The Song Dynasty general Che Kung is worshipped in China for his containment of plague, so perhaps it’s divine justice that the reboot of French May’s post-pandemic theatre programming kicked off at Sha Tin’s Che Kung Temple. That’s where director Nicolas Kerszenbaum made offerings and mixed with the throngs of faithful during the lunar new year to begin a theatre residency in Hong Kong, the first ever offered by the festival and an unrealizable wish until now.
In the pre-Covid era, the likelihood of a Chinese military hero playing a role in Hong Kong’s annual Gallic culture festival would have been as improbable as camembert congee, but Kerszenbaum’s arrival is only the first step in a project French May’s general manager, Xavier Mahé, has long advocated to grow the festival’s reach from importing French talent to offering a creative platform for both local and foreign artists. Let the Mirror Speak, as the project has been dubbed, has commissioned an artist each from France (Kerszenbaum) and Hong Kong (director Hoi Fai-wu) to create new work for both French and Hong Kong audiences and invited them to also reprise one earlier work during a residency abroad.
The two year exchange — which at the moment at least is a one-off initiative — means to satisfy French May’s ambition to be a cross-cultural incubator by prioritising ethnodrama and documentary theatre, practices that devise performances from interviews and historical and archival materials. Artists were selected who could train an ethnographer’s gaze on Hong Kong and reveal some telling truths. Think Margaret Mead living among the Samoans or Bronislaw Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands, if they were a lot less data-driven and a whole lot more interested in feelings.
After two month-long stays here, Kerszenbaum is already a convert to everything Hong Kong. He counts Che Kung Temple as one of his “three favourite spots” (the others are Cheung Chau and the Hong Kong Wetland Park) and doesn’t hesitate to dive spontaneously into a cha chaan teng for some pre-fieldwork sweet and sour gluten (tim4 syun1 zaai1 甜酸齋), as he did when a Zolima CityMag reporter followed him on his peregrinations in the city. “The triangle of spirituality, population density and nature, for me, it’s something that is very poetic about Hong Kong that you don’t find anywhere else,” he says while casually recording temple noises on his phone.
Kerszenbaum was Mahé’s first and only choice to be the project’s French artist-in-residence. Founding artistic director of the Amiens-based company Franchement, tu, the 45-year-old Kerszenbaum has the curious and untethered allure of a uni student on a backpacking holiday, picked up from studies in New York and Berlin and years spent creating theatre on the road, in Israel, Thailand, Cuba and Congo. At Che Kung Temple on the second day of the lunar new year, Kerszenbaum waited in line for four hours to beat the Drum of Heaven, a “super beautiful” moment that opened a window for him into Taoist beliefs. His patience has also allowed him to submit willingly to the probing eyes and sometimes dubious practices of fortune tellers of every stripe in the city (feng shui, I Ching, palmistry, ba zi and tarot, to name a few), from Temple Street to Wong Tai Sin Temple and in private practice.
“They told me, ‘You have such a young energy and you’re very [decisive],’” he recalls, respectfully unimpressed by this statement of the obvious, although the ba zi reading gave him some frissons when it revealed relational and health issues from his past. He likens a good fortune teller to a therapist who “asks you questions you don’t expect and changes your point of view, giving you a new perspective on your issues.”
Ethnodrama also provides this framework for reflection. “I have a feeling that I’m thinking differently,” he says about working in other cultures, an approach that forces him “to lose the habit” of a certain French ethnocentrism and to live, he says with a penchant for twee turns of phrase, “in the suburbs of myself.”
“There are so many things to explore,” he adds, “and this is what I am trying to make shows with, to try to figure out what’s in between where I was and where I am now.”
Kerszenbaum describes himself as a French Jew of Romanian and Polish extraction and volunteers that he consequently has no truck with “la France éternelle,” a nostalgic and exclusionary identity space of traditional rural values that is frequently invoked by French politicians. Yet in conversation Kerszenbaum also resists calibrating his belief in foundational French notions of the heroic revolution and individual freedoms to a local context.
“How can you build democracy in a country when your main concern must be to remain faithful to your parents?” he wonders excitedly in a busy outdoor café in Sha Tin. “This sense of betrayal: what should come first, your own comfort or the one of your parents? This is very, very interesting. These concepts don’t exist in Europe,” he shudders between sips of an iced peach oolong tea.
