The former Hong Kong TV star who went away 14 years and came back to new success
After long stay in New Zealand, former TVB legend turned theatre impresario sees sold-out run of Cantonese production of classic American play
Former TVB legend and theatre impresario Cheung Chi-kok was born into a culture-loving Hong Kong family in 1950 and steeped in Cantonese opera tradition by his mother and actress sister. But as he grew up in colonial Hong Kong, he became more and more fascinated with Western theatre and the iconic old Hollywood films his mother used to watch.
Since then, he has dedicated his life’s work to adapting stories for Cantonese-speaking audiences via film, television and stage, from Eileen Chang’s novels to British comedies. Cheung’s most recent Cantonese adaptation of Our Town, a 1938 play by Thornton Wilder charting the lives of people living in a fictional American town, had a sold-out run at the Sunbeam Theatre in North Point.
Cheung’s life story reads very much like a rich and interesting history of Hong Kong’s entertainment and arts industries. Following in the footsteps of his mentor, Chung King-fai, a pioneering actor who was the first Hongkonger to study at the Yale School of Drama, Cheung’s work has significantly promoted Cantonese-language theatre in the city.
How did you first become interested in acting?
I wasn’t a born actor. My first encounter with real theatre was by accident. I passed by City Hall while I was in high school in 1965, and saw a poster for a play that caught my eye, which happened to be Our Town. I saved up my pocket money for the HK$10 ticket, and the show stayed in my mind forever.
While my little sister Ina was training at a Cantonese opera school, my mum brought me along to watch. She would also take me to see Cantonese opera masterpieces at the old Lee Theatre. So before classical Western drama came into my life, I was actually nurtured by this environment. That actually began my fascination with the stage and theatre.
My mum is into the arts and culture, so that became a part of my daily life from a young age. She was a bit of a tiger mum, but also nurtured and supported me.
After graduating high school, my mum encouraged me to study mass communications at Hong Kong Baptist College [now Baptist University], with a minor in drama. In my drama classes, I studied Shakespearean plays and American literature, which inspired my passion for playwrights like Arthur Miller and Thornton Wilder.
The rest was history. In those days, TVB was recruiting students from our college because they had a shortage of young actors. So I was studying and professionally acting at the same time in the early 70s. This was partly because the Baptist College campus was right next to TVB’s studios in Kowloon Tong! You could finish school, walk up the road and be an actor.
How did you find the transition from acting to directing?
I was offered a job as a junior producer at TVB by Chung King-fai in 1973, right after graduation. It was a rare phenomenon then. I was sitting on the panel at the age of 23, directing television series.
In 1975, TVB wanted to make a big-budget costume drama, Tragedy in the Qing Emperor’s Court. They were looking to cast someone as [the emperor] Guangxu, and Chung King-fai suggested me. I was reluctant at first, but he said that I had enough star power to play opposite Liza Wang Ming-chuen as the emperor’s favourite concubine, Zhen Fei. I think 2.5 million people were watching the series every night out of 3.5 million people living in Hong Kong at the time.
I mostly quit acting after 1975, since I preferred directing. I left television in 1983, and started the first ever commercial theatre company in Hong Kong. My productions included Barefoot in the Park, starring Tony Leung Ka-fai and Fung Bo Bo in the lead roles. I then directed plays including the British comedy Bedroom Farce, which was invited to do a run at the Beacon Theatre on Broadway in New York. The then governor of Hong Kong, Sir Edward Youde, and his wife came to grace the opening night of our production. That was a huge deal!
After that, I went to London for a year to learn more about professional theatre, where I was trained under the drama master Anthony Cornish. I used to wander around the West End and watch dozens and dozens of productions. I saw the world premiere of Les Misérables at the Barbican Theatre, and remember seeing Princess Diana in the audience! I loved it so much that I saw it three days in a row.
When I came back, the Academy for Performing Arts (APA) hired me as the head of its directing course. I spent 3 ½ years in that job. Some of the actors in Our Town were my students from back then!
What made you move from the theatre business to local politics in the 1990s?
In the 90s, I needed a break from theatre and drama, so I moved into community service. I was appointed the executive director of the Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health, and did that for three years.
After that, I took a year or two off travelling the world, and spent a lot of time in Europe, South America, and Southeast Asia enriching myself. Eventually I came back, and worked on Aids awareness and education campaigns for the Hong Kong government for two or three years.
