What Do You Know About French Hong Kong?

Someone once said that after God made France so beautiful, he created the French to even the score. The witticism is not attributed to Josephine Baker, but she had a similarly double edged take on her adopted country: “I like Frenchmen very much,” she famously quipped, ”because even when they insult you, they do it so nicely.” In France alone among all nations, you can love the people for their sophistication, art, fashion, food and cool chic, or fear them for the same. 

If beauty and terror are two sides of the French coin, Wu Hoi-fai has not yet chosen his side, “pile ou face” – heads or tails. On the one hand, as the artistic director of the documentary theatre company  Pants Production, he makes it his business to be sceptical of cultural generalisations. In his theatre practice, he uses the research tools of sociologists and anthropologists to create factually accurate plays about Hong Kong, its people and issues.  On the other hand, when it comes to the French, he can’t help from indulging in a few stereotypes: “romantic,” “elegant,” “stylish” and “classy” are the words that come to mind for him. Lately he has discovered something else, however, in the vein of Baker’s observation. He learned it while researching his current project, Pas de deux à Hong Kong, a study of Hong Kong through the eyes of the French. 

“They have a kind of confidence, or some people would use the word pride,” he says about the 30 French people he interviewed for Pas de deux. “They seem to feel a self-assurance in any situation that is quite specific.” 

He hadn’t heard of the unspoken rule in France to never admit fault but, whatever the cause of their conviction, he finds it unnerving. In fact, it makes him jealous. That’s because, in 2021, Wu was facing a moment of indecision. Hong Kong’s pandemic restrictions were packing outbound flights, and he wondered if it wasn’t time for him to leave, too. Instead, he had the idea to talk to “outsiders, non-Chinese” to ask them why, when their foreign passports opened avenues abroad, they chose to stay. It was a period of soul-searching, he says.  “I was questioning how important Hong Kong is to me, how much I’m in love with Hong Kong, and what’s so special about Hong Kong that I have to stay here.” 

He never considered interviewing the British: too familiar, too straightforward for a Hongkonger. But the French? Here was a whole new kettle of fish, because those fish wear Dior. “I had the naïve hope that if the French keep loving Hong Kong, there is a possibility for Hong Kong to remain a sophisticated world city,” he remembers thinking. 

Pas de deux is a commission by French May and the final production of its two year cultural exchange that also saw the development of French writer/director Nicolas Kerszenbaum’s Good Fortune. In addition, the festival toured earlier works by both directors to Paris and Hong Kong. Wu’s contribution was a reprise of his 2016 adaptation of Martin Booth’s Gweilo, starring the Hong Kong raised, Finnish-French actor Micah Sandt. 

While Booth’s childhood memoir offers local readers mostly amusing, sometimes trenchant commentary on 1950s Hong Kong, in Wu’s Paris production and Sandt’s zinger of a one-man performance, the play offered French audiences a rare look at both British empire and a city that never entered the French collective unconscious in the same way that its own colonial capitals did: Algiers, Hanoi, Dakar… 

Gweilo is the third chapter in what Wu calls his “trilogy of diaspora” that includes productions of American playwright David Henry Huang’s Yellow Face and British author Helen Tse’s Sweet Mandarin. Pas de deux doesn’t so much stretch that triptych as echo its principal theme; in the manner of Gweilo, Wu’s intention is to train a newcomer’s gaze like a magnifying glass on Hong Kong’s sights and people while exploring how to develop a sense of belonging. Home was the throughline of his discussions with his interviewees, although to judge from his specific questions — generally softball probing about favourite foods and places in Hong Kong, memories of home and expectations as an expat — these did not tease out what that means for the French specifically.

Wu’s research was facilitated by the French Consulate in Hong Kong, which put him in touch with 20 French residents starting in 2022, on behalf of French May. Last year, he expanded his search through contacts provided by one of those interviewees. This sampling method skewed towards a pool of happy, well-established subjects; however, Wu defends the range of ages and experiences of his interviewees, citing artists, academics, students, political representatives and journalists among his participants. 

And while Wu also spoke to the care he and his co-creators (initially drama students at Baptist University and finally a cast of professional actors) took to avoid an othering gaze, a work-in-progress public viewing in 2023 traded in stereotypes of the self-centred expat looking for adventure and poked fun at French vanity with Edith Piaf’s La vie en rose as the soundtrack. If you can imagine a group of French artists creating a play about the Chinese and acting as them on stage, wearing some kind of culturally identifiable dress while Chinese opera music plays, you can gauge the risks of Wu’s initial direction.

Back then, Wu was intrigued by the “parallel worlds” of French expats and his Baptist University students: whereas the French, living in places like Stanley, Tseung Kwan O, Mid-Levels and Lantau, raved about the natural environment, safety and convenience of Hong Kong, his students complained of Hong Kong’s density, crowded streets and lack of space to relax and create. He saw a tension between “insiders” and “outsiders” who rarely cross paths in the city’s East-West ecosystem. For what it’s worth, Netflix’s Expats series — lauded by overseas critics but panned in Hong Kong as cringey — is at pains to argue a deeply cynical point on the same theme. 

