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The significance of theatre and charity in Hong Kong from the early to mid-20th Century

by Jasper Kwok


In 1937, the Second Sino-Japanese War erupted between the Republic of China and the Empire of Japan. As a result, thousands of Chinese refugees were forced to flee to colonial Hong Kong for a safe haven to escape the invading Japanese forces.[1] With the sudden influx of a Chinese migrants, various Chinese theatrical productions took place in Hong Kong aimed at raising and donating their proceeds to war charities for wounded Chinese soldiers, victims, and refugees. This essay delves into the historical and socioeconomic significance of theatre and charity in colonial Hong Kong from the early to mid-twentieth century by examining how these Chinese theatrical performances were primarily organised to aid war efforts and recovery. I attempt to show how such theatre charities reflect colonial Hong Kong's increasingly Chinese sociocultural sentiments at the time through their politicisation of theatre to provide relief and support to the Republic of China and Chinese migrants to the colony. The use of the term 'charity' in this essay refers to the 'voluntary giving of help' to those who are less fortunate and in need, usually through the raising and donation of money.[2]


The role and nature of Chinese theatrical performances organised during the early and mid-twentieth century in Hong Kong were primarily meant to benefit charitable causes responding to the fallout of the Second Sino-Japanese War, to publicise the dire situations rising from the war, as well as to garner a sense of ethnic community and solidarity with mainland Chinese counterparts to the colony's local Chinese population. For example, the Chinese Women's New Life Movement organised a four hour play titled My Country First and Last at the Tai Ping Theatre in 1940, the entirety of its proceeds being donated to charities like the War Charities Fund, which aided injured Chinese soldiers on the front lines as well as fleeing refugees. The play was also notably a romance set during a war between Nan Shang and Tung Hoi, establishing clear parallels in its theatrical setting with the ongoing Sino-Japanese War during its release.[3] Such charity-driven plays were generally successful and well supported by the Hong Kong public, typically generating a substantial amount of income and revenue.[4] The total amount of funds collected by theatrical productions would also be detailed extensively in newspapers to inform members of the public as to how their patronage directly supported deserving causes.[5] Thus, this engendered a sense of ethnonational solidarity and pride among Chinese identifying members of the colonial Hong Kong society. In this way, the act of 'giving to charities' offstage can also be perceived as a form of 'double performance' put on by the press and theatrical companies. Through the press coverage on the donations after each performance, the theatre groups hoped that the public would feel rewarded in their patronage beyond the joys of private entertainment, and subsequently be further inclined to attend other charity-related plays to continue to attain a similar sense of self-gratification and worth. Therefore, theatrical companies not only sold tickets, but received greater publicity in their charity, as well as the public backing by Hong Kong residents who felt a sense of urgency and political importance in going to the theatres.


'The Chinese town, West Point, Hong Kong,' by William Pryor Floyd from Wellcome Images is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0


Such agenda and politics in these charity-plays of Chinese theatrical productions at the time served to promote ethnonational patriotism for the Republic of China amongst Hong Kong's Chinese population even after the war had ended. Despite the detachment of colonial Hong Kong from mainland China and its lack of Chinese sovereignty, an appeal to a ethnocultural sense of pan-Chineseness functioned as an endogenous factor to the success of Chinese theatre in Hong Kong. These charity productions could conflate the turn of the century Chinese national identity with historical ethnic Chinese self-perception amongst Hong Kong's Chinese populace by appealing to mutual cultural and symbolic codes of communication shared by the incoming migrant population and the pre-existing local Chinese public. [6] Numerous plays were held to sponsor the erection of a Chinese War Memorial Hall to honour those who lost their lives during the Sino-Japanese War.[7] This was a means of establishing lasting ethnonational public sentiments in the colony. A war memorial hall would signal symbolic affiliation of the Chinese population in Hong Kong to China despite their separation in border and national sovereignty.


The fact that many plays seeking to raise money for causes like the War Charities Fund were staged at Tai Ping Theatre located in the Tai Ping district—one of Hong Kong's central business district then—show that they intended to draw as large an audience as possible.[8] According to the South China Morning Post, the record sum raised for war charities by a single theatrical performance was held by a production organised by the Pat Wo Dramatic Association in Tai Ping district, attended by then governor Sir Geoffry Alexander Stafford Northcote and his wife Lady Northcote, with proceeds totalling HK$7,025.10. These funds were also donated to the British War Organisation Fund, perhaps showing the limits of rallying Chinese national sentiments in Hong Kong under a watchful British colonial government.[9] In fact, the 1940 play Life is But a Dream and Woman and Wit were also held at the Tai Ping Theatre and collectively raised up to HK$20,000 to aid the British War Organisation Fund.[10]


'Bonham Strand, Hong Kong' by John Thomson in licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0


