater for casts of up to 30 performers,” says Yang Yuntao, the company’s artistic director.
Dream of the Past uses those performers to spin history and custom into new life. Nearly forgotten movements from pre-imperial China through to the country’s final Qing Dynasty erupt across the stage, with male victory dances, fan dances and dances of Tang armoured women among the highlights. Imagine robed beauties with pinched in waists throwing out long silken sleeves, sleeves that ripple and billow as they glide across Kwai Tsing’s voluminous stage, and all of a sudden a 20-minute trip on the MTR’s red line seems an easy ride.
Les Misérables – Not the Musical
School Shows (for secondary school students): 2-18 March 2016 (Monday-Friday)
Public Shows: 6 and 13 March 2016 (Sunday)
Sai Wan Ho Civic Centre Theatre, 111 Shau Kei Wan Rd, Sai Wan Ho – www.lcsd.gov.hk
Runs In English with bilingual surtitles
Comedy For Any Language
Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre Black Box Theatre
30 January 2016, 8pm
30 Pak Tin Street, Shep Kip Mei – www.jccac.org.hk
Runs in mixed languages including English and Chinese
Postcolonial Affairs of Food and the Heart
20-24 May 2016
Hong Kong Cultural Centre, 10 Salisbury road, Tsim Sha Tsui – www.lcsd.gov.hk
Runs in Chinese. Possibly sur-titled in English; check ahead.
Runs from 17-21 February 2016, 8pm and 20 February 2016, 2.30pm
Queen Elizabeth Stadium, 18 Oi Kwan Road, Wanchai – www.lcsd.gov.hk
Dreams of the Past: Ancient Chinese Court Dances
26-28 February 2016, 7.45pm and 27-28 February 2016, 3pm
Kwai Tsing Theatre Auditorium,12 Hing Ning Road, Kwai Tsing – www.lcsd.gov.hk