In deep end with property sharks
YOU can spot them a long way off - the suits, the mobile phones, the well-rehearsed smiles and the flawless banter. Only this time, Hongkong's real estate salesmen are basking in different waters.
The sharks in question have taken to the stage at the City Hall for Spotlight Productions' stab at a play which could have been written with Hongkong in mind: David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross.
The award-winning drama may be set in Chicago, but it seems perfect for transposition to Hongkong . . . and Cantonese.
Mamet's ingredients - ambition, greed, materialism in extreme and pithy language - are all in plentiful supply in the territory.
Let there be no mistake, this is an aggressive drama, peppered with bad language and worse intentions. And any salesmen brave enough to watch it will get more than entertainment, they may get a shock.
Life is indeed ''nasty, brutish and short'' in Mamet's story of the rivalry between four Chicago salesmen in their bid to hold on to their jobs and come out top in their company's competition for the leading salesman.
Friendship and personal ethics seem to have been tossed aside as they use every trick in the book to establish their superior position on the sales board.
The play is about what lies behind the smooth talk, the tireless smile and good humour.
And to see that, says director, script translator and lead actor Wong Ho-yi, you need only sit in Hongkong's greasy cafes. There you will find the same suits and mobile phones scowling, swearing and trying to outwit one another.
Mamet's play is about human relations in a materialist society, and Wong says these relations are complex because there is friendship as well as rivalry, empathy as well as competition.
These are men who are desperately trying to survive and stand out in a society which measures success in material terms. They are trapped in a game whose rules they must abide by, in what is essentially a gloomy view of the world we live in.
''You could say it was a tragedy of the human character,'' Wong said.
And it is not only about real estate salesmen, or even salesmen.
''Sit in the same cafes and you'll see taxi drivers discussing their takings in the same language, with the same rivalry, bitterness and petty jealousy,'' he said.
Wong, one of the leading lights of Hongkong theatre, has waited three years to stage this production. Not because he didn't have the resources to do it, but because ''the conditions were not right''.
''At the time, the Hongkong property market was at an all-time high . . . now the local market has a glut, people have to invest on the mainland. It's easier for the audience to identify with the play in the present climate.'' It took him a month to translate the script from English to Cantonese, and he found he did not have to make any modifications to the original, apart from changing the place names.
So, the swearing is all there, albeit with a distinctively regional flavour. It was a revelation for actor Chan San-ho, who admitted: ''I was worried I might get the accent wrong . . . I don't swear normally.'' In a break from his bashful youth screen persona, Chan plays an ambitious upstart who wants it all, and wants it now.
He said he based his performance on real-life salesmen he dealt with when he recently moved house.
''They showed me the smooth side, but I could really feel what was underneath,'' he said. Glengarry Glen Ross is staged by Spotlight Productions and plays at the City Hall Theatre until Wednesday.