As a British colony, Hong Kong's theatre patrons also included a large section of the diasporic British and European community who were disproportionately of the upper-class despite their statistical minority. The Tai Ping district was also home to many of the British and European residents, and it was in the commercial interests of all theatre productions to attract the typically wealthier British and European audiences. Therefore, Chinese theatre productions in Hong Kong had to appeal to the predominantly white European middle to upper class crowds in order to stage shows in the city's largest theatre houses and remain financially viable. Thus, theatre companies had to simultaneous present their charity-plays ladened with pan-Chinese ethnonational agenda as entertainment for the British and European upper-class theatregoers. As such, these productions featured English translators and interpreters to make the plays accessible to the non-Chinese speaking audiences. Embodying the complex geopolitics surrounding sovereignty and cultural identity in the colony, theatre productions sought to function on two different sociopolitical spaces: on one hand, they were employing Chinese ethnonational narratives through the press to gather public support in war relief efforts, and to instil a sense of Chinese national identity amongst the local Chinese-speaking population of Hong Kong who were colonial subjects of British rule, estranged from newly forming Chinese national identity in the mainland. On the other, theatre organisers translated their own shows, both linguistically and culturally, in order for it to be legible entertainment for its wealthier British and European target market who were much removed from any of the Sinophone cultural discourse.


Consequently, many of these productions marketed themselves as 'authentic' representations of Chinese history, religion, and culture to British and European audiences. Whilst the Chinese-speaking public continued to patron these plays in support of Chinese nationalist causes, the British and European public attended the same plays as 'authentic' cultural entertainment. Hence, the theatre became a stage for both serious geopolitical and ethnonationalist activism as well as the site of self-exoticisation and orientalist portrayals of Chinese culture and identity. In 1927, plays were put on that celebrated the anniversary of the Republic of China,[11] and in 1946, three consecutive performances were given that celebrated Taoism and wished the audience 'a long life.' The final performance produced by the Chinese Entertainment Organisation was set during the Song Dynasty, and in the English newspapers, was advertised as featuring authentic and historically accurate costumes, supposedly allowing the British audiences to witness a 'real Chinese stage performance.' The production wide-reaching appeal across Hong Kong's Sinophone and Anglophone spaces was marked by the arrangement of special tram services heading to Ko Shing Theatre to accommodate the large crowd it attracted.[12]



Charitable fundraising of theatre productions were not limited to nationalist or war related causes. For instance, when the city of Swatow was hit by 'one of the worst typhoons' with windspeeds 'over 100 miles per hour' in the summer of 1922 claiming more than 100,000 lives in the area,[13] University of Hong Kong students organised a play to raise funds for disaster relief.[14] In fact, after the Second Sino-Japanese War ended, charity-plays continued to be held. With a focus on Hong Kong's own social issues, the Wanchai Kaifong Welfare Association staged productions in the 1940s and 50s to raise funds to address the lack of access to education, healthcare, and basic clothing amongst the impoverished and working-class members of society.[15] The proceeds of such performances were used for the construction of free schools, health clinics, shelters, and even fully-fledged hospitals, in addition to raising funds for relief work.[16] Disabled and poor children were a particularly common charitable cause championed by such theatre productions.[17] Even governors and upper-class socialites in positions of power attended performances at the Ko Shing Theatre and wrote cheques to raise money to provide aerated waters for the poor.[18]


In conclusion, Chinese theatre productions throughout the early to mid-twentieth century in colonial Hong Kong played a significant role in raising funds towards the Second Sino-Japanese War efforts, as well as war relief funds. The proliferation of such charity productions in the colony was catalysed by a large number of migrations from the mainland and their successful appeal to a growing sense of Chinese ethnonational identity amongst Chinese-speaking residents of Hong Kong. At the same time, Chinese theatre productions were marketed as exotic, authentic cultural entertainment to the upper-class diasporic British and European communities of Hong Kong, attaining a hybrid patronage across the colony's divided social strata and serving a dual purpose as theatre in Hong Kong continued to expand. The success of the charity-plays eventually popularised fundraising through theatre in Hong Kong, rendering theatre as a site of social activism in the colony even after the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Notes


