Susan Blumberg-Kason reviews Candace Chong’s play Wild Boar
The Hong Kong playwright Candace Chong Mui-Ngam worked with David Henry Hwang to translate Hwang’s award-winning play Chinglish, which premiered in Chicago in 2011. Chinglish, a story of cross-cultural American-Chinese relations in a business and personal context, went on to take Broadway by storm. Chong herself is one of Hong Kong’s most renowned playwrights and recently collaborated again with Hwang – for another Chicago premier – but this time on a play Chong wrote. Wild Boar debuted in Cantonese in Hong Kong back in 2012 and has recently been performed in English by Chicago’s Silk Road Rising theater company, with Joanna C. Lee and Ken Smith translating the play into English and Hwang adapting it for an American audience.
Wild Boar was inspired by an incident in 2011 when a Hong Kong theater company received anonymous threats while rehearsing a play about June 4, 1989, the day of the Tiananmen Massacre. That same year, one of Chong’s works met with censorship in China. The Beijing world premier of the opera Dr. Sun Yat-sen, for which she wrote the libretto, was suddenly and without explanation cancelled. It was performed in Hong Kong and later in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In her artistic statement for the Wild Boar performances at Chicago’s Silk Road Rising theater company, Chong describes Hong Kong’s eroding freedom of speech when she wrote the play: “I thought to myself, if we turn a blind eye to the problem, we won’t recognize the city twenty to thirty years down the road. In my play, I tried to imagine such a scenario, set sometime in the future. Thus as a fable, Wild Boar is a cautionary tale. It sounds an alarm.”
Sadly, Hong Kong wouldn’t have twenty or thirty more years until it would become unrecognizable. A couple years after Wild Boar debuted in Hong Kong, Kevin Lau, the former editor of Ming Pao, one of Hong Kong’s more reputable newspapers, was brutally knifed by masked men in a triad-style attack meant to maim rather than kill. A year later, in 2015, five Hong Kong booksellers were kidnapped, all of whom mysteriously ended up detained in mainland China. Around the time of the kidnappings, the publishing house affiliated with the bookstore was in production for a tell-all about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s love life. And in 2016, Chong expressed worry when the Hong Kong government’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department requested that the Nonsensemakers, a local theater troupe, was required to scratch the word “national” from a bio in their playbill in a reference to the Taipei National University of the Arts.
This was not the Hong Kong Chong and her parents arrived in when they left the southern province of Fujian in 1978. Chong was only two years old when the family arrived in Hong Kong, where they lived in a small apartment with a dozen other people. Her parents worked hard to pay the bills and learn Cantonese. Candace was accepted into the prestigious St. Paul’s Co-Educational College as a preteen and entered the Chinese University of Hong Kong in the mid-1990s, where she studied psychology. She went on to earn a two-year playwriting diploma at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts. Chong is an example of the Great Hong Kong Dream, adapting to a new culture and language at a young age and achieving the highest honors in her field. It just never dawned on Chong that Hong Kong would become so similar to the place her family had fled two years after the end of the Cultural Revolution.
Wild boars are no stranger to Hong Kong, even though it is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. When I studied there in the 1990s – albeit out in the countryside, not far from the mainland China border – I often heard wild boars on the mountainside while I took breaks from swimming laps in the outdoor pool. The animal serves as a symbol of old Hong Kong vis-à-vis the rapid development and erosion of Hong Kong landmarks and freedoms. In the play, a new communications tower is under construction just along the waterfront on what appears to be Hong Kong Island. No matter how high and mighty this new building may appear, Chong shows that parts of old Hong Kong still exist – just like wild boars, their primal cries from the forested hills punctuating the modern landscape.
In Wild Boar, a veteran television anchor leaves his job to establish a newspaper to investigate the disappearance of a prominent academic. Ruan, the journalist-turned-newspaper-publisher, is determined to tell the truth after esteemed Professor Mu Ne disappears. Ruan is married to a newspaper photographer named Tricia. Their former colleague, Johnny, returns to Hong Kong after many years overseas and reunites with an old flame, Carrie. Johnny, Ruan and Tricia all start out with the same objective: to expose government censorship, but soon the characters betray one another. The greatest betrayal, however, comes from the Hong Kong government and property developers.The play, commissioned by the Hong Kong Arts Festival, ironically premiered in Hong Kong concurrent to protests taking place not too far from the theater.
This play does not mark the first time Chong has foreshadowed tragedy in Hong Kong. In 2003, she wrote Alive in the Mortuary, a story of two Hong Kong doctors locked an Angolan morgue during an epidemic, exploring cynicism in the medical field. That same year SARS would break out in Hong Kong after a mainland doctor with the highly contagious disease traveled to Hong Kong and infected the guests in his Kowloon hotel, all of whom then traveled to different corners of the world, bringing SARS with them. Medical teams in Hong Kong rose to the occasion and tackled this frightening disease that no one knew anything about. Although hundreds of people died from SARS in Hong Kong, including medical professionals, the devastation would have been much worse without medical expertise and quick-thinking teamwork. Again, Chong didn’t set out to write a play predicting a Hong Kong calamity, but like Wild Boar, she ended up doing just that.
Although the Chicago production of Wild Boar is set in an unspecified city, the stage set showed the stunning Hong Kong skyline from a high floor in another skyscraper. When I spoke with the translators, Lee and Smith, they told me that David Henry Hwang went back and forth between keeping Hong Kong as a setting and making it more of a generic city that would resonate with Americans. In the end, Hong Kong comes shining through in the set, but also in the characters’ names and a scene that takes place in a more rural setting that could be Victoria Park. But the message of the play does turn out to be universal, especially in the United States. The issues of fake news, censorship, the collaboration of greedy government and big business – all of these are prevalent in the US. Even though Chong wrote the play more than seven years ago, it’s more relevant today than ever, both in Hong Kong and the US.
The Silk Road Rising theater company staged Yellowface, another David Henry Hwang play, back in 2011 as part of a city-wide Hwang retrospective that also included Chinglish. Founders Jamil Khoury and Malik Gillani started Silk Road Rising after 9/11 in response to the anti-Arab atmosphere in the US. The company promotes Asian American and Middle Eastern American artists. They’ve certainly found another winner in Wild Boar. ∎