Candace Chong Mui-ngam and Tony Wong were watching while a body bag was dragged slowly across the floor of a rehearsal studio in West Kowloon one recent afternoon. Inside was Cheung Kam-ching, who plays Neil in Chong’s play We Are Gay, which Wong is directing for Hong Kong Arts Festival this month.
Neil is not dead though, or at least not yet. And while that’s not a spoiler—the murder happens in the play’s opening scene—the body bag is one of many surprises in this production which combines Chong’s penchant for psychological thrillers in plays like Murder in San Jose (2009), and Wong’s physical theatre practice which allows that language alone cannot probe life’s mysteries.
“We like it dark,” Chong says matter-of-factly on a break, as if nothing could be more natural. And then she and Wong erupt in infectious giggles.
That this duo may be the most charming and the most menacing partnership in Hong Kong theatre today is testament to the double punch of their artistic visions and close friendship. “Chemistry” comes up frequently in their conversation with a reporter. A case in point: when Chong is trying to describe the feeling of inspiration that she gets from her director, it’s Wong who hits on the word she is looking for – “sparkling.”
That spark brings the heat to the production of We Are Gay that audiences will finally see at the Xiqu Centre, after a slow burn of cancellations owing to the pandemic since 2020. We Are Gay focuses on a love triangle between three men: Neil, Philip and his boyfriend Sheng (played by Leung Chung-hang and Yau Hawk-sau, respectively). In the hands of another creative team, the topic of gay love in Hong Kong could take a naturalistic or documentary turn, to explore social mores or discrimination (same-sex marriage is banned in Hong Kong with no legalisation in sight). Chong’s writing did begin in fact after a lengthy development phase, starting in 2018, that involved discussions and research with Wong and interviews across Hong Kong’s gay community.
But the play that resulted from that process began to feel out of phase with urgent questions about the city’s future beginning in 2019. After the 48th Hong Kong Arts Festival was cancelled in 2020, which quashed the production’s premiere just a day before opening, Wong decided to take Chong’s text in a completely different direction: a more troubling, liminal space, where, for example, a character murdered in the play’s first scene can haunt the action later.
Even for their first time working together, it has been a thrilling collaborative process and one they were still working out in rehearsal.
“Sometimes I really take risks, things I never tried before but I do this time, because of Candace,” says Wong.
Chong agrees. “Most of what Tony suggests is not what I imagine when I’m writing but I like how he puts things together. Sometimes, my instinct is, is it really ok? But I have to leave it to him. I trust him.”
The pair exudes a playful complicity that might make an onlooker think they were siblings: Chong the lovingly teasing older sister to Wong’s upstart younger brother, though in reality Chong is his junior. During a photo shoot, they prank constantly, with Wong archly putting his chiselled looks to work, directing smouldering stares into the camera. “I won’t compete with you. I know I’m going to lose,” Chong deadpans, but then, in an after-thought, mock-chides him: “I praise you too much. I don’t want you to be too proud.” An instant later, she is hamming a soft shoe while Wong, a trained dancer, mimes a relevé in his New Balance trainers, hands fluttering at his waist.
In rehearsal though, it is clearly Wong who owns the room, not only because he perches his athletic frame, which slim-fitting bermudas and a lavender polo seem to barely restrain, on a ballet barre high off the ground to better observe the scene. Wong started his career as an actor with Chung Ying Theatre in the late 1990s, but has more recently won recognition for his direction and now leads the Movement Curriculum at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. Delivering his instructions sotto voce, he keeps the cast on a short lead, and they in turn hang silently on his cues.
Their full concentration is required by the complex scene they are rehearsing, which telescopes past and present, live action and pre-recorded video, fantasy and reality. A maquette of the set shows a black box containing a line of mirrors, three toilet stalls, a urinal and small piles of black garbage bags (their life size counterparts also litter the rehearsal room floor).
Wong has chosen to adopt a boxing ring staging for the play, meaning that the action will unfold in a square area in the middle of the Grand Theatre’s stage; when the actors are not in a scene, they remain visible outside the field of play until their next entrance. Wong has also directed his actors to voice the stage directions as they enter the space.
Audiences used to what Wong calls, with an edge of frustration, the “naturalism of most Hong Kong theatre” may be initially uncomfortable with these effects and others, such as the use of video or meta-props like the garbage bags which can function as subconscious signifiers of sick or repugnant gay bodies. However, in a play that already challenges normative codes of love and sex, Wong’s goal is to provoke rather than coddle: “I want the audience to ask [what’s] real: our world or what’s on stage?”
Those questions are of a piece with the production’s evolution since 2019. Chong, who called We Are Gay the “closest to my heart” of her dozen or so plays and librettos, suspects that the city’s political changes will eventually affect society’s acceptance of the LGBTQ community, despite some indicators that attitudes toward homosexuality are evolving among young adults and a recent court decision barring the government from refusing public housing to same-sex couples.
“In my point of view, before 2019, we were more open, more liberal. But now I think there will [be] a regression. Our standard on gay issues will get closer to the mainland [Chinese] standard,” Chong surmised in an interview last June as the production was getting the green light for a November run. “It makes me think that it is meaningful for me still to do We are Gay, because we don’t know: five years later, can we still have a play with that title?”
One hopeful indicator may be the fact that Chong, Hong Kong’s most successful playwright, has pointed her pen at the topic. She has won the Hong Kong Drama Awards Best Script prize six times and is frequently commissioned by major arts and entertainment producers who know she is a reliable box office draw. In July, her most recent work, One Last Gift, a commission by Emperor Entertainment Group and starring Dayo Wong, had fifty sold out performances at the Lyric Theatre, with ticket prices ranging from HK$480 to $880. Chong is Hong Kong’s answer to Broadway all by herself.
She is also not afraid to take on pressing social realities and even political topics; The 35th of May (2019) revealed the inconsolable grief of Tiananmen parents. Unlike more family friendly treatments of gay issues, such as the slapstick ViuTV series Ossan’s Love, We Are Gay doesn’t pull any punches: there is crude language, nudity and sex in a public toilet. Chong said some of her interviewees feared such scenes would reinforce stereotypes of homosexuals as degenerates but she wanted audiences to feel the stigma of living as a homosexual in Hong Kong, and empathise with it.
“Nothing refers directly to the real situation in Hong Kong,” says Chong. “But I believe that after watching [the play], people will care about what’s next and why we may feel a bit more worried than three years ago. In Hong Kong, something has changed, like you are swimming farther away from something. This is why I feel such an urge to put it on stage.“
Those changes have also given her pause to think about her profession, she said in June. “In the old times, I felt free to write anything but now I have to think about whether I should work under this atmosphere and write something that I know can be produced. To be honest, as a writer, it’s very harmful for me.”
As the rehearsal concludes however, she notices that Wong’s lavender polo is in the same colour scheme as the Grand Theatre’s purple curtains and upholstery. She interprets this as an auspicious sign and sighs with satisfaction. If good things come to those who wait, luck too may finally be on their side. All ten performances of We Are Gay are nearly sold out.
We Are Gay runs from November 5 to 6 and November 8 to 13, 2022. Click here for more information.