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English Theatre as a Colonial Project in Hong Kong

by Sun Ho Kim 


Kirsten Guest recalls to us the 1913 British parliamentary hearing for the passage of the National Theatre Act, which would subsidize a theater in London to produce revered English plays such as those of Shakespeare. In the hearing, she summarises that the then member of parliament, Halford Mackinder, argued that at the "level of empire, a National Theatre would reinforce the sense of racial identity between colonies and their parent nations."[1] Mackinder MP continues: "If we wish to retain a language which shall be, when spoken, and not merely when written, then ... you must have it heard as expressing its literature in some such central position."[2] Of course, the act was not passed until 1949, two years after his death, but he might find some comfort in knowing that a mere six years after its passing, a citizen in the British colony of Hong Kong by the name of Micheal Fong wrote this to the editor of the South China Morning Post (SCMP):

Sir—Sometime last month there was a recorded version of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" over Radio Hong Kong. I wonder whether it is possible for Radio Hong Kong to broadcast it once more as I missed it last time. Recorded versions of the great tragedies of Shakespeare—King Lear, Othello, Hamlet and Macbeth will be very much appreciated.[3]


This essay focuses on the 1940-50s theatre of colonial Hong Kong, and the messy discourse analysis that erupts from the unyielding archives of SCMP. In tracing the history of mid-twentieth century colonial theatre of Hong Kong, I attempt to show that English theatre's role in colonial Hong Kong can be understood as the import of English culture and language into the everyday of citizens.


Eastern Street, c. 1890 (Unknown Author) from the Hong Kong History Museum is in the Public Domain


In accordance with mainland British political agenda of employing English theatre as a tool of cultural assimilation in distant colonies advocated by MPs like Mackinder, English theatre functioned as form of colonial education in Hong Kong. Its pedagogical significance can be seen in the Diocesan Girls School's presentation of two plays in 1951,[4] as well as the Governor's attendance of a University of Hong Kong (HKU) produced play ten years prior.[5] Plays were even written explicitly for the instruction of English to non-natives.[6] Not only did frequent Anglophone theatre productions in Hong Kong familiarise a non-English speaking public to become acquainted with English and British, European cultures, it was incorporated into the language acquisition and studies within the public education system of the colony. Nevertheless, the role of theatre was not limited to the domain of education and colonial governmental policies.


Theatre, as a cultural highway between the colony and the British mainland, served not only to transport cultural commodities to the locals, but also to the military personnel stationed in Hong Kong. While interpreting theatre as a tool of orientalism used by the colonial government to reveal an underlying "local/mainland" power dynamic and its intersections with class in Hong Kong is fruitful, it risks papering over the uneven development of English theatre in Hong Kong as well as attributing a false power to the British government. This is to say that English theatre in colonial Hong Kong cannot be reductively regarded as a product of colonial governance and imperial politics. Mackinder correctly envisioned that Shakespeare was the right nail for pinning the English language as a high standard of shared culture and linguistic norm in British colonies. But he did not predict that it would be utilized as a remedy for homesickness for displaced Britons. Indeed, the first theatrical plays in Hong Kong were put on by homesick soldiers who started the Hong Kong Amateur Dramatic Club in 1844 rather than any government or public institution led production.[7]


In January 1946, the Entertainments National Service Association, or ENSA, was founded by two theatre directors, Basil Dean and Leslie Henson. It ran for seventeen months before being superseded by the CSE (Combined Service Entertainment). While it was running, they hosted theatre troupes from abroad as well as produced and starred servicemen from the British military in their own productions. At the time, it was noted for its popularity with both "civilians and servicemen alike" and boasted a cumulative total of 94,000 audience members over its run.[8] As Becker observes, this was not an unusual or particularly noteworthy arrangement: "Most colonial Britons, whether soldiers, administrators, or businessmen, lived in close-knit diasporic communities."[9] Theatre, as Becker argues, constituted a public space wherein diasporic Britons abroad could socialize and anchor themselves to the culture that they left behind at home. The continuation of a cultural history that extended back to Shakespeare helped to solidify the faraway colonial territory of Hong Kong as a legitimate participant of the Empire.


