It's been 22 years since singer-producer Anthony Wong Yiu-ming first performed for the experimental Zuni Icosahedron theatre troupe. But this weekend, Wong will pair up with noted kunqu performer Shi Xiaomei for The Forbidden City, a series of multimedia musical performances directed by Mathias Woo Yan-wai at the Cultural Centre as part of this year's Architecture is Art Festival.
Wong will play a swallow and guide the audience through the site, telling the story of this masterpiece of Chinese architecture by using a mix of Chinese and Western music.
What was your first impression of the Forbidden City?
The first time I visited the palace was a very long time ago and my first impression of it was that it was very large and creepy. It is like a maze. There are many endless corridors and countless rooms inside the palace that seem to be there to confuse people and make them lose their way. What struck me most about the palace then was that it seemed to be there to separate those inside from those outside. No one apart from the emperor could get to the heart of the palace. This palace was not only built to keep people out; it also became a prison for the emperors who longed to escape it. Learning the history of this palace, how it stood through so many events and emperors on the throne from the Ming to Qing dynasties, was fascinating.
How will you play a swallow?
Although I'm playing a bird, I won't dress like one, but will capture the creature's spirit in an abstract way. The director, Mathias Woo, created the character of the bird to be the only one capable of getting in and out of the Forbidden City freely during different times. In that role, I will be telling untold interesting stories about the palace with images of the Forbidden City in the background. It will be quite different from a traditional theatre performance.
What did you learn about the architecture of the palace?
Before I took on this project, I knew nothing about architecture, particularly that of the mainland, so I did research and found that there were millions of rules that applied to the building of this palace. It combines the Chinese yin-yang philosophy with fung shui. I didn't know that numbers could be separated as yin or yang. Certain yang [positive] numbers could only be used by the emperor, particularly the number nine which only he could use because it was believed to be the most auspicious number. Everything had to be done in unison with the lunar calendar as well, like on certain days only an odd or even number of doors could be opened. It was really complicated and there were many of these sorts of rules. Every bit of the palace was designed to the finest detail using advanced calculations. In some ways it reflects the calculating nature of the people who lived and worked in the palace.
Which Hong Kong building do you think best represents the city?
Jardine House opposite the General Post Office in Central. To me, it is the most iconic building in Hong Kong. It was such a breakthrough architectural design and was once the tallest skyscraper in Asia. Of course it is no longer, but its round window-frame design was avant-garde for its time. The playful design not only reflected Hong Kong's obsession with bubbles and dots during the 1970s, but the design's luxurious look reflects how the city's economy was about to take off.
What do you think of modern Hong Kong architecture?
It is inevitable that architects here will design buildings that go upward because we don't have enough space. But the reason we have the Architecture is Art Festival is to remind people that every architectural design is a piece of artwork and should improve our lives. But I have to say that some modern buildings promote a sense of enclosure, and make people looking at them uncomfortable. They've lost the balance and harmony that architecture should have, as exemplified in the Forbidden City.
The Forbidden City, today and tomorrow, 3pm (extra show at 8.15pm tonight), Grand Theatre, HK Cultural Centre, TST, HK$120-HK$420, Urbtix; an exhibition on the Forbidden City runs daily at HKCC until Oct 3, free, guided tours are also available; a public seminar on the conservation, preservation and significance of the Forbidden City will be held on Mon, 2.30pm, Lecture Hall, HK Museum of Art, TST. For more details, call 2566 9696, or go to aiaf.hk