Jordan Cheng: The Genial Striver of Hong Kong Musical Theatre

Is Jordan Cheng for real? 

The 37-year-old actor, singer and composer is everywhere these days. In 2023, he won two of the city’s top drama awards and was nominated for two more while adding to his credits three major stage productions, original music for another – and concerts at clubs, Disneyland and the airport. Banking on his growing recognition and, very importantly, his boyish grace, the Hong Kong Arts Festival is focusing the promotional campaign of its 2024 musical commission, I Am What I Am, on Cheng, who will headline as the leader of a scrappy lion dance troupe. 

But it’s his breakout role as the co-star of The Impossible Trial that Cheng reprises this month, a remount of Hong Kong Repertory Theatre’s 2022 production and the one for which the South China Morning Post proclaimed him “without doubt one of the best musical singers in Hong Kong.” 

With gigs and accolades raining down on him, you might be forgiven for thinking that Cheng’s incarnation of a karmically-loaded Taoist spirit has something to do with it. The truth, however, is that he has talent and charm in spades, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that he is cute as a button.  

“I never intended to be an actor,” he begins coyly — or deadpans? — over cups of Fujian hong cha at the Xiqu Centre on a recent Sunday night; the proprietress of a tea house who was just closing had taken one look at Cheng and cued a private tasting for us. As water bubbled softly over a fake rock cascade near our table, he settled in to tell his Cinderella story: that he was already in his 20s working in the marketing department of the Venetian Macau when he was discovered by a visiting musical theatre teacher who tricked him into auditioning for the Guildford School of Acting in the UK. He was admitted on the spot. 

“You had no previous voice training at all?” this incredulous journalist asks. Nada. “I really didn’t know what I was doing,” he insists. 

The teacher in question, Mohamed Drissi, who is the Artistic Director of the Hong Kong 3 Arts Musical Institute, confirmed the story by phone. On his first meeting with Cheng, he was “amazed at his beautiful voice, his placement, his breathing and everything that normally people take years of training to achieve.” He was equally stunned to learn that Cheng hadn’t so much as sung in a school choir previously, although he did have a piano diploma. In fact, Drissi was so sure that Cheng was destined for the stage that he felt almost morally compelled to stop the young man from wasting his gift in an office job and karaoke bars. 

It took some convincing, plus a Macau government scholarship, to get Cheng on the plane, but he did earn an MA in musical theatre at Guildford. He has been calling his own shots ever since. Cheng is perhaps too humble to tell the story, but Drissi recounted an anecdote to illustrate the point: upon graduating from GSA in 2012, six London talent agents wanted to sign Cheng, but he refused their offers, preferring to develop his career in Hong Kong. “I really love doing musical theatre in my mother tongue,” he explains. 

It was that aw-shucks boy next door who received the Hong Kong Arts Development Council’s Best Young Drama Artist Award last June, in recognition of his international resume but also his steadfast loyalty to Hong Kong; “his heart remains with the local scene” was the English translation in the house programme. At a time when artists have been fleeing the city to avoid grappling with the National Security Law and its limits on free expression, the honour reads like a salute to a comrade in arms.

Cheng was racked by sobs and flashes of dumbstruck amazement during his acceptance speech but, away from the limelight, he is eager to explain why he doesn’t follow some other part of his artistic fibre to Broadway or the West End. 

I believe there are lots of stories and tales we can tell that no other people can create except us,” he waxes earnestly before launching into praise for The Impossible Trial, whose music and lyrics were written by Leon Ko and Chris Shum. The Impossible Trial tells the story of an unscrupulous lawyer living during the Qing Dynasty who is brought down by the laws of Taosist comeuppance, thanks to Cheng’s character, Ah Sai. 

Stage photo from ‘The Impossible Trial’, 2022 – Photos courtesy West Kowloon Cultural District Authority

“I really mean it: this kind of story, this kind of music, even Alan Menken couldn’t write, even Lin-Manuel Miranda couldn’t write, because it’s not their thing,” he says, referencing the Academy Award-winning Disney composer and the creator of Hamilton, respectively. “Only people in Hong Kong can create this because that’s what our culture is about. ”It’s starting to become clear that his marketing training was not for naught. Next he sidestepped a question about the city’s creative resources and then added that he considers musical theater to be the perfect genre to build social cohesion. Finally, he offered himself as its ambassador: 

“Musicals are a very good medium for people to know [that theatre] is for everyone. It can be entertaining, it can be meaningful, it can be philosophical as well. People with all different backgrounds can still enjoy a musical. That probably is the reason I chose this stream. I hope I can contribute as much as I can.” 