If the act of going to the theatre was itself a performance that indicated a level of civilization, then bringing it to Hong Kong could be thought of as a natural extension of the colonial project. This way, the introduction of English theatre to the colony operated as an orientalism—an othering process by which the colony's indigenous, or pre-existing, populace and culture encounters a "cultural contestant, and one of [the Occident's] deepest and most recurring images of the Other."[10] Consequently, an unequal power dynamic was instilled between the colonizing culture and the endemic cultures of the region. Thus, English theatre in Hong Kong transformed theatre as a site of such orientalism, where the colonizing British culture was constantly compared and contrasted with a generalized homogenous representation of local Sinophone culture as an Other. The difference between the colony and the mainland as marked by their linguistic differences and lack of English theatre, as well as a cultural comparable in Sinophone theatre such as Cantonese opera, produced a space in which both diaspora and nationalism were accommodated in Hong Kong. For example, funds gathered from a Chinese theatrical play could be directed to the British War Organisation Fund, and was even legitimized by the presence of the governor in the audience.[11] On the other hand, Christmas could be celebrated by an eclectic performance of a hybrid musician who combined "modern" sounds with traditional Chinese instruments, producing a medley, with theatre and classical music mixed in as well.


This uneasy coexistence between both Chinese and English theatre highlights the key tension in the discussion of theatre in 1940-50s Hong Kong: borders. Theatre is delineated by physical borders that disconnect the public from the audience (via a dark, harshly lit room), audience from the stage (elevated wooden platforms and comfy chairs), the actor from each other (by bright spotlights) and even audiences from audiences (best seats in the house). This lends itself to an analysis of latent power dynamics that are always interested in how certain groups are atomized and certain individuals, homogenized. As Michel Foucault writes: "the spatialising description of discursive realities gives on to the analysis of related effects of power."[12] In other words, the very tool of discourse analysis—language—biases us towards certain metaphorical understandings of power. The very same "instruments which will enable you to fight on that terrain"[13] also trap us in a language game: the very language we use to analyze discourse must also be interrogated for the presumptions they carry. In a Lakoff-ian sense, "Argument is War" or in our case, "Space is Nation." So, when touring companies come to Hong Kong[14] to entertain servicemen and Brits abroad, they are bringing with them a cultural capital to invest and territorialize a small building in the colony to transform it for a short moment into London. It also means that certain plays can be excluded as well. For example, German and Japanese plays were banned—a symbolic way of bordering off the colony from other hostile powers and their cultural reach.



Equally as important as the import of plays into Hong Kong are the borders that manifest once theater admittance is formalized. As advertisements state, any local that wants access must be accompanied by servicemen—as a plus one if you will. This bifurcates the colony of Hong Kong into two different sets of people: civilians and military servicemen; theatergoers and non-theatergoers; locals and expats. At the same time, it homogenizes the military into one cohesive unit that has the exclusive right to protect, patrol, and enforce these borders—a walking checkpoint of sorts into the culture of the United Kingdom. These borders were a permeable, flexible reality that kept changing and shifting to reflect the varying needs of the colony at the time. For example, at times, civilians were not allowed access at all due to a shortage of supply or an overflowing demand; at times civilians were allowed to book tickets without the permission of servicemen. In this regard, it is useful to turn to Raymond Williams framework of the hegemonic:

A lived hegemony is always a process. It is not, except analytically, a system or a structure. It is a realised complex of experiences, relationships and activities, with specific and changing pressures and limits.[15]


