Good Fortune: A French Director Embraces Hong Kong

Last May, three Hong Kong actors took part in a role playing exercise that felt more like boot camp: they walked the approximately 13 kilometres from Diamond Hill to the Peak, only sitting down for the time it took a Star Ferry to cross Victoria Harbour. Their experiment was for a story they were developing about Hongkongers during the Hungry Ghost Festival, and their intention was to feed their nascent characters on the energy of Hong Kong’s neighbourhoods. But even after trudging through Jordan, Tsim Sha Tsui, Wan Chai and Central, the trio look back at the creation of Good Fortune, which they will finally share with Hong Kong audiences next month, as the making of a properly French pièce de théâtre. 

The reasons owe only circumstantially to the support of French May, which commissioned the work. The production had its world premiere last November at the Théâtre 13 in Paris and is one of four shows the Festival is producing as part of Let The Mirror Speak, a two-year theatre exchange between the two cities. During an interview at French May’s offices, Esther So, Franchesca Wong and Holmes Cheung described how a play made in and about Hong Kong became their love letter to French art de vivre, with emphasis on the art.  

Their journey started when they answered a casting call in early 2023 that gave few details, although one stood out: the production would include a Paris engagement. They had never heard of the director, Nicolas Kerszenbaum, nor the kind of theatre he creates from ethnographic research into unfamiliar cultures. But they were ready for something different. They say they got that and more. 

“I personally have never had an experience creating a work like this,” says Wong after all three are done singing the praises of Paris’ architecture and food – foie gras, pâtisseries and even “amazing” Asian cuisine.  “[Good Fortune] is all of our stories combined together but it is not our Hong Kong culture. It is a very French-style play.”

Kerszenbaum wrote Good Fortune while he researched local divination practices and beliefs. The creation process was shaped as much by his initial romantic vision of supernatural predictions and incense-shrouded gods as it was by the urban jungle that he met every day in the street. But the story that emerged is a not at all far-fetched tale of generational and class tensions between Fong, a middle aged mother working two jobs to support herself and her adult son; Wing, who fixes watches in a dingy shopping centre but dreams of something better; and Karen, a Canadian Hongkonger who has briefly returned to announce her honeypot engagement to her grandparents. On the last night of the Hungry Ghost Festival, all are stuck in a limbo between hope and desperation.

Those are situations the cast can relate to, in a Hong Kong that is nothing like a fairytale. So explains: “Fong believes that with hard work you can deal with everything, but for Wing and for our generation, the narrative has changed; hard work doesn’t really bring a good life, and you have to decide what kind of life you want to live.” 

It was all the more of a jarring culture shock for these Hong Kong artists to discover how their counterparts live and work in Paris. They were surprised to discover a “chill” and “relaxed” working environment at Théâtre 13 and at Cromot, a performing arts incubator not far from the Opéra Garnier where the company sometimes rehearsed. Knowing nothing about the French government’s four billion euro culture budget, its guaranteed unemployment payments to artists and other employee protections that don’t raise a Gallic eyebrow in France, they were struck by a societal belief in the importance of work-life balance that would make Hongkongers’ eyes roll.

On the other hand, they envied the time and resources — and physical space especially — that creatives are accorded in France. This topic sparked passionate discussion. Two months after their trip, they were still amazed by the almost 150 hours of rehearsal time they had at Théâtre 13 and they were wonderstruck by the collaborative nature of rehearsals, with Kerszenbaum and the production team in constant dialogue. Being part of the discussions, for the first time in their careers, with the lighting and set designers was “really eye-opening,” says So.

They also had the “privilege” of weighing in on a costuming choice that originally caused them some “concern.” Kerszenbaum wanted to dress the cast in Chinese opera gowns and makeup, but they worried that the choice would be at best an empty stylistic flourish and at the worst could attract criticism as cultural appropriation – reactions surfaced by some Chinese audience members in post-show discussions. Their takeaway, however, was a particularly French lesson in risk-taking that they hadn’t seen coming. 

 “We had a conversation about what is art,” says Wong. “Can we only use a certain art form within certain rules or can we be experimental? Nicolas taught us that if a lot of people might ask why, the real question is why not?”

She also placed her trust in French audiences as being less interested in cancel-culture politics and more used to “thinking outside the box,” she says. “Most of the feedback [we had] was from people telling us, ‘I could see Hong Kong, I could feel Hong Kong in the show,’” So chipped in. “And everyone loved the costumes.” 

Will Hong Kong audiences push back? These three half-expect it but declare themselves unfazed. The journey they have been on for the past year has taught them a whole new way of thinking: a positive mindset, they said, that, unlike what they were trained to believe, is not about right or wrong, good or bad. Trying to put language to this new outlook, So remembered the audition with Kerszenbaum, where she felt “a totally different vibe” that told her “I’m accepted right here. I’m loved. I can just give anything.” They all look momentarily wistful for those early days, as if they wished they had  the whole experience ahead of them.

“I’m just thinking how lucky I would be to have another opportunity like this in the future,” So offers. For now they are grateful to have made some really good fortune happen for themselves. 

Good Fortune runs on May 10 and 11, 2024, at City Hall.


This story was produced with the support of the French May. Zolima CityMag maintains editorial independence over its content

 

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