Until recently, Cantonese musicals have struggled to gain traction in Hong Kong. But these creatives may have what it takes to put the city's performing arts on the world map

A theatre is one of the last venues one might expect in the gritty industrial district of Kwai Chung, where dusty grey factory buildings are the norm. But one ground-level retail-space-turned-theatre has, in the past few months, been attracting celebrities such as Golden Horse winner Tse Kwan-ho and diva Liza Wang, as well as a crowd arts lovers. This renewed space is the home to Boom Theatre, a local company responsible for Our Journal of Springtime, which is Hong Kong’s first permanent musical.

The show tells of how a group of Hong Kong students decide to pursue their dreams despite family and societal expectations, pressures from the education system, and teen love—themes which resonate with many locals. Since it premiered in 2018—in another factory building before the relocation to its current permanent site the following year— the constantly sold-out, almost three-hour show has been staged more than 120 times—six shows per week—and is now sponsored by Emperor Group, one of Hong Kong’s biggest conglomerates.

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Above Our Journal of Springtime (Photo: Paul Yip / Life Ideas Ltd)

The success of Our Journal seems to indicate a step up in both the development of and audience for locally produced musical theatre. This coincides with other productions which have been making noise both in the city and the region: for example, Tri Ka Tsai, a 2019 Hong Kong-style cabaret featuring songs in different Chinese dialects by local composer and singer Anna Lo, was selected for the Singapore’s Huayi Arts Festival this month; and HKRep’s The Impossible Trial, a Cantonese musical about an immoral Qing dynasty lawyer seeking resurrection, a much-anticipated production which took veteran composer Leon Ko Sai-tseung and librettist Cheung Fei-fan eight years to create and which finally premiered at the Xiqu Centre in September last year.

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Hong Kong has in fact long produced original musicals, but it’s only recently that they have enjoyed this sort of popularity and recognition. The origins of local musical theatre are famously dated to the 1972 production of Madam White Snake, based on the Chinese folktale Legend of the White Snake; in the 50 years since, there have been more than 100 more, some in the format and scale of a Broadway show, and most inspired by either the city’s culture and history, or Asian literature. Yet most locals are unfamiliar with the wealth of titles.

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Above An Impossible Trial (Photo: Wing Hei)

“If you ask any Hongkonger to name a musical, they can easily come up with Cats or Les Misérables, but barely anyone could name an original local production,” Ko says. He believes that the problem lies in how “Hongkongers are under the impression that the quality of our shows is less impressive than western works.” He remembers vividly in 2019, when he staged The Originals: Hong Kong Musicals in Concert, a show that revisits songs from local productions, people were more interested in the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra’s Wagner concert on the other side of the Cultural Centre from his production.

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Frustrated, the composer asked some concert-going friends why they weren’t interested in watching Cantonese musicals. They told him that they had never felt the impulse to spend money on a ticket; it wasn’t until Ko invited them to his show and they were “blown away” that they realised “how Cantonese musicals were enjoyable and of a high standard”.

It’s not that surprising this is a common opinion; western musicals, which have been produced for far longer on New York City’s Broadway and in London’s West End, have long found fans in our city. Ko, Cheung, Lo and Our Journal’s director and producer Tom Chan all attribute their first love of musicals to western productions. Cheung, now in his 40s, recalls taking a bus all the way from his home in the New Territories to the Cultural Centre for his first musical experience when he was 14. “I went crazy about musicals after Les Misérables. I didn’t know what they were. I just thought how amazing it was that there was something so mesmerising in this world,” he says.

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Above Middle: Tom Chan, Our Journal of Springtime's director, producer and composer (Photo: Paul Yip / Life Ideas Ltd)

Similarly, Chan, 24, who is now Boom Theatre’s director, fell in love with musicals as a child and, as a teen, acted in and directed youth productions of translated musicals including Grease and Singin’ in the Rain. His experience of attending Wicked, Book of Mormon and Phantom of the Opera in the West End while studying in London motivated him to pursue a postgraduate degree in drama at the University of London, with the ambition of producing his own work and promoting Hong Kong musicals upon his return.

