Chapman Chen: West Kowloon Cultural Colonization District and Local Han Language Movement

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Cover of CD of Romance of the Phoenix Chamber

On October 11, The West Kowloon Cultural District Authority (WKCDA) announced that it has named an American lady, Ms Alison Friedman, as Artistic Director, Performing Arts, who is to supervise Chinese opera, music, dance and theatre. But Friedman speaks only Putonghua and English, instead of Cantonese, which is the mother tongue of most Hongkongers. And the information provided by WKCDA fails to show Friedman to have any in-depth knowledge of Hong Kong arts. Liza Wang, Chair of Baat-wo, or the Chinese Artists Association of Hong Kong, which represents more than 1,000 Cantonese opera performers, questioned why a “100 per cent Chinese art form is governed by a foreigner”. This move on the part of WKCDA shows that it completely overlooks the local culture and language of Hong Kong, that in imitation of the Anti-Right Movement of Communist China, and following a colonial mentality, it wants outsiders to lead insiders, and tries to suppress Hong Kong Cantonese with Putonghua. Hongkongers should thus start a local Han language movement, in order to preserve and develop Hong Kong culture, which organically combines orthodox Chinese and Western cultures.

The problem with Friedman’s appointment is not her race but her lack of knowledge about the local language and culture. Contrastively, in the 1920s, Sir Cecil Clementi, was qualified to create the Chinese Department of the University of Hong Kong, because he spoke perfect Cantonese, and had translated traditional Cantonese lyrics into English. Does Friedman have this kind of calibre? Friedman only has the experience of cultural interflow with Communist China. How much does she know about Hong Kong arts, including local opera, theatre, pop song, instrumental music, etc.? If she knows next to nothing about such domains, how will she be able to supervise them?

For example, in the Hong Kong Cantonese opera classic, fung6 gok3 jan1 sau4 mei6 liu5 cing4 (Romance of the Phoenix Chamber), a certain character, who pretends to be an interpreter, translates an official from a foreign country to a prince of the Sung Dynasty as follows: 「…重話王爺你掉甩褲(beautiful);重讚王爺你夠鹹濕 (handsome);十足似箇個胳肋底毛(Clark Gable)…」i.e., “…He says your Highness diu6 lat1 fu3 [literally means dropped your trousers, but is in fact a transliteration of beautiful]; and praises your Highness for being haam4 sap1 [literally means lecherous, but is in fact a transliteration of handsome], just like that gaak3 lak6 dai2 mou4 [literally means hair under the armpit, but is a transliteration of Clark Gable]…” Is Friedman able to appreciate this kind of pun? How many Hong Kong Cantonese operas has she ever seen?

Another example. Szeto Wai-kin’s (2003) translation of and Sin Chun-tung’s (2003) direction of My Father is Ash of the Party is a response to the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, the handover in 1997 and the failure of governance of HK between 2002 and 2003. The prosperous Job of the Old Testament is transformed into Kwok, a rich Hong Kong businessman devoted to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1995. God is transformed into President Jiang Zemin of the CCP and Satan into Chris Patten. As a result of a bet between Jiang and Patten, Jiang sets out to test Kwok’s loyalty to the CCP by causing a series of grave damages to his person and to his family in 1995. Still, the pathetic Kwok would not renounce the CCP. At the curtain call, an old Hong Kong Cantonese pop song, “The Pearl of the East” (composed by Joseph Koo in the 1980s, lyrics by Cheng Kwok-kong, originally sung by Jenny Tseng) is broadcast. The song basically tells people to band together to preserve the glory of Hong Kong in the face of “new persecutions, new temptations”, which could be suggestive to the post-1997 audience of the postcolonial oppression by China. Will Friedman be able to appreciate such nuances of the local theatre?

Moreover, Friedman had worked in the production company of the Communist China composer, Tan Dun, who had composed a symphony entitled Heaven, Earth and Man, to celebrate the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. In one of the sections of that symphony, a broken number of The Temple Street version of Fragrant Death, the theme song of Dickson Tong’s (1957) classic HK Cantonese opera, Flower Princes, appears for a brief time, and is then drowned by huge bronze bell sounds representing the central government of Communist China. According to Yue Siu-wah, Professor in Music, CUHK, this symbolizes the colonizer shedding crocodile’s tears for the death of the colonized.  Would Friedman be able to perceive this kind of insinuation from the point of view of Hongkongers?

In reality, the main purpose of setting up the West Kowloon Cultural District  is to speculate on real estates, rather than to develop local culture. Hong  Kong culture brings together the best parts of Cantonese and Western cultures, while leaving behind their dregs, thus becoming a great civilization in itself. In order to preserve and advance the real local culture and language, Hongkongers should initiate a local Han language movement, in which the Hong Kong Communist Government’s policy of enticing with money Hong Kong schools to teach the Chinese subject in Putonghua instead of Cantonese should be done away with. A new subject of Hong Kong Cantonese culture should be added to the curriculum of primary, secondary and tertiary schools here. Emphasis should be laid on the development of an elegant Hong Kong Han language, which organically combines classical Chinese, modern Chinese, and Cantonese, plus loan words from the West (The Elegant Cantonese Dictionary authored by Chapman Chen precisely serves this purpose). Hong Kong Cantonese opera and Cantonese opera film should also be restituted as a kind of fashion. And local film industry should be resuscitated, stressing a cross play of Hong Kong and Western characteristics, so as to re-open Western and Japanese markets. Once Hong Kong movies and other cultural industries resume their spectacular status of the 1980s, China will naturally come and flatter Hong Kong.

 

 


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