Tatler talks to the hottest playwrights who offer hope for Hong Kong theatre with their original productions in a series of three weekly articles, beginning with Candace Chong Mui-ngam on her first gay murder mystery this week
Candace Chong Mui-ngam, a six-time winner of the Hong Kong Drama Awards Best Script prize, wrote a bold new story for the stage this year. We Are Gay is Chong’s first play centred around gay characters; a murder mystery that examines what happens when an older barrister sidles his way into a relationship between a younger couple, an ambitious lawyer and a swimming coach. The play, which is a part of this year's Hong Kong Arts Festival, has been cancelled due to Covid. Until it resumes, Tatler goes behind the scenes to see how the veteran playwright breaks boundaries.
Unlike local plays, literature, films and television drama, where same-sex romance is only hinted at by euphemistic dialogue, handholding or, at most, kissing, Chong’s play features nudity, sex, violence and strong language. “I want a darker story with explicit details, which gives the play more realness, because in Hong Kong, we avoid talking about homosexuality and sex in public,” she says.
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Chong has long wanted to write a play featuring gay characters, to give her own gay friends a sense of representation. One particular conversation has been driving her since she was researching her 2005 play The French Kiss. She had interviewed a gay Christian Hongkonger, who was told by his church that homosexuality was a sin.
“His childhood was filled with fear, and when he grew up, after consulting with the church, he wasn’t able to ‘cure’ himself,” Chong says. “After returning from overseas, he couldn’t suppress his desires anymore. He met a man, with whom he was expecting to have his first sexual experience, but then this stranger turned out to be a robber and had an accomplice. The two targeted gay men because they wouldn’t dare call the cops, out of shame. That happened in the 1990s. Today, most local gay couples are still hesitant to hold hands in the public.”
Chong calls the theatre her “most sacred temple”. She explains that when compared to commercial movies or mass entertainment, where scriptwriters write on demand, playwrights present subjects in innovative ways that do not always entertain but provoke the audience into thinking.
“Sometimes that involves taking risks,” she says. “But I haven’t had any censorship problems so far with We Are Gay. The Hong Kong Arts Festival has a history of introducing diverse and culturally progressive international plays to the city. Its open-minded nature gives me more freedom to write. I hope the festival will continue to safeguard this freedom of expression.”
A playwright whose works focus on socio-political subjects in Hong Kong and China—Wild Boar (2012) is about fake news in the city, while May 35th (2019) follows a Tiananmen Mother striving to hold a vigil for her son—Chong believes freedom of expression to be the most valuable right. “The arts should be for different voices,” she says. “For instance, the idea of using the arts as patriotic propaganda is dated.”
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The pandemic has also posed another challenge for local playwrights. “I’ve been working in the industry for 20-odd years and witnessed that the theatre holds little value for the government,” Chong says. While the Hong Kong Theatre Arts Practitioners Union estimated in 2020 that the theatre industry lost at least HK$6 million due to venue closures, it wasn’t until this January that the government gave one-off subsidies of HK$40,000 to each of 100-odd performing arts groups as compensation. “Many of my colleagues had changed jobs. They couldn’t make a living,” Chong says.
But no matter what hurdles she faces, Chong isn’t giving up. “When I signed up to be a playwright, my starting point wasn’t to write social commentary,” she says. “I like writing about human nature, my life or experiences of people I met that touch my heart, and that keeps me going.”