Wu now insists that he rejects those dichotomies. The Pas de deux that audiences will discover in June relies less on skits using verbatim quotes from the interviewees — which were exploited for laughs in the play’s first iteration — and more on lessons he learned from François Drémeaux’s historical study, Hong Kong French Connections: From the 19th Century to the Present Day. One thing he discovered, and which particularly impressed him, was the support lent by some French to Hong Kong during World War II and specifically their secret efforts to hold off the Japanese invasion in 1941, even though officially, France’s Vichy government supported the Axis powers.

Wu’s two-year-long investigation overlooks an obvious reality, however: France has the highest foreign direct investment in Hong Kong of any EU nation. Hong Kong’s quality of life — mountains, sea, big city vibe — appeal to many people, but if some 10,000 French people currently live in Hong Kong — a 50 percent drop since a wave of French expatriation here peaked about 10 years ago — it’s because over 360 French companies do business here, in sectors from luxury goods to transportation and finance. Then there are the countless merchants and service providers that cater to that community. To quote an American political strategist from the 1990s — though, who knows, maybe it was actually Napoleon who coined the phrase — “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Wu justifies his methods and obsessions in Pas de deux by explaining that his interests lie less with the French as a culturally coherent group but rather in “how the French people’s views impact  our views of Hong Kong” by “giving us the benefit of an outsider’s eyes, a new, fresh angle.” Contradicting his earlier statements, he repeated that the “core” of Pas de deux is that insider “us,” the “Hong Kong Chinese,” and what the city means for them. 

Zolima CityMag reached out to a few of Wu’s interviewees for feedback. They shared that they participated in his research in the hope of presenting a more nuanced view of their fellow citizens in Hong Kong than might otherwise be common currency; in one respondent’s world weary opinion, “we are already caricatured enough.” In particular, they wished to dispel the impression of French expats as haute-coutured dilettantes in Hong Kong and instead impress upon their fellow Hongkongers their commitment to a city they believe they too can call home.

Wu says he was surprised by the French participants’ strong connection to Hong Kong. He shares that during his short time as a university student in London, he could never feel at ease in British culture and always craved the comforts of home. It was that same discomfiting by the unfamiliar that made him fear for his safety before touring Gweilo last November. Listening to his interviewees’ unanimous appreciation for Hong Kong’s safety and their portrayal of the city as a utopia of law-abiding gentlefolk, he had concluded that “Paris is really a city of crime.” 

Followers of Wu’s work will not be surprised by his angle in Pas de deux. His concerns lie with the injustices of life in Hong Kong for ordinary people, in plays examining the 1967 anti-colonial riots (1967), the real estate market’s smoke-and-mirrors games (Estate Agents) and the displacement of local communities by urban development projects such as West Kowloon and the high-speed rail link to mainland China, as in his work Once Upon a Time in Choi Yuen Chuen. In his quest to right real or perceived wrongs to Hong Kong over the centuries, he finds very moving the “idea of people who have no responsibility to Hong Kong, but they fought for it” and sometimes paid with their lives, a history he wishes would be more widely known here. 

In the course of several discussions over the past year about Pas de deux à Hong Kong, Wu never mentioned the motto of the French Republic: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. The French he interviewed in Hong Kong undoubtedly harbour strong feelings about how France’s proudly championed role as the self-proclaimed home of human rights has shaped their world view and life choices – indeed, that very confidence that piques and intimidates Wu. 

What does France’s promise to defend freedom, equality and brotherhood really mean in 2024 and how does expatriation weaken or strengthen France’s commitment to these values at home and around the world? For “Asia’s World City,” these questions are not academic yet they are beyond Wu’s ken. They are obviously pertinent for the French who choose to stay in a changed Hong Kong, but not only. Investigating would require considering as well the “outsiders” to the “us” in France today and examining the full range of issues around expatriation and its involvement in colonial history then and globalisation now. 

Audiences for Pas de deux à Hong Kong will understand that identity is not a two-sided coin but more like the banana dance performed by the naturalised French descendent of African slaves brought to America who was Josephine Baker, on the stage of the Folies Bergère in 1926: a mischievous cat-and-mouse between appearances and awareness of herself and her audience. Baker’s life spoke volumes about what it means to be French, an expatriate and to love one’s adopted country enough to die for it. Maybe the best takeaway from Wu’s research is that the answers to the questions that haunt us can lie in the most unexpected places. 

Pas de deux à Hong Kong will be performed in Cantonese and English, with Chinese and English surtitles, at the Sheung Wan Civic Centre Theatre from May 31 to June 2, 2024. For more information visit here.

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