Laughing at identity woes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 April, 2012, 12:00am


Since the handover, Hong Kong has faced an identity crisis like never before. We struggle to find our place in the 'one country, two systems' policy. We have a distinct dialect, culture and customs, but our voices are often drowned out by our guardians of the north.

We're not alone: overseas Chinese often face similar issues.

'As Asian-Americans, we have understood the dangers of being tied too closely to China and other root Asian cultures, so we have tried to define an identity and culture uniquely our own,' says playwright David Henry Hwang, who won a Tony award for his play, M Butterfly. 'It seems to me Hongkongers may be asking some similar questions right now, as you too seek to articulate an identity separate from mainland China.'

In 1989, Hwang, like many Asian-Americans, was outraged by the casting of white Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce to play the Engineer, a French-Vietnamese character, in first the London, and then Broadway, productions of Miss Saigon.

'I thought that could happen in socially-backward England, but would never be allowed in America,' Hwang says. 'Once it became clear Pryce was, indeed, coming ... to Broadway, that just seemed so obviously offensive, that I naively assumed we just needed to point out the problem to have it fixed.'

Hwang chose to voice his opposition in the best way he knew - by writing about it. He used the incident as a springboard to develop a play. The result was Yellow Face, the farcical, semi-autobiographical stage mockumentary that premiered in 2007.

The title is a twist on the practice of blackface, the act of applying black paint (ash or makeup) to the face when portraying a black character. Not only does the overly black face look clownish, there was an underlying racial prejudice associated with the practice.

With yellow face, Asian actors were denied roles, even as Asian characters. Instead, white actors wore exaggerated makeup to accentuate 'Asian' features. 'Asian characters' were often highly stereotyped and portrayed as either buffoons or untrustworthy.

In Yellow Face, DHH (Hwang's initials) is outraged at the miscasting of Pryce in Miss Saigon. In protest, DHH pens his own play, Face Value, but unwittingly casts a white actor, Marcus Dahlman, as an Asian. DHH realises his mistake, and desperately tries to cover it up to avoid harming his reputation.

Local theatre group Hong Kong Players (in association with Hong Kong Repertory) is putting on the play this week. Director Eric Ng and producer Teri Fitsell spoke to Hwang two years ago about the show, but the opportunity to stage it didn't come about until this year - coincidentally the 15th anniversary of the Handover.

'We thought the play would be especially interesting to do in Hong Kong because of the racial identity angle: there's the massive mix of races here, and the Hong Kong identity within China angle,' says Fitsell. 'The play deals with a very serious subject in a funny and clever way.'

The play may be a comedy, but ultimately the aim is for people to question the meaning of identity.

'I hope audiences will find lots to laugh about, but also some things to think about after they leave the play,' Hwang says.

Yellow Face runs from April 25 to 28 at Sheung Wan Civic Centre. Tickets from