Although not an obvious trampoline into contemporary social issues, fortune telling provided the starting block for a show that Kerszenbaum is calling Good Fortune. “What I was really wondering is not about the future itself but the need of a structure, a story. If you ask people in Hong Kong about their future, they’ll say they don’t know. Sometimes having the allusion of stability is better than nothing,” he says, but for the first time, he doesn’t sound entirely convinced.
With his residency ending in June, Kerszenbaum is currently devising a structure for Good Fortune, a story about a multigenerational family living unhappily under one roof. For a rehearsal one recent sultry day, Kerszenbaum and actors Franchesca Wong, Esther So and Holmes Cheung gathered near the Temple Street Night Market. The plan was to walk from Jordan to the top of the Peak, with the actors improvising their characters along the way. Everyone except the show’s visiting sound designer, Guillaume Léglise, who looked like he should be hanging out in Montmartre with a Gauloise and a pastis, was dressed for a hike in running shoes, backpacks and light workout clothes.
“One, two, three!” Kerszenbaum counted down ceremoniously, and the actors set off in the direction of the Star Ferry playing a young man hoping to start a family of his own, his mother and his grandmother, both of whom are deceased and refusing to transition to the afterlife. If Kerszenbaum’s experiment worked, the reasons for their refusal would be revealed en route. Léglise trailed them in the thick humidity, a French May tote slung lightly over one shoulder, capturing the ambient aural environment with a microphone. Meanwhile, Kerszenbaum, with the air of a distracted dad trying to keep a wandering child in his sights, recorded a continuous stream of observations into his phone as the trio mimed Cantonese opera gestures in the Xiqu Centre’s public plaza, gawked at the luxury stores on Canton Road, and sidestepped busloads of uniformed tourists at the ferry terminal. The Peak brooded in the distance.
“I’m really diving into something I don’t know,” Kerszenbaum admits during a break, speaking about this ambulatory improv session, where the actors work independently in Cantonese and he tries to piece together their exchanges later through translations of their recorded voices. Kerszenbaum came to Hong Kong fresh from writing and directing a new play in Thailand with Bangkok’s B-Floor Theatre in November 2022, a political thriller about a disappeared activist performed in Thai, French and English. Unlike this residency, a three-month stay in Bangkok allowed him to gain sufficient mastery of the local language, even if he considers Thailand a much more mysterious and elusive country than Hong Kong.
In his estimation, Hong Kong is a “city of past future.” The high-octane metropolis that served as Ridley Scott’s inspiration for Blade Runner in 1982 has lost its power to excite in 2023, a slide which he attributes to an obsession with wealth and a societal “formatting” that are both nearly impossible to escape. He is interested in discovering what earlier generations came to Hong Kong expecting and if it’s incompatible with what they want for their children today.
Four hours later, after the families playing along the Wan Chai waterfront, the bankers in Central, the lemurs in the Botanical Gardens and the long, vertical slope of Old Peak Road, the team has summited. At the Peak Galleria, more tourists and a view shortened by haze. Kerszenbaum was happy.
“Finally this is what theatre is about, to do some invocation of the ghosts,” he says. “What was in the beginning just a show about fortune telling looks more and more like a show about the relation between the generations. What did your parents, your grandparents expect from you and how can you cope with that? If we can create a beautiful fiction about this question of Hong Kong’s future, that would be really cool.” He pauses. “I think it will work.”
Kerszenbaum concludes his residency with the Hong Kong premiere of Une Belle Inconnue (A Beautiful Stranger), inspired by the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, which he wrote and directed in 2019 (the show will be performed at Kwai Tsing Theatre in French with English and Chinese surtitles). The second phase of Let the Mirror Speak will take place in Paris in November when Good Fortune will have its world premiere and Hoi Fai-wu will begin his Paris residency to continue development of his commission, a study of the French community in Hong Kong and what keeps them wanting to live here. Wu will also reprise his stage adaptation of Martin Booth’s childhood memoir Gweilo, with the Taiwan raised French actor Micah Sandt. Both Good Fortune and Gweilo will be presented by Théâtre 13, in Paris’ Chinatown. Zolima will continue to report from the field. Look for more dispatches coming soon.