“Musicals that run for decades have a very precise formula,” he says. “The visual scenes, choreography and lighting that the creators want you to remember, the songs that will loop in your head after you leave the theatre, and the plots that stir up your emotions—all these create an experience that audiences cannot find outside the theatre. I think the musicals in the West End and Broadway demonstrate this very well.”

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Above Our Journal of Springtime (Photo: Paul Yip / Life Ideas Ltd)

But Lo believes that, even with this formula, local musicals would still struggle to thrive in Hong Kong. “We don’t have the same ecosystem, support or environment that the West End has, because the West End has a much more developed theatre-going culture to begin with,” she says. She also points out that, unlike the western centres of theatre—where it can take more than five years to develop a show, with the rounds of reading, off-Broadway or off-West End previews and polishing before it hits the main stage—shows in Hong Kong typically only have a couple months of rehearsals. “That is quite crazy to think about; it’s barely enough time to memorise everything before you’re onstage. If you’re lucky, you get two weeks’ worth of shows with a bigger theatre company. If not, with a midsize company, you get a maximum of three or four shows over one weekend after a two-month rehearsal period. And then you’re done.”

The scarcity of musical degrees in Hong Kong means a lack of nurturing for new blood and of support for performing arts as a legitimate career, says Ko, who left home for New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts to study musical theatre writing in the 1990s. The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts only launched a bachelor’s degree in drama that includes a major in acting for musical theatre in 2012.

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Courtesy of Anna Lo
Above Anna Lo (Photo: Anna Lo)

It’s a step in the right direction, as is Chan’s long-running show. “I really love Cantonese and I love Hong Kong. That’s why I want the culture and art development here to grow even more,” he says. While Boom Theatre’s intimate setting only has space to accommodate about 120 people and limited set pieces, Chan comes up with innovative ideas to make each scene impactful, such as memorable pop songs, intricately crafted foldable sets, and projections that add movement to a scene that, due to space limitations, is otherwise fairly static. “We try to give audience unlimited magical moments that they can remember and moments that resonate with them,” he says.

To help market his show and extend the experience, he has set up a café next to the theatre; the musical features the utensils and drinks from the café, so that audience members who go there feel they are part of the show, and they can also buy merchandise seen onstage. Chan also plans to collaborate with nearby hotels to offer staycation and ticket packages that target people who wouldn’t ordinarily see such a show.

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Above Our Journal of Springtime (Photo: Paul Yip / Life Ideas Ltd)

“I want to turn theatre shows into a common entertainment choice for Hong Kong people, like going to the cinema,” he says. “And if we are to change the theatre culture here, the first thing is to introduce a new habit. It has to be convenient: people shouldn’t have to pre-book tickets, and the show should run almost every day, which means they can see a show after work, before dinner on weekends or whenever they are free.”

His formula is working so far: the age range of his audience varies from teens to seniors, and his show has seen returning audiences, including teachers who bring whole classes of students.

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Courtesy of Anna Lo
Above Anna Lo (left) and Rick Lau in LauZone (Photo: Anna Lo)

Lo says that musical theatre is a “fun, rewarding and at times touching” way to tell unique Hong Kong stories. With Tri Ka Tsai and its sequel LauZone, for example, she explores the cultural roots, memories and histories of the city’s different communities, such as the Shanghainese, Hakka and Chiuchow clans, through songs in ethnic dialects. “There are a lot more languages spoken in Hong Kong, especially among the older generations—my grandma spoke Shanghainese, my creative partner Rick’s mother spoke Chiuchow. Those are extra languages outside the standard Cantonese, Mandarin and English that I was brought up learning. We wanted to extend our search for our identities as Hongkongers through language,” she says, adding that she believes “there’s an audience out there who is interested in things that are so specifically Hong Kong or Chinese, because that’s what they don’t have”.

 

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Above An Impossible Trial (Photo: Wing Hei)

Cheung shares the same vision. He feels that, while there may still be a long way to go, with his work and that of his colleagues, plus a new generation of talents, Hong Kong musicals will take flight. “Hong Kong was once dubbed the Hollywood of the east. Our film industry took us so far ahead. With musicals being another powerful storytelling artform, it’s my dream that Hong Kong can also become the Broadway of the east.”

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