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We tell ourselves stories in order to live; some, we tell over and over again, seeking comfort and coherence across time and space. These stories used to be called myths, folklore, fairy tales. Today, they are just as likely to be superhero spectacles about dark knights and wondrous women. In the Chinese context, the examples that first spring to mind may well be the wuxia that have made the leap from page to screen repeatedly, almost ritualistically, generation after generation.
But these are not the perennial narratives that intrigue Hong Kong playwright and director Edward Lam. Rather, he is best known for his Four Great Classics series, which deconstructs and subverts Water Margin, Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Dream of the Red Chamber for an urban, urbane Chinese audience.
Why these stories? Lam has often situated his artistic interests in specific opposition to Hong Kong popular culture.
"Personally, I don't like many parts of Hong Kong culture: I don't like Stephen Chow; I don't like TVB dramas; I don't read Apple Daily. I don't like the ideologies they propagate,” he told the South China Morning Post in a 2014 interview. “It's not that I don't like Hong Kong culture but, let's say, I think it could be so much more than what it is — people are being too nice to themselves, and so whatever subjects they tackle they're not going to get into any depth.”
In contrast, his work has always sought a deeper engagement with the compromises and pathos of contemporary life.
Born in Hong Kong, Lam started writing scripts for Rediffusion Television and Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB) before he had even graduated from secondary school, which earned him good money but little creative pleasure. “I’m not the obedient type and I hated writing what they asked me to write,” he told HK Magazine in 2009.
A subsequent friendship with experimental art pioneer Danny Yung led to the founding of theatre collective Zuni Icosahedron in 1982. “Zuni members view themselves, and tend to be viewed by others, as set apart from the rest of Hong Kong society,” writes Rozanna Lilley in Staging Hong Kong: Gender and Performance in Transition (1998). “Overall, they maintain a belief that they share an orientation informed by their stress on questioning and experimentation.”
In 1989, Lam left for London and there launched Edward Lam Dance Theatre, touring many European cities with plays before returning to live in Hong Kong in 1995. Since the inception of his theatre company, famous literary works – including Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Oscar Wilde’s Happy Prince, Wang Shifu’s Romance of the Western Chamber, and Eileen Chang’s Eighteen Springs – have served as consistent sources of inspiration.
He inclines towards source material that reveal “entry points” — a key theme, character or narrative thread that can be transplanted into a contemporary setting and refracted through new lens of subjectivity to throw up intriguing new insights.
For instance, What is Sex?, first staged in 2014, is his take on Dream of the Red Chamber, which Lam has described in South China Morning Post as a “rich and time-transcending” work that allows for “infinite angles to approaching it".
He chose to focus on the theme of suppression and its continued relevance for a modern audience,
Indeed, Lam is very attuned to the yearnings for individuality and autonomy that can be found in these classic texts, and how powerful these yearnings still are in modern life.
Singapore playwright Cheow Boon Seng, in his master’s dissertation, Performing Gender Identities in Edward Lam’s Theatrical Re-interpretation of Chinese Classical Novels (2014), describes the literary themes in these novels as “alternative values”.
Marrying the works’ stance against hegemonic pressures to his own artistic explorations, Lam’s staging choices are a marked departure from the realist tradition.
Don’t expect any period trappings — the settings are always contemporary.
He favours episodic rather than linear structures, and gender identities, materialism and emotional bankruptcy are recurring preoccupations. Cumulatively, all these choices add up to a destabilising experience for audience members with even a passing familiarity with the literary source material.
Fragments of famous verses may be woven through a production even as the plot (such as it is) bears only a dream-like associative resemblance to the original story; the characters may be named after their literary namesakes, but be of a different age, temperament and gender.
The questioning of culturally accepted norms and values takes place through these techniques of deliberate disorientation.
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Lam doesn’t simply move against the grain of the popular. Rather, he displays a canny awareness of the potency of the popular when harnessed to the power of the peripheral perspective. For instance, the four classic Chinese novels that he drew from for the productions What is Man? (2006), What is Fantasy? (2007), What is Success? (2012) and What is Sex? have a formidable patina of cultural cachet, as they are held in high esteem.
But they are also well-known throughout the Chinese-speaking world because they have been regularly adapted as films and TV series for decades. One could argue that their aura of mainstream prestige—not to mention the continued collective awareness of the novels’ themes and tropes—is sustained in no small part by these incursions into mass mediums.
Lam seems to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s trending, judging by his dexterity with the practices of the popular. In 2014, he re-imagined The Butterfly Lovers as Art School Musical after being inspired by the success of Disney’s High School Musical. He also told the Global Times that he gave What is Success? a predominantly female cast as a reference to popular Chinese TV series The Legend of Zhen Huan (2011), which focuses on power struggles among imperial concubines and follows in the tradition of similar Chinese period dramas by also serving as an allegory for cut-throat office politics.
He has also often worked with stars more well-known for their work in the pop music and film industries, such as Sylvia Chang, Denise Ho, Angelica Lee, and Rene Liu. Consequently, his casts are able to pull off the remarkable feat of promoting a niche arts genre on popular talkshows, complete with coy discussions of rumoured cast romances. Productions sometimes have theme songs and corresponding music videos.
Chang, who first worked with Lam a decade ago in Design For Living, returns for another collaboration in Why We Chat?, first staged in 2017. The production illustrates once again Lam’s deft blend of the popular and the periphery.
It’s a re-imagining of Liaozhai Zhiyi (Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio), a classic Chinese literary source that is, again, well-known and esteemed. Chang shares the stage with popular actor David Wang. Instead of tapping into the text’s perennially popular supernatural leanings, however, Lam uses them to bring his favoured themes of modern alienation and gender identities to the fore, by telling a story about a frustrated writer who invents an app that allows lonely people to chat with virtual vixens.
Lam says on his company’s website that he saw an affinity between Liaozhai’s exploration of the ghostly realm, and the modern allure of the virtual world as forging authentic connections becomes more difficult. “We are becoming more and more afraid of having conversations with one another, with 'humans’. More people now are living like ‘ghosts’. They treat night as day, they are afraid to reveal themselves. Yet, in order to exist, they need to absorb energy from the ‘humans’ they fear.”
Speaking to Lianhe Zaobao, he muses on the trappings of masculinity and femininity that have long fascinated him.
In other words, he seeks out old stories that can be retold to shed light on how we live now, and perhaps how we might live otherwise — the telling is not reflexive, but almost diagnostic, an artistic probing that locates existing nodes of resonance in order to refashion them as sites for new permutations.