Taking the last Star Ferry from Kowloon across Victoria Harbour before a typhoon hit was how Joe Bendy introduced his family to the wobbles of Hong Kong life in 1970. In hindsight, this seems incredibly apt for a man who, nearly 40 years later, has written a play about one of the city's most famous icons and the people who use it. This is after travelling the world, a stint in the armed forces and a variety of other jobs.
The play Hijacking the Northern Star, is a homage to a defining part of Hong Kong's history, one Bendy witnessed firsthand and which has become a source of fascination. Set during the riots of 1967, the play uses a diverse cast of characters to depict the breadth of Hong Kong's cultural heritage, but also the problems this breadth can bring. 'I was told that a play including this many nationalities couldn't be staged in Hong Kong,' he explained. 'Especially following the drain of English actors post-1997.'
The play features Indians, Chinese, British, Americans and Portuguese - all characters he met during that time on the ferries and around the city,
They are all on board a ferry when a gang hijacks the boat to make a political protest. 'The idea of hijacking hostages for protests is an issue still present in the society of 2009,' he said, pointing to a number of episodes discussed in the press this year.
But the play's political orientation is not where its production challenges lie. Finding convincing, professional actors to fit so many categories has been a much harder job than he had anticipated; casting is still incomplete. 'Getting the right actors for the play and the director is important,' he said. 'But putting on a play in Hong Kong is difficult, and the most important thing, even before you have a script to produce, is finding a venue. There are so many theatre groups in the city ... Added to that there are far too few [venues] and they are all run by the government, which is a barrier as they want to read every play before you get given a venue ...we had to rely on connections to get the Shouson Theatre.'
Bendy has passed through a variety of jobs that have both inspired and frustrated his artistic ambitions. He first arrived in Hong Kong in 1956 on leave from Okinawa where he was completing his mandatory two years of service in the US Marines. Deciding military life was not for him, he enrolled in a prestigious US writing school. It was here he met his wife, Setsuko. 'I used to come home and watch her reading letters from the family in Tokyo and I realised she was homesick,' he said. 'So I placed an advert in an English newspaper in Tokyo saying I was a journalist looking for work. Luckily an American setting up a publishing company there read it and so we ended up moving to Tokyo in 1964. At this point I was having children and I had to get a proper job so writing went by the wayside. Journalism was a means to an end but I still had creative ambitions.'
The trade press job meant he frequently travelled to Hong Kong as the city began to peak industrially. 'I travelled all over the Far East, but I just kept coming back to Hong Kong because it was developing faster.'
His wealth of experience led him to set up a similar publishing house in Hong Kong and it was at this point that the Star Ferry took a leading role in his life as he used it to cross the harbour daily. 'I look back now and the ferries we see today are the same as the ones in the 1960s. It is one of the few aspects of Hong Kong that hasn't changed at all,' he said. 'In a city where everything is changing, that is very valuable heritage.'
His play is filled with the colourful faces from that period, although he points out cultural identity was not so predominant during the late 1960s in which the play is set. 'I think now that Hong Kong is an example for all other cities in the world,' he said. 'It is a city which is all about its citizens and, as clich?d as it is, I think it is the leading global city. But it hasn't always been like that, and back then residents didn't necessarily call themselves Hongkongers at all. There was much more confusion.' It's this confusion and the problems it brings he hopes to address in his play.
Hijacking the Northern Star is on at Shouson Theatre, Wan Chai, December 18-20.Topics: Entertainment Hong Kong Pearl River Delta South China Sea Star Ferry