Cover Yat-sen (Photo: Hong Kong Arts Festival)

Sunny Chan reveals why he pursues his first Cantonese musical dream now, after two decades of a successful career as a television and film director and scriptwriter

In the final story of the three-week series about Hong Kong's top theatre playwrights, Tatler talks to Sunny Chan, a director and scriptwriter who has created Hong Kong's most memorable crime and detective shows, family comedies and historical drama. But television and films aren't enough for Chan, as he decides to create Yat-sen, his first Cantonese musical. Here's why.

Two decades into his career as a director and film scriptwriter, Sunny Chan decided to take a leap of faith and venture into the world of musicals, something he had wanted to work on since he was a teenager. “My first experience of musicals was with musical films such as Moulin Rouge! and Chicago, with which I fell in love,” Chan says. “There’s something so powerful with music onstage. It’s cheesy and simple, but any line in Come What May by Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor conveys so much more love than what you can say in a thousand sentences.”

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In 2019, the Hong Kong Arts Festival brought together local composer Peter Kam and lyricist Chris Sham, both renowned in their respective arenas, and approached Chan to write the script for original Cantonese musical Yat-sen. Despite his lack of prior experience writing for musicals, Chan immediately agreed.

Yat-sen is a biographical work about Sun Yat-sen, the first president of the Republic of China. “Sun intrigues me because, among all the historical figures who changed the political climate in China, he was the one who overthrew the monarchy but didn’t take over as the emperor,” Chan says. The show focuses on Sun’s formative years, before the revolution. “I want to shed light on what made the young man the great historical figure he is,” he says, adding that the show conveys the idea that aspirations and ambitions can’t be attained by merely dreaming; “one has to work hard for them.”

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To an extent, Chan is speaking from personal experience. Instead of a political revolution, Chan, who is in his 40s, has been fighting to bring more Cantonese musicals to both the stage and screen. Cantonese Broadway-style musicals are rare: there is only one professional Cantonese-language company producing musicals, Actors’ Family, which has put on more than 40 original Cantonese musicals since it was founded in 1991, including the popular A Tale of the Southern Sky in 2020.

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Chan attributes this struggle to the lack of musical theatre education in local schools, permanent theatres for West End-scale productions, and financial support from the government. The pandemic has further led to the cancellation of shows which were already in pre-production, including Yat-sen, which was originally set for March. “People who create musicals do it for their artistic passion, not profit,” Chan says. “With Yat-sen, I earn a tiny fraction of what I usually earn from being a film scriptwriter, but I spent way more time on the project: two years of research and writing, to be exact.”

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With Yat-sen, Chan is willing to dedicate time and effort; he wants to use his film skills and connections to initiate a small change in the local musical scene. The team did a workshop presentation of the first act last March and discovered that local audiences don’t have the same amount of patience as those overseas. Chan had to speed up the pace of Yat-sen, something he was comfortable doing after years of writing commercial film scripts which tend to be fast and succinct. He has also cast film actors, including Ling Man-lung, to attract movie fans who might not otherwise watch a musical.

“Ever since I was a teen, it’s been my ambition to make this world a better place through popular culture,” Chan says. “My musical now fulfils that ambition.”

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