The story so far

Updated: 2017-02-24 07:15

By Chitralekha Basu(HK Edition)

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Some of the finest local musical talents have come together to produce Hong Kong Odyssey - an ode to 180 years of the city's cultural heritage in 100 minutes. Chitralekha Basu reports.

We are in a rehearsal space tucked away in an obscure corner in Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Soprano Louise Kwong's full-throated singing of Sir Cecil Clementi's paean to Hong Kong reverberates across the room, chock-a-block with stools and empty sheet music stands. Most members of the 100-strong squad who will perform in the inaugural show of Hong Kong Odyssey at the City Hall on Feb 25 are yet to arrive. The piece is Hong Kong Arts Festival's (HKAF) tribute to the city's literary heritage and cultural history of the last 180 years in a 100-minute capsule combining readings, solo singing, chorus, orchestra and audio-visual effects.

It's a hugely ambitious project by the sound of it, but music director Chan Hing-yan and director-choreographer Helen Lai look relaxed. Lai is going over the on-stage blocking with the six-member vocal ensemble plus the soloists Kwong and Albert Lim. In between she takes a moment off to point us to the charts showing the costume changes. The earliest poem-song featured in Hong Kong Odyssey was penned in 1948 by the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) scholar-diplomat Wei Yuan, who famously negotiated with the British traders on behalf of the statesman Lin Zexu, trying to prevent the First Opium War, while the most recent one is Hong Kong University academic David Clarke's 2007 poem, A City Passing! The vocalists will wear period costumes to give the audience a feel of the spirit of the age in which a song was written.

The story so far

HKAF commissioned the project to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the reunification of Hong Kong with the country in 1997. And while this is an opportunity to look back in wonder at the many different strands of cultural and political inheritances - Hakka/Cantonese/indigenous communities, nationalist/communist/British colonial - Hong Kong has received, the idea, as director Lai puts it, is "as much about looking back as looking forward".

A way of doing that might be by taking note of the good as well as the bad that often inform the making of a rich, layered, composite culture like Hong Kong's. At least that's how music director Chan Hing-yan, who also selected the texts on which the script is based, would like to go about it.

"The 20th anniversary is an important event to mark but it is not necessary to make this a happy piece," says Chan. "I think it's more important to make something meaningful."

For instance, it's quite unprecedented to have so many songs sung in the Cantonese language in the course of a single music show, he points out. And the fact that these songs are based on the writings by some of the finest litterateurs this city has seen - from the poet Ya Si (Leung Ping-kwan, 1949-2013) to Lau Yee-cheung, who at 98, is "the oldest among his generation of writers still alive" - adds meaning and value to the piece.

Chan recruited three local talents - Charles Kwong, Daniel Lo and Phoebus Lee - to collaborate with him on this mammoth project. In a city where a section of the youth seem to be unhappy with the state of things, these composers, in their late twenties and early thirties, are trying to put across a sense of the bigger picture through their music.

One of the segments in the show, called Caf Can Do, is based on popular songs by Sam Hui and the writings of the novelist Chan Koon-chung. It's a nod to the flexible and resilient nature of Hong Kong, forever adapting and adjusting to newer realities, embracing the other - a bit like pork chops cooked with soy sauce in Hong Kong's generic cha chan tengs.

The story so far

Then is that spirit of tolerance and inclusiveness on the wane? Chan quotes Lo, who composed the music for this segment, from a recent interview in which the latter regretted Hong Kong people's growing obliviousness to the "can do" spirit.

"People seem to have forgotten that we had difficult years before as well, in the 1950s and 1960s," says Chan, building on the point made by his former student. "If there is a Hong Kong spirit it is about underscoring the fact that we can get through all these difficulties and make things work for us. That's the 'can do' spirit. For instance, Sam Hui's song is about a man who is ill-treated by his boss and still manages to laugh it off rather than complain. That's very Hong Kong."

The other generic Hong Kong element to which the piece keeps returning, like a refrain in a song, is the tram. There is an excerpt from a novel by Eileen Chang about the languorous, almost lyrical, movement of a passing tram, interrupted by the sounds of a military march by the Japanese troops - a reminder that the scene is set in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong of the early 1940s. And again there is a bit from Lillian Lee's novel which inspired the hugely-popular Stanley Kwan film Rouge, in which the spirit of a woman from the past arrives in 1980s Hong Kong, looking for her lost lover. She feels lost in a milieu given to increased mechanization, and anxiously hopes for the trams of her youth to have survived the ruthless onslaught of technology.

"The tram is the oldest mechanized public transport in Hong Kong. Nearly 113 years old. The Hong Kong tram is like a constant, moving alongside the city's history," says Chan, explaining why it was convenient to fall back on it over and over again while narrating the story of this city.

When Lau Shu-tin, 80-year-old exponent of Hakka music, takes the stage on Feb 25, a tradition on its way to slow oblivion will have received a shot in the arm. "I let these musicians perform as they would normally, but I put them in a different context, take a postmodernist approach, generate some tension between old and new, and a new meaning might emerge when you listen to them all taken together," says Chan.

Then by doing so he is merely following the path taken by many Hong Kong writers before him who have returned to themes explored by their literary predecessors, trying to make sense of these in the context of their own times. There are great examples of such re-visits in Hong Kong Odyssey. Clementi's celebration of British colonial achievement in 1925 was contested by Ou Waiou (1911-1995) in his poem Peace, written in the wake of World War II. And then Ya Si addressed the Clementi poem again in 1997, when the British rulers were leaving, coming up with a poem layered with mixed feelings at the prospect of the end of the existing world order.

The story so far 

A part of the 100-strong team of musicians rehearse for the grand event.  Literary references to the tram, witness to 113 years of the city's history, appears like a leitmotif in Hong Kong Odyssey.

(HK Edition 02/24/2017 page1)