About 10 years ago, Pat To Yan had his fortune told. It was a purple star reading (zi2 mei4 dau2 sou3 紫微斗數) and the message was gloomy: 2021 would be a bad year for Yan; he would face many challenges and he would have to leave Hong Kong.
Yan did leave Hong Kong in 2021, but he landed in what he calls a paradise: a year-long, fully supported position as House Author at the Nationaltheater Mannheim. Today, the 47-year-old playwright and director is the biggest new thing in German theatre. This year alone, he wrote and directed a new play, Sound Everywhere in the Universe, for NT Mannheim and was commissioned to write a libretto for the Swedish composer Malin Bång in the Munich Biennale. He had another play, Posthuman Condition, performed in Linz, Austria, while his play trilogy, Posthuman Journey, was performed for the first time in its entirety in Giessen.
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has said about Yan, “His keen eye for the hypocrisies and inequalities of digital modernity has made [him] one of Asia’s most sought-after playwrights.” At the moment, he is undoubtedly Germany’s most sought-after Chinese playwright.
Yan, who now divides his time between Berlin and Hong Kong, returns home this month to direct the Cantonese premiere of Posthuman Condition in the New Visions Arts Festival. The play is the second volet of his trilogy, and the invitation brings Yan back to the festival that premiered its first part, A Concise History of Future China. That play set his star rising in Germany when it was selected at the 2016 Berliner Festspiele Theatertreffen Stückemarkt, an open call for new writing that he entered after finishing an MA in playwriting in London.
Much has changed for Yan in 10 years, but at a lunch break during rehearsals in Kwun Tong, the boyish Yan, giggling readily from behind a yellow mask at his actors’ burlesque suggestions for a scene, seems unfazed by the attention. Asked how he feels about his successes this year, he describes himself as “very happy with the positive feedback” and leaves it at that. One review of The Damned and the Saved, Yan’s collaboration with Bång, about two protestors who take different paths of resistance after a totalitarian crackdown, called the production “crazy,” “entertaining” and “kick ass” even though it takes place in an “endless hell.”
If that’s not the language usually applied to opera, Yan’s trilogy (of which Sound Everywhere is the third instalment) is not usual, naturalistic fare. Its themes and preoccupations include democracy in crisis, the dangers of AI, war, human extinction and Buddhist interpretations of suffering. Characters flee dictators, become fodder for genetic experiments and are hurled through black holes, in contexts that look discomfitingly familiar. Fantastical, allegorical, with at times voluntarily cartoonish showdowns between good and evil, Yan’s dystopian worlds grapple with quantum physics as much as metaphysics, in a language of images and metaphors.
“I am trying to imagine what humans are becoming in the near future, in terms of politics, technology, science, imagination, philosophy,” he says. “What is the meaning of suffering and what happens after suffering? This always arouses my curiosity because [you can’t escape from] disaster or trauma and you have to know how to manage it.”
It is brave territory and all the more so since China, though never mentioned in his texts, is the elephant in the room. Another recent feather in Yan’s cap was the German premiere, at the Schauspiel Frankfurt, of Posthuman Condition, which Yan wrote in 2019 and which takes place during a massive campaign to genetically modify humans and weaponize emotionally intelligent AI to achieve world domination. One reviewer noted: “Yan’s parable makes one thing clear above all else: the Chinese model, the combination of authoritarianism with technological dehumanisation, is a decidedly bad one.”
Yan has been described in Germany as an activist. His Posthuman trilogy was invited by Stadttheater Giessen to celebrate theatre as “a public space where the conditions for a free society are negotiated” (from the theatre’s website). Yan concedes that his work is political only in the sense that politics is omnipresent in life as in fiction. He likens his writing instead to mythology and fables and suggested thinking of it as a “matrix, something you can view from different perspectives and different angles.” Rather than skirting limitations on free expression, he says, this is just “something good work should do.”
Appropriately then—though somewhat surprisingly given his futuristic settings—Yan finds his inspiration not in science fiction but in the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez and Haruki Murakami, who inspire him to write from emotion, or what he called his “most powerful feeling,” a reference to the Romantic poet William Wordsworth.
