Secrets, lies and sticking together

Updated: 2017-03-03 07:02

(HK Edition)

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Three plays. Three dinners. Three significant moments in the city's history. One Hong Kong family. Evelyn Yu has the highlights from a 20-year-saga that's got more to do with ordinary people's lives than epochal changes.

Hong Kong's theater enthusiasts are in for a rare treat. Three separate plays about a Hong Kong family meeting over dinner on three occasions spanning a 20-year time frame have been lined up for their viewing pleasure. The trilogy, billed together as A Floating Family, is funny, poignant and also throws considerable light on a changing Hong Kong society.

Three epochal moments in Hong Kong's recent history have been chosen for setting the plays: 1996, just before Hong Kong's reunification with the country; 2004, in the immediate aftermath of the SARS crisis and 2017, in the lead-up to the election of the city's fifth chief executive - a time fraught with a certain amount of economic and political uncertainty.

Playwright Loong Man-hong, who has put together this six-hour-long saga, said, although the three dinners are set in three most significant time points in recent Hong Kong history, A Floating Family is less about history and more about ordinary families and what they do when they sit down in a circle for a meal even as a historical upheaval might be taking place outside their closed doors.

 Secrets, lies and sticking together

(Top left) Alice Lau plays the surly mother-in-law, making digs at her son's new wife at dinner, in Hong Kong Astronaut, the first of the trilogy.

As is to be expected, family members coming together for a meal are not always in happy harmony with each other. The first of the plays, titled Hong Kong Astronaut, opens with a farewell dinner for the oldest son Wong Chau-wing, on the eve of his emigration to Canada where he is supposed to join the ranks of the so-called "astronauts". He is an archetype of the many young people who left Hong Kong to go abroad before 1997 in search of greener pastures.

Chau-wing hasn't been back home for a family dinner in a long time, having fallen out with his folks over his marriage to Cara, a former prostitute. Finally he was bringing his wife to meet his family before they moved to Canada.

All eyes were on local favorite actor Alan Yeung on the evening of Feb 24, the play's first public show. The audiences cracked up several times to see him play a high school student in a school shirt, shorts, flip flops and earphones, getting into a war of words with his stepmother, all too often.

The stepmother on her part was ready to ignite a few sparks herself. First she asked for a pair of "public chopsticks" just as her new daughter-in-law was about to sit down to dinner, trying to drive home the point that she was still an outsider in the family. Then when she learnt the siblings had already met their new sister-in-law without her knowledge she threw a fit.

Secrets, lies and sticking together

"I don't think the relationship within families is always harmonious. And at a family dinner people often feel at ease about sharing everything," reflected Loong. The friction between the characters on stage as well as the warmth of kinship shared by them should be familiar to the audience.

Then there are also the secrets kept from one another. Dad Wong Foon has secretly paid the rent on behalf of his soon-to-be immigrant son. The siblings signal to each other and move on to the kitchen when they don't want to share a plan with their "crazy parents" - once again a situation that should be extremely relatable to anyone who has grown up in a family.

"When the Hong Kong Arts Festival asked me to write a trilogy about an ordinary Hong Kong family spanning 20 years, I was very thrilled. Family structures are changing today, with a growing number of couples choosing to have only one child or none at all. Big families with a large group of siblings may soon become history. I wanted to keep a record of what typical Hong Kong families have been like over the last 20 years," said Loong.

Director Fong Chun-kit agreed, saying Hong Kong has changed far too much in the past 20 years in terms of lifestyle and family structure. He believed Hong Kong people would be moved by the play, based as it is on a precious piece of collective memory.

Times of historical upheaval do have an effect on every single family even if they seem oblivious of these changes. The sound of planes rumbling overhead, interrupting the conversation at the table in 1996, would doubtless ring a bell with audience members who lived near the then functional Kai Tak airport.

And while each individual floating around in the changing currents of time is like an island, by sticking together with one's family through thick and thin one has much to gain, as the play seems to suggest.

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(HK Edition 03/03/2017 page1)