When Does Hong Kong Become Home? Martin Booth’s Gweilo Takes the Stage

Kai Tak - Photograph of Ben ZabulisMicah Sandt in GweiloShek Kip Mei Fire aftermath in 1953

Micah Sandt has a playful side. The French-Finnish actor and comic finds entertainment in eavesdropping on Cantonese conversations and then adding a quip or two of his own in the local lingo. “Oh, the jaws that drop to the floor,” he says with a giggle. “Once a taxi driver was really bitching about me into his phone and I leaned forward when we pulled up and said, very quietly in Cantonese, ‘You know, some of us gweilos can speak Cantonese.'”

Gwai2 lou2 (鬼佬). Originally a derogatory term meaning “ghost man” that was given to Westerners in Hong Kong, the word could today be considered impolite, although more often foreigners can be heard light heartedly referencing themselves with it. As the title for the best selling memoir by Martin Booth, gweilo was certainly used in this self-aware way. Now, in a new stage adaptation of the book, Sandt — 100 per cent gweilo — makes full use of his language skills.

The London-trained actor came to Hong Kong in 1993, with his family, and he grew up in Discovery Bay, the third child of four, with a French Dad and Finnish mum. He went to an island community school, high up in the mountains, until he turned 13. “I feel very honoured now that my parents were cheap enough to send me to a local school,” he jokes.

Gweilo_mixedNow the actor is taking the part of another Caucasian brought up here, in a one-man stage show of the book Gweilo. It tells Booth’s true tale of moving to Hong Kong as a child in the 1950s, detailing his observations as he wanders through the streets of old Kowloon. He witnesses Shek Kip Mei’s crowded squatter area as it is ravaged by fire and wanders along Nathan Road, past market traders and coolies, through puffs of opium smoke and into Hong Kong’s most famous den of inequity, the now mythic Kowloon Walled City. The book is a mosaic of fragments and recollections, evocative images glimpsed in snatches by a young boy new to the city and entranced by its all-encompassing foreign sights and sounds.

Turning memoir into play was no easy task. “The challenge is finding a story that connects all these places and characters,” says its director, Wu Hoi-fai. Wu and Sandt worked in tandem, picking scenes from the book they felt were particularly inspiring or moving, improvising to create a working script, running scenes, cutting them and keeping only what felt necessary. Live musicians stir up an atmospheric mood, while a satchel, a classic old china bowl and a few other choice props recreate the feeling of times past.

Shek Kip Mei Fire aftermath in 1953

Shek Kip Mei fire aftermath in 1953

Gweilo is a third instalment in a trio of plays produced by Wu, who wanted to study on stage what it means to be overseas Chinese. The series was conceived while Wu was studying in London at the Central School of Speech and Drama. His first production in what he calls the Diaspora Trilogy was 2015’s Sweet Mandarin, which told the story of three generations of Chinese women, his second, Yellow Face, which debuted in January, examined the lives of Chinese in America. Now the trilogy has come to a conclusion with what Wu views as an integral part of Hong Kong culture: its foreigners.

“Gweilo was a good way to view this perspective of looking through the eyes of a minority,” says Wu. “One reason Booth wrote the memoir was because Hong Kong did feel to him like home. I hope my adaptation can question why Hong Kong becomes home to so many non-Chinese.”

Sandt shares many similarities with Booth. His European parents relocated to Hong Kong from Kaohsiung, a city in southern Taiwan, where his mother had felt lonely and isolated. “She told me when I was born I was the only white baby in the entire hospital,” he recalls. “My dad joked, saying they’d never ever lose me.” But from the minute she set foot in Hong Kong, Sandt’s mother felt different. “When the plane landed, she just loved it here. With three small children and another on the way, she really felt that Discovery Bay then was the perfect place to raise her kids,” Sandt says.

Unlike expatriates arriving on a two-year package, Sandt’s parents decided to stay early on and built their lives here, which is why they packed the kids off to local school to pick up the language. “They wouldn’t call themselves expatriates,” he says. “They thought of themselves more as immigrants.”

Booth’s journey was shaped watching his mother, Joyce, adapt to her new country, embracing Chinese customs as she adopted Hong Kong as home, just as Sandt’s mother did. For Sandt and Booth, the experience was different: as youngsters, they accepted Hong Kong and it accepted them. “Home is more than an address, isn’t it?” asks Sandt. “It’s the time you spend there. France isn’t my home. I go back there and everything is foreign.”

“We asked the question a lot during rehearsals,” says Wu. “What makes Hong Kong home? Do you feel like Hong Kong is really home? [Sandt’s] answer was yes, because Hong Kong accepts [him]. It accepts you whoever you are, without asking you to change. And it has had this acceptance always. It invites people from all over the world to come here and take what is available. This is what makes Hong Kong’s story so special, and this is what we need to keep.”

Gweilo revisits a lot of historical sites that have long since disappeared, including the dingy, decrepit Walled City and the fabled Kai Tak Airport, where rumbling planes swept low past surrounding rooftops. At the book’s end, Booth remarks on changes in Hong Kong between his arrival, aged seven, and his leaving, as a man bound for the UK. Sandt says his old school on Lantau is closed, as are a lot of those old village institutions.

Does he think Hong Kong is moving away from its heritage too fast? It turns out Sandt is not as nostalgic as you might think. “It’s happening everywhere, isn’t it?” he says. “Paris isn’t the same as when I knew it as a child, it’s all changed now. I’m not a conservator at all. I see the need to conserve some things, and I acknowledge that change can be hard, but change is inevitable. I think that the Kowloon Walled City coming down was a good thing. It was a powder keg! It was filthy, grimy and disgusting,” he says.

“That part of colonial history is an interesting period, and nowadays when we question our identity I think that history is worth revisiting,” says Wu. But he has come to realise, while working on the trilogy, that Hong Kong’s appeal comes not so much from its buildings as its people.

Kai Tak - Photograph of Ben Zabulis

Kai Tak – Photograph by Ben Zabulis

In one poignant scene, Booth, as a boy in the book, discovers how he labels every Chinese a Hongkonger until he discovers one is a refugee escaped from Communist China, providing a paradigm shift in his thinking. In another, perception-changing encounter, he meets a deranged Russian beggar called the Queen of Kowloon, who sells Booth’s mother a valuable diamond ring for just a few dollars, revealing a surprising glimpse into the beggar’s aristocratic past.

Many of Booth’s characters appear in the play, all performed by Sandt, who says he has given up his gym membership since the show has him changing sets almost as much as character, and is a workout in itself. Despite feeling at times like a schizophrenic, his head buzzing with lines of dialogue, Sandt says the final piece is a “beautiful concentration of a story.”

Gweilo was Booth’s final work, written shortly before he died of cancer in 2004. In it, he says that he feels he never quite left Hong Kong. Though the territory might appear different today, Wu thinks that Booth would find that the Hong Kong of his youth still exists in the city’s people – for now. “Hong Kong is still like this. It’s a place for many people to come. It’s a place for flotsam and jetsam,” says Wu. “They are all escaping something, making Hong Kong for their home and, just like the Queen of Kowloon, they have diverse histories and backgrounds. It’s part of the charm.”

Hong Kong is at a point of change, questioning its identity in the shadow of the Chinese mainland. Perhaps more than ever, says Wu, this spirit of acceptance is an element that must not be lost.

When: April 15 to April 24, 2016
Where: Hong Kong Repertory – Black Box – 8/F, Sheung Wan Civic Centre. For more information and booking visit hkrep.com.

Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese. 
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