“I’m sure if Jordan had stayed in London, he would be performing in the West End,” Drissi says, almost wistfully. “Hong Kong is not big enough for him, but he really wants to inspire young talent here, and so far that’s what he’s doing. So many people start loving musicals after seeing him [perform].”

Cheng was born in Hong Kong but his civic pride extends to Macau, where he grew up and where he maintains strong affective and professional relations. Among other work there, he starred in Mr. Shi and His Lover, produced by the Macau Cultural Center in 2016, and toured with the production for four years. He also beams with pride when sharing that he learned to make Portuguese egg tarts during Covid. But he finds his greatest creative inspiration in Hong Kong’s “vibe and energy,” as he seeks to add his own compositions to the city’s Cantonese language songbook. 

One addition is “再見香港” (zoi3 gin3 hoeng1 gong2) or “Martin’s Farewell to Hong Kong,” which he wrote this summer for a stage adaptation of Gweilo, Martin Booth’s well-loved memoir of growing up here in the 1950s. The song offers up the city’s stock images of “green mountains,” “prospering roads,” and “hustle and bustle,” and when he explains that the melody came to him while walking through the wet market in his Diamond Hill neighbourhood, by now you can almost see him in a Hong Kong Tourism Board promotional video:

“We have melodies everywhere in Hong Kong, a lot of sound and music everywhere we go. I just like trying to capture these sounds and I hope to transform them a little bit into art so wherever or how far people go, when they hear those sounds, those words, those images, they’ll remember where they’re from.”

Cheng has a reputation in the industry as a genial striver. He describes himself as a “boring” workaholic with no hobbies at all except writing his own musicals. One of these, The White Collar Principal, which was inspired by his pre-glass slipper life, will get a Greater Bay Area tour in 2024. On Facebook, he guilelessly promotes his shows and encourages his followers to take training and motivation seriously in order to reach their goals. 

However, the man that comes through in those posts — driven, introspective, grateful —  offers clues about the actor who is also deliberately pushing out of his comfort zone, in experimental works like Mr Shi, in which he played a Chinese opera performer in a homosexual relationship — inspired by David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly (1988) — and director Edward Lam’s Hard Times, a deep meditation on human frailty and vulnerability during Covid that played at Freespace in September.  

That production saw Cheng and actresses Elaine Jin and Margaret Cheung in a sleek, heavily microphoned kitchen where they ran through loops of ordinary activities like chopping vegetables and sponging down counters while a voice-over dropped reminders about milestones in space exploration. The actors rarely interacted, seeming to inhabit separate but neighbouring bubbles, rather like planets in their individual orbits. Trained to be a showman in musicals, Cheng describes the experience as “wiping away scraps of performing, not just showing off what you can do but being on stage.” 

Lam, who cast Cheng in Art School Musical in 2015, remarked on Cheng’s “diligent” professionalism, growing confidence and natural talent: “He can be comfortable with materials that are very minimal, transparent and, still, he knows how to make those perfect decisions,” he wrote in an email. Cheng thinks that stretching artistically through challenging theatrical forms is proving to be “really good nutrition to put back into my musical career” – but lets slip in that phrase that experimental work is just training. “I really hope it could push me forward to be a better performer, a better actor, a better singer,” he says of his artistic choices, because, at the end of the day, “musical theatre is my passion.” 

During a Covid lockdown in 2020, Cheng and his Hard Times co-star Cheung recorded themselves on a split-screen video singing the duet “Bad Idea” from the musical Waitress. Even playing around at home in front of a makeshift backdrop using whatever in their closets could serve as costumes, Cheng’s got the moves, voice, poise and comic flourishes to be on Broadway. So, really, wouldn’t he want to perform there one day? 

Cheng will only admit that Stephen Sondheim is his personal “god.” And then finishes the interview with a punchline: “I think it’s really a good time for me to be here working on the Hong Kong stage and everywhere. I’m having my good time, not a hard time!” 

If there is such a thing as karma or a benevolent god of theatre, this golden boy is under their protection, and there’s nothing the rest of us can do except let him entertain us and love watching him while he does.

‘The Impossible Trial’ runs from November 30 to December 24, 2023. For more information and booking visit here.

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