Actors' Family Brings Cantonese Musicals To New Heights With A Brand New Original, A Tale Of The Southern Sky
“The first time I went abroad to see Les Misérables in London’s West End, I went bonkers,” Mandy Yiu laughs, sitting with her legs crossed on the studio ground, “I fell in love with musicals right away.” There is still a trace of the ambitious, vivacious performing arts fresh graduate in who is now the executive director of Actors' Family, Hong Kong’s only professional musical company which has produced over 40 original Cantonese musicals since 1991. This June, Yiu and her team will put on another brand-new production, A Tale of the Southern Sky, which features 23 original songs by local composer Lau Wing Tao, and choreography by Hong Kong Dance Company’s artistic director Yang Yuntao.
While Les Misérables is a familiar name to most Hongkongers, chances are, not a lot can name one Cantonese musical off their heads. That isn’t surprising. Musicals in the West have a long history. They were first performed in the middle of the 19th century mostly as musical comedies along with crude variety revue for across multiple strata of economic class in America. Modern musicals with dance and original music appeared on Broadway with the opening of The Black Crook in 1866, an original piece considered as the first musical which fitted many of the modern definitions of the art form, including dance and original music to tell a story. It underwent much transformations in style, scale and purpose in time, such as from being escapist entertainment during World War I, film materials in the mid-twentieth century, to promoting social acceptance of minorities or gender differences since the early golden age. When compared to the long history of Broadway, Hong Kong’s theatre scene only started flourishing a few decades ago, let alone musicals.
The problem? “Musicals are made up of acting, singing and dancing, but there aren’t artists in Hong Kong who can act, sing and dance at the same time,” says Cheung Fei-fan, playwright and lyricist of A Tale of the Southern Sky. “The development of Hong Kong’s musical scene started rather late, even South Korea has been staging sophisticated Western musicals by using professional musical actors.” Both Yiu and Cheung suggest that while the West looks at the three elements of musicals (dancing, singing and acting) as a single unit, performing arts training in Hong Kong tends to separate them and encourage students to specialise. “From time to time, there are dancers who can act and sing, and they’ll be cast in musicals, but if you’re looking for a musical artist alone, there aren't any,” Cheung says.
This doesn’t mean there’s no space for musicals in the city. In 1972, Rebecca Pan, the first Hong Kong singer and actress to sign a contract with London’s EMI, who is also known for starring in a number of Wong Kar Wai’s films, produced and funded the first Cantonese musical Bai Niang Niang. The musical was adapted from Chinese folklore The Legend of the White Snake. Running for 60 shows, it was a great hit at Princess Theatre, the then grand entertainment landmark in Nathan Road which was rebuilt into the present Miramar Hotel. It sparked interest among the local populace in this art form. But what really set the scene for developing musicals in Hong Kong was the setting up of the first performing arts school in 1985 – the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts. Local producer Chung King Fai, who returned from Yale’s School of Drama after earning a master’s degree, was the founding dean of HKAPA’s School of Drama, where Yiu was the first class of graduates.
“King Sir (Chung King Fai) used to bring his students every summer to London to watch a musical,” Yiu recalls. “The first three cohorts of students were really close, and after we watched Les Misérables, we were so keen on staging our own musicals.” Back then, one of the students, Chung Chi Wing, was already writing songs for two originals called Curtain Up, starring Alan Mak (who would in 2002 direct Internal Affairs), as well as Brotherly Bond, starring Gary Tam Wai Kuen (the now veteran TVB drama actor). When Chung graduated in 1990, he and a group of HKAPA students and graduates set up Actors' Family in 1991 as Hong Kong’s first and only theatre dedicated to producing original Cantonese musicals. Two years later, they debuted with 1941 Girl, featuring original songs written by Chung. It reaped the Best Original Music and the Ten Most Popular Productions at Hong Kong Drama Awards in 1994 and 2000.
There are three types of musicals staged in Hong Kong: Western productions, Western productions adapted into Cantonese, and Cantonese originals. “Musicals are but forms of storytelling,” Yiu says, “If Les Misérables is about the French Revolution, The Book of Mormon examines The Church of Jesus Christ, I want to tell a story about Hong Kong.”
She wasn’t the only one sharing the same vision. Seven years ago, Cheung, who was already working as a playwright and lyricist, wanted to create a musical about Hong Kong with his composer friend Lau Wing Tao. Cheung read a book about the founding history of Kin Tye Lung, a rice family business in Nam Pak Hong, which was one of the oldest trading industries in Hong Kong. Cheung thought that this rice shop owner embodied the spirit of the older generation of Hongkongers who thrived on economic hardships to make a living, which inspired him to create A Tale of the Southern Sky. Loosely based on the real story, the musical follows the tale of Chan Yat-sui, a Chiu Chow young man who travels to Hong Kong alone to make a living. Through sheer dedication, he rises from being a coolie at the docks to a rice company owner. Then as a famine broke out in 1920, Chan faces the dilemma between running his business successfully and saving his fellow Hongkongers. “Through this rice shop owner’s story, I retrace how Hong Kong becomes what it is today, and how the next generation can bring it further.”
In 2017, a chance encounter at the reading of Cheung’s script brought Yiu and Cheung together. “To a certain extent, there is a trace of 1941 Girl in A Tale of the Southern Sky,” Cheung says, “I was really inspired by Chung Chi Wing. Mandy liked what I wrote and was keen on producing my musical through Actors' Family.” And Hong Kong has the perfect circumstances for his project. “With Chinese dance and Cantonese opera, the musical DNA has always been in us Hongkongers, even if our ways [of singing and dancing] are different from Western musicals,” he says. Cheung grew up with Cantonese operatic singing, Cantonese pop songs and Tang poetry, and studied cinema and television at Hong Kong Baptist University. “To me, writing Cantonese lyrics that talk about Hong Kong came naturally,” he says.
Creating a local musical is a calling to Yiu and Cheung. Yiu, now a mother, sighs that her teenage son only listens to western, Japanese or Korean pop songs and hardly know much about Cantonese culture. The heydays of James Wong, known for his passionate, poetic lyrics, and Peter Lai, whose songs touch on the frustrations of the working class, seem to be a bygone past. Cheung says, “I daresay Cantonese musicals are the last straw for local performing arts. That said, I believe that they can bring back the local performing arts scene when Canto pop has gone downhill. I think this musical can pass on what is unique or worthy to share about my generation to the next.”
And perhaps the worthiest to remember is the Lion Rock spirit against adversity. A Tale of the Southern Sky ends on 1941’s Christmas Day, arguably the darkest day in Hong Kong history during its battle against the Empire of Japan. “But it’s in these dark moments that we can see the brightest of humanity and hope,” says Cheung. His confident statement has a double implication on both the characters in his story, and the Cantonese musical landscape in Hong Kong.
A Tale of the Southern Sky will be staged at Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre from June 27 to July 5, 2020.