Social enterprises give disabled performers a chance to shine

Performers with hearing or visual impairment are soaring to creative heights with the help of social enterprises, writes Elaine Yau

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 October, 2013, 4:40pm

Lee Shing is a piano teacher with an associate diploma from Trinity College, London. That may not seem much of an achievement until you consider the hurdles the 25-year-old has had to overcome - he suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a congenital eye condition which typically manifests in a gradual loss of peripheral vision that has now left him with eyesight equivalent to 5 per cent of a normal person's.

Lee took up the piano at the age of nine; he learned to play by touch and by slowly committing each piece of music to memory. But as his eyesight deteriorated over the years, he says, it became increasingly difficult to play.

"In primary school, I had 30 per cent of the vision of a healthy person. I could stick my head close to the musical score and play slowly. But by secondary school, I had to use the computer to magnify the notation and learn to play by heart. It takes up to an hour to remember a line of music," he says.

These days, Lee sees the world as a blur of indistinct shapes, and doctors say he might become completely blind one day. He aims to learn Braille musical scores so he can continue playing.

Lee and his older brother Lee Hin, who has the same condition, are among 30 disabled performers appearing in this month's Festival of Inclusive Arts. It's the second such event organised by the Arts with the Disabled Association.

"We first held it in 2006," says an association spokesman. "We wanted to do it every year to show people that disabled people are no different from ordinary people.

"Despite their disability, they have the same talent and enthusiasm for performing as ordinary people. But due to difficulties in getting sponsors, we're holding it only for the second time this year."

Fun Forest, a trio of hearing-impaired dancers who are also in this year's festival line-up, give a hip hop spin to how disabled people defy enormous odds to achieve their dreams.

Jason Wong Yiu-pong set up the group three years ago, inspired by the real life story of Tommy "Guns" Ly, a Vietnamese-American who continued performing after having a leg amputated due to bone cancer. He went on to form a touring breakdance crew with four other dancers with different disabilities. (Ly has become known to many Hongkongers following his star run in locally produced sleeper hit The Way We Dance.)

Fun Forest, which includes Ariel Fung Ching-wai and Tony Tong Shu-ming, has gone toe to toe with able-bodied dancers in various contests, from an ATV talent show in 2011 to a city-wide youth dance competition in 2012.

Although they didn't win any awards, Wong, speaking through a sign-language interpreter, says they were proud to be the only disabled group in the competitions: "There were 30 teams in the finals of the youth dance competition, and we were ranked in the top 10."

The trio were also invited to perform in Singapore and Finland.

Wong, an administration assistant, started learning hip hop five years ago by watching videos on YouTube and taking lessons from private studios and dance companies.

"I lost my hearing at the age of three, after a bout of fever. My only memory of sound is the phone ringing: I would rush to take the call whenever the phone rang at home," he says.

"As dancers who are deaf, we count the beats by feeling vibrations on the dance floor. So the best venue is a large hall with a wood-panelled floor. But such venues are difficult to get. We get shooed away when we practice on university campuses, and booking a private dance studio is expensive. We get half-price at government gymnasiums, but these are always full," he says.

Deaf performers also have a new channel for expression in Silence Le Cabaret, a monthly dinner theatre event hosted by Dialogue in the Dark Hong Kong (DiD). A social enterprise set up to provide jobs for the visually impaired and highlight the talents of the disabled, DiD introduced the cabaret featuring hearing-impaired actors earlier this year. This month's offering is Legendary La Rose Noir, a whodunnit set in 1960s Hong Kong about the theft of a necklace in a nightclub.

The weight of the production falls on Keith Lee Kam-wah, who takes on triple roles as director, scriptwriter and one of the six actors. Speaking through a sign language interpreter, Lee says expressive faces and body language can more than make up for the lack of speech to convey emotions.

"When all sound is muffled, the audience has to rely solely on their visual sense, boosting their concentration. Able-bodied people often don't even look people in the eye when they are having a conversation. They are not only being disrespectful but also miss many of the visual cues [on the face].

"So a silent performance can pack the same emotional punch as a conventional one with dialogue and music," Lee says.

The hearing-impaired businessman speaks from experience. After taking up acting at the age of 22, Lee went on to help found the deaf drama troupe Theatre of the Silence in 2000.

"One of my most memorable performances was My Red Dress with the Theatre of the Silence about [the survival of a little girl under Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia]. The audience was moved to tears at the end."

By contrast, Lee's upcoming production is a light-hearted affair, with Anthony Wong Wai-keung taking on a cross-dressing role as a nightclub songstress. His first stage outing as a woman has been quite a challenge, he says, not least because he had to dance in high heels.

Wong says that performing has been his passion since primary school. But the lack of opportunity meant he had to seek other work while performing on the side.

"My teachers thought I had the knack for performing and I took classes in clowning and mime in secondary school. After graduation, I worked as a part-time pantomime performer and appeared in Theatre of the Silence productions with Keith Lee. We performed in many overseas countries."

Training opportunities for deaf performers are limited, he says, because entrance to the Academy for Performing Arts requires five passes in the public exam. "That rules out most deaf people, who study in specialised schools and learn specialised skills instead of taking the full certificate. I only took three subjects in the Form Five public exam and that disqualified me from entrance."

Still, Wong didn't give up, and took regular mime classes at the University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Arts Centre to hone his stage skills.

He would ask instructors to speak more slowly so that he could read their lips. Communication with other classmates was easy as all were mime enthusiasts, and adept at using facial expressions and movement to express themselves. "I always knew I had a talent for comedy, as I can often make people laugh. I feel a great sense of achievement when my acting has the audience in stitches," he says.

Those attending next week's dinner theatre will be given headsets to wear so they can watch the proceedings in silence, says Silence Le Cabaret founder Fiona Wat Tsz-mei.

"In a conventional play, evocative music is used to tug at the audience's heartstrings and help move the story along. We want to show that a play without this important element can still be enjoyable," she says.

"Before launching the programme, we went to Paris to see productions from groups set up by deaf people. The dramas staged by the deaf [in France] still rely on sound, as sign language interpreters share the stage with the deaf actors and give simultaneous translations to the audience. But our version is completely silent."

The cabaret with a difference refuses to make any concessions because its cast is physically disabled, and at HK$880, the ticket prices are on par with many regular dinner theatre shows.

The actors may be hearing-impaired, but they are also stage veterans who can stand alongside their able-bodied counterparts, Wat says.

"We want the audience to appreciate their performing skills as usual, without the slightest tinge of sympathy. They are professional actors who deserve to be recognised for their talent."

Festival of Inclusive Arts, Oct 16-23. For more information, go to Legendary La Rose Noir , Oct 26, 7pm, The Good Lab, 1/F The Sparkle, 500 Tung Chau St, Cheung Sha Wan, HK$880, tel: 3996 1933