“If we want to have a meaningful conversation, we have to have some common ground, otherwise we can’t communicate,” says Yan. “This is something I always have in mind when I’m writing for German theatres.” Consequently, “I write from the emotion of Hong Kong’s protests. I think German audiences will understand this kind of stuff.”
Sascha Hargesheimer, House Dramaturg at NT Mannheim, also mentions this connection, writing in an email that while Sound Everywhere in the Universe, which Yan wrote during his residency and which NT Mannheim premiered, “can obviously be read as a commentary on Hong Kong, Pat To’s writing style that is heavily influenced by magical realism turns it into something very universal that we as European readers and viewers can connect to.” He adds, “It was an extremely important experience to work with an artist from Hong Kong, [who] really shared his artistic approach with us and furthermore gave us and the audience a glimpse into Hong Kong’s culture and situation.”
Speaking in 2021, halfway through his residency, Yan gushed about life in Mannheim, a mid-tier city about 90 minutes from Stuttgart in southwest Germany. The material security of his residency along with the city’s laidback café life—perfect for writing—and Germans’ appreciation of writers and literature gave him the time and emotional space to “pursue a sense of freedom” that was unknown to him at home.
But Yan, who grew up in a housing estate in Cheung Sha Wan, remains deeply rooted in Hong Kong, where he writes and produces work in Cantonese through the theatre company he founded in 2016, Reframe Theatre. Those works tend to explore more realistic situations and adopt immersive forms. A Minute Something Else Enters (2022) unspooled stories of students grappling with the SARS and Covid pandemics during a walking tour of the neighbourhood around the University of Hong Kong. A Poem in Jail (2021) surfaced the real-life story of two female prisoners in the former Victoria Prison, now Tai Kwun, and was performed in multiple spaces within its historic walls. Stream of Consciousness (2018) took over Fringe Club to tell the story of two lovers over 25 years. Yan has also been commissioned to create a new immersive work at The Mills in 2023.
Through works like these, exploring intimate stories of Hong Kong people, Yan says, “I hope the audience can really listen to what’s deep down in their hearts, go into someone’s consciousness and follow their mind and then understand one person. It’s the reason why we do immersive theatre, to experience, be empathetic.”
Ironically, while he says his residency was “one of the best things” that ever happened to him, Yan said earlier this year that 2021 was possibly his worst ever emotionally; the “accumulation of consequences” driven by the Hong Kong’s political shift and its leaders’ continued inability to deal effectively with the pandemic had sapped some of his usual optimism. (This was at the beginning of the city’s fifth wave of Covid-19, at the very beginning of 2022, which led to the last-minute cancellation of A Minute Something Else Enters.) That the best and the worst can happen in the same year is, with all due respect to Dickens, a concept that Yan is more likely to interpret through his chosen guides through the universe: Buddhism and the work of Stephen Hawking, who first posited that matter does not disappear in black holes. In emptiness, form and in form, emptiness.
After the run of Posthuman Condition in New Visions, Yan looks forward to writing in Berlin, a city favoured by artists from around the world for its arts infrastructure, internationalism, edgy cool and relative affordability. Yan’s exposure to German theatre directors, designers and actors, among the most creative anywhere, seems to already be pushing his plays into smarter, bolder, more irreverent and biting forms than he has tried in Hong Kong. His collaboration alone with Bång, an intensely experimental composer for acoustic objects, is testament to the opportunities that a simple foothold in Europe can bring Hong Kong artists, much less the wealth of support and resources offered by a residency.
Once back in Germany, Yan will take up a new commission from Stadttheater Giessen and begin work on a series of plays that he thinks will far outnumber the mere three of his trilogy, and that he is calling Metropolitan. In Berlin’s heady climate, Yan’s ambitions are already growing bigger wings.
Despite everything luring him away, however, Yan is at pains to give reassurances that this is not farewell. To prove the point, he cites the Chinese title of A Poem in Jail, which he translated loosely as “If there is you, there will be me.”
“If there is still a Hong Kong audience to watch my plays, I will stage my plays in Hong Kong,” he says. “Home can be a plural form.”
Posthuman Condition will be performed from October 28 to 30, 2022, at Hong Kong City Hall. Click here for tickets and more information.