Playwright pens tale of Hong Kong and its expat 'filth'

Jingan Young didn't fail in London, but she's trying Hong Kong anyhow with a play named after the acronym for transplanted Britons

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 December, 2013, 4:51am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 December, 2013, 12:14pm

First there were the "filth". Now there's the "fishtail".

For those who lived in Hong Kong during the 1980s and early 1990s, the acronym "Filth" - or "Failed in London, Try Hong Kong" - could be heard in many expatriate circles as the city saw an influx of British bankers, lawyers and other professionals.

While not hugely offensive, the term had a derogatory tone, even though some self-aware Britons would jokingly describe themselves as "filth".

In recent years, such acronyms have been reincarnated to match the changing times. There's "Fishtail" for Failed in Shanghai, Try Again in London; or for those who venture from London to the Lion City there is "Filts" for Failed in London, Try Singapore.

But it's "Filth" that's set for a revival in Hong Kong in spring. Posters brandishing the word will be plastered all over the walls of City Hall to promote a new play of the same name as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival in March.

In a twist, a Hong Kong-born playwright who adores London has penned the script, and that quirk of fate is not lost on Jingan Young. "It's totally ironic," the 23-year-old joked.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Young went to Paris after secondary school for a year to study art: "But I hated it."

She ended up going to London to study English at King's College and secured a spot at the Royal Court Theatre's young writers' programme in 2011.

"In that time I completely fell in love with London; it was my love, my life and I fell in love with theatre."

Last year, she came back to Hong Kong, but struggled to find work as a writer and interviewed for a job as an administrative assistant for the Hong Kong Arts Festival.

One of the programme's directors spotted Young's playwriting experience and asked her to work on a play that would strike a chord with both expatriates and locals. The three-act play is set over the course of one day, July 1 in 2007, exactly a decade after the 1997 handover.

"It's centred around society and the family, and in order to explore the backdrop of this changing political landscape of Hong Kong, I used universal themes like love, hate, friends, infidelity," Young said.

The play's four main characters are all friends from Britain who decide to start new lives in Hong Kong.

There's Joe, an American banker and wannabe poet and his wife Rebecca, a Eurasian editor of a fictional paper called the Hong Kong Enquirer whose father was a media mogul and has just died.

Their friends are Ricky, a pot-smoking Australian radio presenter who lives on Lamma Island, and Elaine, a Londoner who doesn't really want to be in Hong Kong but has come along for the ride.

"They decide to establish a life here, but they set up this small network that creates a safety net and they live a very privileged life," Young said.

"In 1997, the UK was undergoing this huge political overhaul and so was Hong Kong so there are very odd parallels."

On being a local who has experienced the life of an expatriate, Young said: "I can oscillate between the two worlds because I'm mixed race and I grew up in the international community, but I'm also not part of it because I am mixed race and didn't live that life.

"Sometimes I joke that Hong Kong is an ethnological Disneyland. It's like we can cater to whatever you want."

An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated in the 10th paragraph that Jingan Young landed a job at the Hong Kong Arts Festival last year. It should be "interviewed for" the job.