[1] 'Hong Kong Profile -- Timeline,' BBC, 24 June 2019, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-16526765. [2] Lexico Dictionaries, 'Charity: Definition of Charity by Lexico,' www.lexico.com/en/definition/charity. [3] 'RELIEF FUND DRIVE: Theatrical Performances At Tai Ping To-Night,' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 4 January 1940, 12, https://search-proquest-com.eproxy.lib.hku.hk/hnpsouthchinamorningpost/docview/1760120428/A1AAF42B4CA24249PQ/5?accountid=14548. [4] Chu Pak Lau, 'CHINESE THEATRICAL PERFORMANCES: $19,600 FOR WAR CHARITIES FUND,' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 21 December 1916, 3, https://search-proquest-com.eproxy.lib.hku.hk/hnpsouthchinamorningpost/docview/1499970100/A1AAF42B4CA24249PQ/4?accountid=14548; Mei Lan-Fan, 'CHARITY SHOWS: Recent Performances,' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 22 June 1931, 9, https://search-proquest-com.eproxy.lib.hku.hk/hnpsouthchinamorningpost/docview/1757316426/9565F78882244E0FPQ/15?accountid=1454. [5] Ip Kwai-Chung. 'CORRESPONDENCE: Proceeds of Theatricals (To the Editor. S. C. M. Post.),' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 27 December 1932, 11, https://search-proquest-com.eproxy.lib.hku.hk/hnpsouthchinamorningpost/docview/1757380348/606B0DBEFBB84088PQ/20?accountid=14548. [6] Thomas Postlewait, The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre Historiography (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 225-40. [7] 'WAR MEMORIAL HALL: Theatrical Performances To Raise Funds.' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 7 January 1947, 2, https://search-proquest-com.eproxy.lib.hku.hk/hnpsouthchinamorningpost/docview/1535769202/A1AAF42B4CA24249PQ/8?accountid=14548. [8] Chu Pak Lau, 'CHINESE THEATRICAL PERFORMANCES: $19,600 FOR WAR CHARITIES FUND,' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 21 December 1916, 3, https://search-proquest-com.eproxy.lib.hku.hk/hnpsouthchinamorningpost/docview/1499970100/A1AAF42B4CA24249PQ/4?accountid=14548. [9] 'RECORD SUM RAISED.' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 3 February 1940, 2, https://search-proquest-com.eproxy.lib.hku.hk/hnpsouthchinamorningpost/docview/1760132241/87FCCCF3828D43AEPQ/8?accountid=1454. [10] Variety Entertainment, 'CHINESE THEATRICAL SHOW AIDS B.W.O.F: Large Sum Expected From Tai Ping Performances,' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 17 January 1940, 1, https://search-proquest-com.eproxy.lib.hku.hk/hnpsouthchinamorningpost/docview/1760126135/606B0DBEFBB84088PQ/14?accountid=14548. [11] 'THE DOUBLE TENTH: Police Reserve Theatrical Performance GOVERNOR ATTENDS,' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 12 October 1927, 3, https://search-proquest-com.eproxy.lib.hku.hk/hnpsouthchinamorningpost/docview/1500238258/A1AAF42B4CA24249PQ/10?accountid=14548. [12] W.K. Tong, 'CHINESE PLAYS: Theatrical Performance At Ko Shing PROGRAMME SUMMARY,' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 8 January 1946, 3, https://search-proquest-com.eproxy.lib.hku.hk/hnpsouthchinamorningpost/docview/1535700201/9565F78882244E0FPQ/10?accountid=1454. [13] Pedro Ribera, Ricardo García-Herrera, Luis Gimeno, and Emiliano Hernández, 'The Selga Chronology, Part II: 1901-1934,' Risk Prediction Initiative, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, webs.ucm.es/info/tropical/selga-ii.html. [14] 'SWATOW RELIEF: A THEATRICAL PERFORMANCE,' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 29 August 1922, 7, https://search-proquest-com.eproxy.lib.hku.hk/hnpsouthchinamorningpost/docview/1499574518/606B0DBEFBB84088PQ/2?accountid=14548. [15] 'Theatrical Performances.' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 8 November 1958, 7, https://search-proquest-com.eproxy.lib.hku.hk/hnpsouthchinamorningpost/docview/1532253441/A1AAF42B4CA24249PQ/1?accountid=14548. [16] 'CHINESE OPERA: Governor Attends Charity Performance IN AID OF SPC,' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 18 July 1948, 4, https://search-proquest-com.eproxy.lib.hku.hk/hnpsouthchinamorningpost/docview/1766445970/87FCCCF3828D43AEPQ/11?accountid=1454; 'BIG SUM RAISED: Charity Balls and Theatre Performances Profit,' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 5 May 1939, 10, https://search-proquest-com.eproxy.lib.hku.hk/hnpsouthchinamorningpost/docview/1760406077/87FCCCF3828D43AEPQ/9?accountid=1454; I.P. Kwai-Chung, 'Recent Charity Theatricals,' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 26 July 1933, 11, https://search-proquest-com.eproxy.lib.hku.hk/hnpsouthchinamorningpost/docview/1757459750/606B0DBEFBB84088PQ/15?accountid=14548; 'AMBULANCE WORK: Theatrical Performances at Ko Shing Theatre.' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 17 July 1933, 11, https://search-proquest-com.eproxy.lib.hku.hk/hnpsouthchinamorningpost/docview/1757452651/606B0DBEFBB84088PQ/7?accountid=14548. [17] 'Endeavourers School Plan,' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 20 May 1959, 6, https://search-proquest-com.eproxy.lib.hku.hk/hnpsouthchinamorningpost/docview/1532348507/87FCCCF3828D43AEPQ/7?accountid=1454. [18] 'IN AID OF CHARITY: Special Performances at Ko Shing Theatre GOVERNOR SENDS CHEQUE,' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 15 July 1931, 15, https://search-proquest-com.eproxy.lib.hku.hk/hnpsouthchinamorningpost/docview/1538776629/9565F78882244E0FPQ/16?accountid=1454.

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