What has happened to Hins Cheung King-hin in the past few weeks is unfortunate, and more than a little ironic. Since the announcement that he would take the lead role in a Cantonese revival of Equus, the 33-year-old Canto-pop star has persistently fielded questions about whether he will strip naked on stage.
“The bottom-line, since day one, is that I am ready to appear stark naked,” he says with a laugh when we meet at the production’s rehearsal venue, a vacant office in a Wan Chai commercial building that overlooks The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, the venue for the play.
“The issue has become the focus of the public, which isn’t a problem for me, but that wasn’t the original intention when we decided to do this.”
Peter Shaffer’s 1973 psychodrama was most famously adapted for film by Sidney Lumet in 1977, and was recently revived in London and on Broadway with the star of the Harry Potter series, Daniel Radcliffe. The drama’s storyline – one man’s near-religious pursuit of his passion in the face of social norms – has unintended echoes in Cheung’s artistic endeavour to star in the play, clouded as it is by the concern about the amount of skin he’ll show.
Set against the conservative values of Hong Kong’s overwhelmingly Chinese population, the lure of a celebrity in a full-frontal nude appearance is certainly enough to become a publicity stunt. It has, however, also threatened to turn Cheung’s quest as a performing artist into an afterthought.
For all the sensational headlines, it is easy to forget that here is an untrained newcomer to the theatre, taking on a challenging role in a classic play with an illustrious production history.
Relaxed and friendly in person, Cheung will play the enigmatic role of Alan Strang, a disturbed 17-year-old who is driven to blind six horses with a metal spike.
“I think Alan is just like a magnified version of me. I used to be a very passionate person, too,” he says.
“In the play, he has a very particular way of worshipping horses. It’s a pathological kind of obsession, but it’s also a kind of affection and reverence. It’s similar to my passion for music when I first entered the business. I was passionate to the extent that I would pursue it in spite of everything.”
A Guangzhou native with a fascination for singing that dates back to his childhood, Cheung attributes his musical talent to his father. “I started learning to sing from him from the moment I could speak. I learned all my singing skills from him,” he says.
“My father was in the Red Guards’ propaganda team during the Cultural Revolution, and he knows how to play an eclectic range of musical instruments, from trumpet to violin and erhu. The range of my singing voice is only two-thirds of his. He can easily reach the range of a tenor and I can’t.”
Cheung describes his career as the result of trial and error. He recalls his earliest attempt to make it as a singer in Guangzhou, led purely by passion.
“There was a period when I really tried to force the issue, signing with a company that promised to make me a star, and so on. I was cheated out of tens of thousands of dollars.”
It struck him that he might not be the right material to become a professional musician. Cheung subsequently began work at a shabby recording studio that dubbed commercials, recorded announcements for hospitals and the metro, and churned out middling-quality pirated karaoke videos on which he imitated many renowned singers.
“There were several of them, including [William] So Wing-hong and [Daniel] Chan Hiu-tung, whose albums were regularly sung by me. It was a very shanzhai [knock-off] company that I was working in,” he says.
“I was lucky, however, that the company had a comprehensive range of equipment in its studio and that the boss was extremely nice to me. He told me that while he had no money to promote me as an artist, I could use the recording equipment as much as I wanted. And there I recorded my first album [Hins’ First] during after-work sessions every other day.
“I then asked my friends at a radio station to play my songs and, funnily enough, they were so well-received that I began to have a fan base. That was in 200.”
With his boy-next-door charm and talent for music, Cheung established himself as one of Canto-pop’s most popular singersongwriters after moving here in the early noughties. While he may have had some good fortune along the way, the fact that he comes across as a cultured individual is no accident. Cheung’s recent creative pursuits in theatre are a direct consequence of his disillusionment with the fads that shape the pop music industry. His observations have only reinforced his belief that knowledge is important for a performer’s career.
“I don’t just want to have fun for a few years and then vanish completely; I want to be a long-lasting, evergreen artist,” he says.
“A lot of trends in the music business are mere bubbles. For example, Korean fashion or hairstyles may be all the rage in this period, followed by New York music culture, like hip hop and R&B, in the next period.
“It changes all the time and trends of this consumer culture are simply not going to last. I can’t spend every day of my life dealing with them.”
As part of his efforts to stand up favourably to the test of time, Cheung has been reading classic novels, citing Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame as two of his earliest reads. Having taken part in a few Cantonese musicals as a singer, including 2010’s Octave, he has also started to test himself in traditional theatre.
Cheung made his debut as a stage actor in the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre’s I Have a Date with Autumn in 2012, which he credits as the occasion he learned to “discover myself on stage”.
While his portrayal of the drag queen Greta in last year’s Bent, a production by Windmill Grass Theatre, provided a formative moment when Cheung attempted to bring his giggling fans into the story, his first real test on the stage is shaping up to be his performance in Equus next month.
The piece marks the first production of Dionysus Contemporary Theatre, the company set up by seasoned actor Anthony Wong Chau-sang last year. The Cantonese adaptation of the play will see Cheung holding his own against Wong, who will play Martin Dysart, the psychiatrist assigned to oversee Strang’s return to compliance with society’s norms. The production is directed by theatre veteran Olivia Yan Wing-pui.
The occasion is implicitly Cheung’s make-or-break moment to negotiate his transition from pop idol to bona fide actor. He is aware of the unexpected parallels between his experience and his character’s.
“In the play, Alan is cured by Dr Dysart; in my case, after I began my career, I would say I was ‘cured’ of my passion by society – in the sense that I lost my uniqueness and stopped chasing my dreams,” he says.
“There are a lot of values that you once held on to, but quickly lost when you got used to working with others in society. After I was ‘cured’, I got a certain social status, a very good income and a very nice job, but I’ve lost the passion in my daily life.
“Even so, I hope the audience of this play can develop a new perspective to their perception of social and interpersonal differences, as well as their judgment of themselves,” Cheung adds.
“The greatest feeling that theatre has given me is a strong sense of purpose. If 3,000 people come to see the play, hopefully, at least 2,000 of them will be affected by it in some way.”
Equus, May 9-29, 7.45pm, The Hong Kong Jockey Club Amphitheatre at The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, 1Gloucester Road, Wan Chai. HK$280-HK$1,000 HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 8198 9619