Fringe Club presents Singapore showcase of Hong Kong's best

Club's long-running cultural exchange programme with other cities, now more Asia-focused, becomes more dynamic with each passing year

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 July, 2015, 11:22pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 July, 2015, 11:22pm

Since Friday, Singapore has been getting a taste of Hong Kong arts and culture, including live musical performances (pianist Wong Ka-jeng), flash-mob dancing (Andy Wong Ting-lam), film screenings, and a symposium on the theme of Creative Cities, Creative Minds. Today the Lion City will have a chance to attend a marathon 3½-hour film screening featuring the rising stars of Hong Kong cinema - the last event of a lavish programme, all under the auspices of the Fringe Club's Spotlight Hong Kong in Singapore.

Being staged in the city for the second time, this forms part of the Fringe Club's signature Spotlight City programme, under which the best of Hong Kong's art and "urban culture" is presented in cities overseas, and those cities get the opportunity to do something similar in Hong Kong.

Communicating with other Asian countries is easier than communicating with European cities because we have more in common

The venue's founder and director, Benny Chia Chun-heng, says the arts and cultural exchange initiative started after 1997 to replace its City Festival, giving the annual event a more urban edge. "In the beginning we invited cities to come and showcase their work here, and then later we thought 'Why not take Hong Kong to those other cities as well?' So it has become a two-way exchange programme," he says.

Following on from last year's Spotlight Hong Kong in Penang, for instance, the George Town Festival and the Fringe Club collaborated to present Spotlight Penang in Hong Kong.

And what started out as an international programme - it had featured artists from San Francisco, Melbourne, Bergen and Vienna - has in recent years become more Asia-focused. Since 2005, it has gone to Seoul, Ho Chi Minh City, Shanghai, Kaiping, Guangzhou, and Singapore - and the latter, which played host in 2006, is the Asian city with which the Fringe Club has maintained the closest contact.

"We have worked with Singapore for 30 years - almost from day one when we were doing the Fringe Festival," recalls Chia. The Fringe Festival is the previous incarnation of the City Festival.

"A dramatist named Kuo Pao Kun brought a show called The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole [in the 1980s]. He was a very important figure in Singapore theatre, because he started as a dramatist who dared to criticise the Singapore government, and was put in jail for two years."

A dialogue was maintained with Kuo, who died in 2002, and the Fringe Club was able to assist him when he set up The Substation, Singapore's first independent contemporary Arts Centre, in 1990. When Singapore set up its Arts House at the Old Parliament in 2005, the Fringe team was again consulted. Today, the Fringe Club uses Spotlight City to build professional relationships, explains Chia. "We're not just about putting on shows and exhibitions. We create dialogue and sometimes that creates opportunities for collaboration. That might mean working on a script or sending an artist to another city for an internship or training."

Ties with Australia, for instance, led to one of the Fringe Club's most popular now-annual programmes, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Roadshow. This year's edition wrapped up last weekend.

"That is in its fifth year now, and watching some of the shows I think we can laugh at the same things, but I'm aware of cultural differences in the humour in terms of what we respect or disrespect. I'm always interested in working with Australia. I find it a very exciting country and it is getting more diverse culturally," the director says.

What's more, Spotlight City also serves as a conduit to promote and advocate heritage conservation in the region. During the colonial and post-colonial periods, Chia believes, people involved in arts and culture in Asia tended to look to the West and to the indigenous cultures of their own cities and countries rather than to each other's. Since 1997 he has developed an interest in working with cities with a shared sense of colonial history and wants to extend the relationships with Singapore and Penang to include Yangon.

"We tend to see Asia as a region sharing common history, especially colonial history. There are different degrees of development in terms of evolving outside culture and developing indigenous culture alongside that. We find communicating with other Asian countries is easier than communicating with European cities because we have more in common," he says.

"When we were in Penang [last year ] we realised it would be interesting to explore more Asian history by following the [old] railway [lines through Southeast Asia]. What I'd like to do is follow the railway as a process to understanding our colonial past, but also to look to the future, in terms of the 21st century being the Asian century. I think that the future of Asia will be high-speed railway connections, which will also bring opportunities for the arts as well as business."

He is particularly interested in staging events in the grand hotels once operated by the Sarkies brothers in Singapore, Penang and Yangon. The Eastern & Oriental Hotel was one of the venues for Spotlight Hong Kong in Penang.

"They are in different degrees of conservation. Raffles [in Singapore] has been well preserved but if you look at The Strand in Yangon, that is not as well preserved as the other ones, but you can see more of the original features," says Chia.

Exactly when the next City Spotlight will come to Hong Kong or what form it will take is not yet clear, but it will reflect some aspect of Chia's railway idea, which is still, he says, "at a very early stage". It probably won't be before next year though: "I don't think we can do more than two in a year, as we have this time. That's quite taxing."

The relationship-building, however, is ongoing. Outside the full-scale festivals, Chia is working to create a touring circuit for performers, productions and exhibitions, taking in Hong Kong, Penang and the Philippines.

Further afield, he would like to work on an exchange with the city of Havana, and is interested in the idea of a Spotlight Hanoi, but the partnership with Singapore - which this weekend has resulted in Hong Kong jazz guitarist Eugene Pao playing with Singaporean jazz pianist Jeremy Monteiro, and the first public performance by Elaine Liu and the Starlight Elan Orchestra, among other events - is sure to continue. "Singapore is almost like a twin city to Hong Kong. There are so many things in common. I have never heard a Singaporean come to Hong Kong and say they didn't like it," says Chia.

[email protected]