What do Sun Yat-sen and the hit movie Table for Six have in common? The answer is Sunny Chan, who is restyling both for the 51st Hong Kong Arts Festival. Organisers are betting that the new musical Yat-sen, whose book Chan wrote, and his stage adaptation of the film that starred Dayo Wong and Lin Men-chen, will lure audiences back to live performances after three years of closures and digital offerings. For the prolific screenwriter with a dozen breezy comedies and brawling martial arts pics to his credit, including Men on the Dragon (2018) and the Love Undercover movies that he co-wrote with Joe Ma, his double bill as a playwright in the festival elicits “complex feelings,” he says through an interpreter at the festival’s offices. Nevertheless, the ever sunny Chan didn’t hesitate to take a go at the challenge. Why? “Because Hong Kong Arts Festival is so cool!” he bursts out in English to a journalist and a room crowded with festival marketing staff.
For So Kwok-wan, programme director at HKAF, who joins the interview late, Chan and this year’s festival are something of a match made in heaven. In 2018, when So was gathering a team to imagine the life of the young Sun Yat-sen, he wanted audiences to discover a pop culture hero, a “Steve Jobs,” he says, who transmuted revolutionary thinking into radical social shifts. After approaching “a lot” of writers in the hope of creating an Asian Hamilton, So found in Chan both a ready collaborator, with lyricist Chris Shum and musical director Peter Kam, and a songwriter in his own right (the theme song of Table for Six, HateLoveHateLoveYou, is his own composition).
Chan, in a Fila creme sweatshirt and stage makeup, his dyed brown hair coiffed into tidy billows for a photoshoot with Zolima CityMag later that evening, was oozing casual movie swank in a spartan meeting room at the Festival’s offices just days before this year’s launch. “I am a commercial film writer so [theatre] is very different but for a brand like Hong Kong Arts Festival to get in touch with me, I think they really have good taste,” he tells his assembled audience with complete earnestness, before extending the compliment to cinema generally: “If Hong Kong Arts Festival chose me, they believe that there are aesthetics in commercial film that are not different from art work.”
To be sure, Chan’s collaboration with the festival marks three firsts for his two-decades-long career: his first drama, first stage play and first musical. Writing Yat-sen’s book proved a bigger challenge than he anticipated however, prodding him to study dramatic theory and labour over 15 drafts. The production’s lengthy development period through the fits and starts of the pandemic — the show was twice slated to premiere, in 2021 and 2022 — accommodated his learning curve. In discussion, he repeatedly credited the creative team, including the project’s first director and dramaturg, the Toronto-based, Hong Kong-bred theatre pedagogue Eugene Ma (replaced in 2022 by We Draman artistic director Tang Wai-kit), for providing guidance and structure through the process. It was So who conceived the overarching vision for the project, however, circumscribing the musical’s plot into an approximately 15-year period from Sun Yat-sen’s student years in Hong Kong to his detention at the Chinese Legation in London following the failed Guangzhou Uprising of 1895.
While the first act of the musical hinges on what So calls the “impossible” charisma of the man revered as the father of modern China, the second half explores “the soul-searching journey of Yat-sen facing his demons” through a more expressionist lens that uses cabaret style dance numbers to give form to the thoughts of the young rebel and the conflicts among his followers.
“Hong Kong was at that time a place for reflection, where [Yat-sen’s mix of Asian and Western influences] made him a complicated, different thinker,” So explains. “We are now going very pessimistic [in Hong Kong] but 130 years ago, there was someone who knew how to push the limit and who never gave up.”
The creative team stopped short at Sun Yat-sen’s legacy — “We didn’t touch on anything political or controversial,” he makes clear — and satisfied itself with “bringing the audience closer to the character.” There was reason to exercise caution; an earlier biographical stage work, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, commissioned by Opera Hong Kong in 2011 with a libretto by playwright Candace Chong, saw its Beijing premiere and Guangzhou performances inexplicably cancelled. Although the opera premiered with some changes in Hong Kong, further controversy bedevilled a run at Santa Fe Opera in 2014. So believes that audiences will encounter “a more human” story in the festival’s Yat-sen: “The most important thing we asked is why he did what he did.”
