Gweilo

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Apr 21-Apr 24
 

The 10th Chinese Drama Festival hits our shores. Josiah Ng sits down with director Wu Hoi-fai to discuss his adaptation of Gweilo

The Chinese Drama Festival is a biennial regional showcase of the best in Chinese theatre. Returning this year to Hong Kong, the programme is jam packed with stage productions across a range of genres and covering numerous themes. One upcoming show of particular relevance to local Hong Kong audiences though is director Wu Hoi-fai and actor Micah Sandt’s one-man adaptation of Gweilo (a common Cantonese slang term that translates to ‘ghostly person’, or, in other words, a foreigner), an autobiography by Martin Booth about growing up as white child in 1950s Hong Kong. With the production drawing heavily on themes of identity and displacement,  we spoke to Wu about what drew him to the narrative and what to expect from his production.

What is so special about the original autobiography?
It’s originally a memoir. So I think if I can make use of an actor’s perspective, the audience can watch the show as if they are reading a memoir in which the author is sharing his own story. On the other hand, there are many different characters in the book, special people the author had seen or met when he was young. I have done a handful of one-man shows and it’s always interesting for me to see how one actor acts the role of different characters. In this play we’ll also see how one actor acts the role of different characters in the memoir. This is why I chose to interpret this play as a solo performance.

What are the main differences between the autobiography and your adaptation?
It’s a challenge to us that this book is an autobiography instead of fiction. Some parts of the narrative are mainly the author’s emotions and impressions. There isn’t a sound or complete narrative structure throughout the autobiography. For the adaptation, I needed to reframe it into a ‘story’ and strengthen its overall plot structure, characterisation, and the relationship between Hong Kong and these elements. On the other hand, I’ve chosen to make it a solo performance, a one-man play instead of a film production. In a film, the setting of 1950s Hong Kong can be easily recreated and the story can be more easily exhibited. In a one-man play, however, it is impossible to make it as elaborate. I am more interested in the characters’ internal traits. So in my adaptation, the plot structure, characters’ personae and their relationships with Hong Kong become the main focus.

What are the major changes made in your adaptation?
In the book, for example, the author reminisces about his early life and people he met in Hong Kong while on his deathbed. I can tell that the author really loves Hong Kong. This sort of love is one of the reasons I adapted this novel into a play. Being born and raised in Hong Kong, I was touched by Booth’s memoir and this sense of love. So, when I adapted this novel, I tried to figure out why the narrator loves this place so much. That was my angle.

How have you and Micah related to the original text of Gweilo?

Our actor Micah and I read the novel together before we picked some of the scenes and characters to create the play around. The reason we chose a foreigner to perform the play is to give the play a ‘gweilo’ perspective. Micah was brought up in Hong Kong. He finished his primary and secondary education here before he studied acting in the UK and France. So Micah understands what it is to be a gweilo in Hong Kong. During the creation of the play, we have been repeatedly asking Micah why he loves this city so much, and why he sees Hong Kong as his home.

What is the ‘gweilo’ perspective?

Micah has said to me, “I see Hong Kong as my home because I don’t have to adapt to this place.” Of course he has to learn some basic Cantonese, but Hong Kong is a place that doesn’t require him to make big changes to fit in. Hong Kong accepts him, and it’s a big acceptance. Different people from different places want to come to Hong Kong and feel that this city grows on them. I think this is his perspective, but of course, I can’t speak for him.

What would you say to audiences coming to the production?

Come and watch the show! We will invite you to rethink, and to read the novel as well. After all, we can’t substitute for the novel itself. I hope the audience can compare 1950s Hong Kong with its contemporary counterpart. This is also a bilingual play, with lines spoken in English and Cantonese, with surtitles for our audience. It’s because we hope to invite both foreign and local audiences. The perspective of how a foreigner adapts to a Chinese society is what makes this play and novel
so interesting.

Gweilo Apr 15-18, Apr 21-24, Sheung Wan Civic Centre, Sheung Wan; urbtix.hk. 3pm, 8pm; $220.

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