Many Vancouver residents don’t know that some of their neighbours are working hard to preserve the imaginative culture of Hong Kong. This formerly freewheeling port city developed thriving media, arts, and entertainment sectors in the modern era. They were all anchored by the Cantonese language.
But since the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, there’s been a Mandarin colonization of sorts. And in recent years, that’s been coupled with increasing repression, which brought millions into the streets. In 2020, the National People’s Congress responded by enacting the draconian Hong Kong national security law. That ended the autonomy promised to the city’s residents until 2047.
It broke their hearts. This move also disgusted and infuriated countless expats living across Canada.
Yet vestiges of the old Hong Kong carry on in different forms in Metro Vancouver. For example, this spirit will be on display at the free Vancouver Hong Kong Fair at the Anvil Centre on Sunday (May 7).
Meanwhile, musicians from Hong Kong have created the Vantopop Collective, which is breathing new life into Cantonese pop music. And UBC Asian Studies assistant professor Helena Wu is doing a magnificent job educating Vancouverites about Hong Kong literature, cinema, and culture.
One of the more outspoken voices is Hong Kong-born Derek Chan, co-founder of rice & beans theatre. His upcoming solo show, Happy Valley, will represent his memories of Hong Kong through text, song, multimedia, and music. Running at the Firehall Arts Centre from May 25 to June 4, Happy Valley expands on Chan’s 2021 installation, yellow objects.
Chan represents Hong Kong memories
Both titles resonate with anyone who’s closely followed the recent history of Hong Kong.
For example, yellow objects came from a police superintendent’s heartless description of a protester being brutalized by officers. And Happy Valley refers to a famous Hong Kong racecourse where a massive concert was held in 1989 to support students in Tiananmen Square. Happy Valley‘s closing date falls on the 34th anniversary of the Chinese government’s ruthless shutdown of their demonstration.
In a phone interview with Pancouver, Chan describes Happy Valley as a personal reflection.
“It’s still about Hong Kong—my relationship to Hong Kong—especially to a Hong Kong that lives in my memory now and a lot of other folks’ memories,” Chan says. “But not the Hong Kong that currently is.”
In the current Hong Kong, community leaders such as lawyer Martin Lee, democracy activist Joshua Wong, Canadian singer Denise Ho, newspaper publisher Jimmy Lee (a.k.a. Jimmy Lai), and 90-year-old Roman Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen are tossed in jail for speaking their minds. That would have been unthinkable in Hong Kong when Chan was growing up.
He moved to Canada in 2005 to attend Simon Fraser University, but retains fond memories of his hometown.
“We like to poke fun at ourselves, poke fun at power, and we also take pride in our resilience,” Chan says.
He acknowledges that so much has happened to Hong Kong residents, including being colonized by the British for more than century. Now, he says, the city is being “recolonized” by the Chinese government.
“Yet through the tears, we laugh and we joke,” Chan adds. “In a way, we’re like the pesky grass that just keeps growing back through the cracks on the pavement.”
Cantonese at core of Hong Kong’s identity
However, he’s very worried about the future of his first language, Cantonese. Chan points out that regional dialects across China are in retreat. And he notes the irony of Hong Kong residents being co-opted into using more Mandarin just as children of Cantonese-speaking immigrants to Canada are awash in English.
“Cantonese is a core, core element of the Hong Kong identity,” Chan says. “Even down to our very Hong Kong-specific idioms and slangs that just evolve so fast—and our swear words!”
He’s particularly concerned about the Hong Kong government’s support for more Mandarin in schools. “That’s what oppressors do,” Chan declares. “They take away your language; they take away your culture.”
All of this was on Chan’s mind when Rumble Theatre commissioned him to create a short commissioned piece about a year-and-a-half ago. Happy Valley emerged from this. He drew inspiration from concerts, spoken-word performances, and poetry readings, which are set to pieces throughout the show.
He adds that when people enter the theatre, they’ll see a space that looks like it’s been occupied for a long time by a storyteller or perhaps by an artist. There will be microphones, instruments, old tracks of scripts, setlists, leftover coffee mugs, and maybe even a functional microwave.
He realizes that he cannot recreate the physical Hong Kong that used to exist, but he can capture its essence.
“My main practice is writing, creating, and directing,” Chan says. “I’m quite selective about where and when and how I perform—if I ever perform.”
Keeping the story alive
He still recalls what it felt like as Hong Kong approached the 1997 handover to China. He expected an immediate change, but for a time, everything seemed okay. Sometimes, school friends would move away to different countries, but for the most part, things remained the same.
Nevertheless, in his teenage years, he started noticing more abrupt changes. By the time 2014 rolled around, a full-throttled student rebellion was underway in the form of the Umbrella Movement.
That was followed by even more dramatic developments. They culminated in the massive Hong protests in 2019 and 2020.
In discussions with friends, mentors, and artistic collaborators, Chan concluded that it was vital to keep the story of Hong Kong alive rather than let it wither away.
“It’s definitely more the Hong Kong that we miss, the Hong Kong that we love,” he says. “That’s not a physical Hong Kong but [a Hong Kong] through stories. Through being together…just telling people, ‘Hey, Hong Kong used to be with its problems, but not like this.’ ”
The Firehall Arts Centre will present the world premiere of rice & beans theatre’s Happy Valley from May 25 to June 4. Opening night will be held at 7:30 p.m. on May 27 following previews at the same time on May 25 and May 26 at the Firehall Arts Centre (280 East Cordova Street). For more information and tickets, visit the Firehall website. Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.