Rather than trying to understand the borderality of theatre as simple binaries that separate two disparate groups, utilizing the imagery of territory while still being open to continual changes and resistance to conventional flows of power can engender a better understanding of theatre in colonial times. This is exemplified by Micheal Fong, the mystery man who wrote the note to the editor of SCMP. Bearing an almost stereotypically diasporic name, he enquires about the possibility of accessing through radio, an old English play that hints us towards an at least upper-middle class standing. The technology is there now to reach across oceans and scroll backwards in time—and yet we must still remain open to the possibility that our Micheal is a second-generation white man, or a well-educated local. While inconsequential to the larger discussion of theatre as a colonial project, the elusive figure of Micheal would have determined at least the tone of my essay. Archival studies on the past always work within the limitations of ambiguities and it is difficult to say for certain how or why theatre was produced in Hong Kong during the 1940-50s, but remaining open to the possibility of surprise and misinterpretation hopefully leads to a more honest discourse analysis of theatre during this time. Mr. Fong, I hope you got to enjoy your Shakespearean play.


Notes


[1] Kristen Guest, "Culture, Class, and Colonialism: the Struggle for an English National Theatre, 1879--1913," Journal of Victorian Culture 11, no. 2 (2006): 281-300, 281. [2] "National Theatre in London," United Kingdom, Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 23 April 1913, vol 52, cc454-95 (Halford McKinder, MP). https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1913/apr/23/national-theatre-in-london. [3] South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 12 Feb 1955, 14. [4] South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 16 Dec 1951 19. [5] South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 24 Mar 1941, 14. [6] South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 18 Jan 1956, 5. [7] Kevin J. Wetmore Jr, Siyuan Liu, and Erin B. Mee, Modern Asian theatre and performance 1900-2000 (London/NYC: A&C Black, 2014), 251. [8] South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 7 July 1947 4. [9] Tobias Becker, "Entertaining the empire: theatrical touring companies and amateur dramatics in colonial India," The Historical Journal, 57 no.3 699-725, 699. [10] Said, Orientalism, 131. [11] South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 17 Jan 1940, 1. [12] Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1980), 71. [13] Foucault, 65. [14] South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 19 Jan 1947, 2. [15] Raymond Williams, Marxism and literature (Oxford/NYC: Oxford University Press, 1977), 112.


Bibliography


"National Theatre in London." United Kingdom, Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 23 April 1913, vol 52, cc454-95 (Halford McKinder, MP). https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/people/sir-halford-mackinder/index.html.


Becker, Tobias. "Entertaining the empire: theatrical touring companies and amateur dramatics in colonial India." The Historical Journal 57, no.3 699-725.


Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1980.


Guest, Kristen. "Culture, Class, and Colonialism: the Struggle for an English National Theatre, 1879--1913." Journal of Victorian Culture 11, no. 2 (2006): 281-300.


Said, Edward W. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient, with a new Afterword. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1995.


———."Opponents, audiences, constituencies, and community." Critical Inquiry 9, no. 1 (1982): 1-26.


Wetmore Jr, Kevin J., Siyuan Liu, and Erin B. Mee. Modern Asian theatre and performance 1900-2000. London/NYC: A&C Black, 2014.


If the act of going to the theatre was itself a performance that indicated a level of civilization, then bringing it to Hong Kong could be thought of as a natural extension of the colonial project. The Said-ian idea of orientalism as an othering process by which the central orient gains in this unequal relationship, a "cultural contestant, and one of its [the occident]'s deepest and most recurring images of the Other."[10] The difference between the colony and the mainland, as marked by their linguistic differences and lack of English theatre, as well as the sameness (Cantonese opera), produced a space in which both diaspora and nationalism were accommodated. For example, funds gathered from a Chinese theatrical play could be directed to the B.W.O.F war fund, and even legitimized by the presence of the governor in the audience.[11] On the other hand, Christmas could be celebrated by an eclectic performance of a hybrid musician who combined "modern" sounds with the traditional instruments of China. It is to be a medley, with theatre and classical music mixed in as well.

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