Adapting Table for Six was a more straightforward task. The movie is Chan’s most personal, drawing on his experiences as the sole boy among three sisters. The efforts of the fictional eldest brother Steve (Dayo Wong’s character) to “glue the family and find resources for the family” are sentiments felt deeply by Chan, whose path to the big leagues of Hong Kong’s film industry included gigs as a romance columnist and in-house writer for the Hong Kong Jockey Club to make ends meet. Among all of his films, he says, “I have put the most of what I believe in Table for Six,” which he also directed.
The film’s runaway success raised the bar, however, for what the festival could deliver on stage. As So puts it, “The audience comes with an expectation and to do something different is a big risk.” Aiming nevertheless for something in the tradition of a “Pinteresque exploration” of relationships, So handpicked Tony Wong (lately of We Are Gay, in the 2022 Festival) to direct and invited the film’s production designer Irving Cheung to create the sets and costumes. The festival denied Zolima CityMag’s requests for access to rehearsals, but So reveals this much: “The film is on the entertainment side, but the story itself has a lot more that can be used for the stage. It will be a mixture of realism and – I wouldn’t say dark, but a little more deep discussion.”
Chan rewrote the characters for the new cast, particularly Steve and his girlfriend, the sexy Ah-Meow (played on stage by Endy Chow and Grace Wu). Peter Chan reprises his role as the commitment-phobic Lung, while Fish Liew, who played a minor character in the movie, joins the lead cast as love interest Monica.
The influence of Hong Kong cinema on this year’s festival (Yat-sen is also played by a TV and film actor, Ling Man-lung, familiar from Tomorrow is Another Day and the ViuTV series In Geek We Trust) is not exactly new but, So argues, is driven by his priorities as a talent scout at a time when artists are leaving the city en masse. “I always want to expand the pool of [talent] for the stage because Hong Kong has a limited amount. I always want different people, especially from the film industry, because they have a different mindset.”
Chan confesses, however, that if he were tapped again to write for theatre, he might not accept the offer. “This experience for me is, wow, quite hard for me. Next time, I will think before I act!” he confides in English, accompanied by a characteristic staccato of rapid fire “ha ha”’s.
Chan laughs readily throughout the interview and often responds to this reporter’s questions with a gasping “Wow!”’ and eye rolling, leaning back in his chair as if blown away by the line of inquiry and then patting his hair in a gesture of regained composure. Citing Toy Story as his favourite movie while decrying the gravity of the new generation of film writers, whom he considers too absorbed by Hong Kong’s recent history to “trust in humour” as a communication tool, he exudes equal parts innocence and arrogance, saved by a surprising guilelessness. “That’s really unkind of me to say that,” he acknowledges of his assessment, tempering the faux pas with another burst of laughter under the censuring eye of his assistant.
When asked if he found a way to relate to Sun Yat-sen to write the musical’s book, Chan compares his duties as the president of the HKAPA Alumni Association with the responsibilities of the budding political leader, with no hint of irony: just two men responsible to their people. Yet, he is also genuinely curious about this reporter’s impressions of Table for Six and at one point even rebuffs a staff member for suggesting he ignore a question. In a celebrity culture better known for hyper-curated platitudes and posturing, Chan is refreshingly unscripted and decidedly optimistic, as in fact one might expect of a great comic writer.
“I think in Hong Kong, working in this art industry, we should empower people. Maybe it’s an emotional outlet, to relieve and [offer] an element of caring, to make Hong Kong people believe that this world has a chance to get better,” he concludes in parting, his assistant trailing with a change of clothes for the photo shoot and multiple bags and phones. “There is a Chinese culture belief: guiding people to kindness to show people hope. This is my persistence in my work and I believe in the future it will be my ambition as well.”
Yat-sen runs from March 3 to 5, 2023. Click here for more information. Table for Six runs from February 17 to 25. Click here for more information.