My background in acting helped me in my politics because I was in touch with public awareness. I am good at reading people’s body language and behaviour so that was useful for me as a campaigner. I was also named one of the city’s 10 outstanding young people of 1986, along with Jackie Chan.
What’s your favourite medium to work in: television, film or radio?
I like the magic moment of live theatre because it’s irreplaceable. Real theatre is so spontaneous – you could be serious, funny, philosophical. Films that are too philosophical don’t tend to do well at the box office, and prime-time television can’t be too serious either. But with theatre, you can create magic with a bare stage. With simple movements and lighting, it can completely change your vision and imagination. For that reason I prefer theatre, especially at this stage of my life.
How has the Hong Kong entertainment industry changed since the 70s?
We worked on a shoestring budget back then. I belong to the old school. We worked very efficiently and created within time limits. We didn’t have huge casts or location shooting in the early 70s either. Nowadays, people are spoiled for choice when it comes to television drama. Local television drama is just corny now. It’s dead. There are more possibilities in theatre, I think. Hong Kong is such a cosmopolitan city, on a level with London and New York and Tokyo. But we’re not even close to the art scenes in any of those cities. We have a lot to do, a lot to catch up on.
Why did you choose to move to New Zealand, and how does it compare with Hong Kong?
We had a family tragedy in 2003, when my brother, the then assistant commissioner of police, killed himself. We were all devastated. He was very well-respected and had a lot potential. However, he decided to end his life because of depression, which he had kept a secret. We were very close, and spoke on the phone daily. I was half-dead, to be honest. I had already booked a visit to New Zealand six months before, but my parents urged me to go anyway.
I remember stepping off the plane and thinking it was heaven on earth, and decided to stay longer. I extended my visa and managed to find a job which guaranteed residency.
Going there gave me a sense of change. You breathe a different air, you see different people. Everything Hong Kong – the emotional baggage, the hang-ups – was put aside, and I’m glad I made that decision.
Why did you come back to Hong Kong after 14 years in New Zealand?
For a long time, I never ever thought of coming back to Hong Kong because my life was so completely different. But this opportunity suddenly came about last year. I stopped in Hong Kong on the way to see my sister in Vancouver, and met up with a university friend who now heads the Sunbeam Theatre. He wanted me to come back and bring world-class drama back to his theatre. I initially refused because I had such a nice life in New Zealand, but he eventually managed to convince me by giving me complete creative control. Those were terms I couldn’t refuse. I felt honoured.
Our Town turned out to be a huge and costly production. He knew that I could deliver. I then promised him that I would be coming back to the Sunbeam Theatre to direct a production every year.
How does it feel to return to Our Town as the director this time?
I performed it for the first time in 1970, playing George Gibbs. It was great to return to it, since I know the script so well. Nobody can fool me on stage! I was so nervous during the run because understudies aren’t established here in Hong Kong, so what if my lead actor caught the flu? Thank god the actors took my advice and didn’t get ill at all! The whole run was smooth as silk.
Your new production of Our Town is dedicated to your mentor Chung King-fai. How did he influence your own work?
He was the lecturer for all the drama courses at Baptist College. He’s a perfect gentleman, and so knowledgeable about theatre. He came back to Hong Kong after studying at Yale and decided to revolutionise the local theatre scene. He wanted to bring Western masterpieces back here, like Our Town and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. He is the one and only grand master of local theatre.
I’m lucky to be able to say that I was the only one of his students from Baptist College to follow him throughout his career. I went straight to work at TVB with him. He advised me when I started my own theatre company and was the artistic consultant for Bedroom Farce. He taught alongside me at the APA too, and now he is the artistic consultant for Our Town. I think you will find traces of Chung King-fai’s shadow in my production, and I’m proud of that. Maybe not as good as him, but close, I hope!
Fishball noodles, Tuscany and Cate Blanchett ...
What did you miss the most about Hong Kong while in New Zealand?
I live in a very small town, New Plymouth where there are hardly any Asian people, let alone Chinese. There is no decent Asian supermarket. I can’t find any soy sauce or sesame oil! I miss things like dumplings and mooncakes. When I was here for Mid-Autumn Festival, I ate three boxes of mooncakes – one every night for two weeks. I also really miss fishball noodles and zongzi.
What’s your most favourite holiday spot in the world?
Taranaki, the region where my town is in, was actually named the second-best travel destination globally by Lonely Planet this year. It’s a bit cliched, but I really like going to Tuscany on holiday.
What’s your dream story to direct on stage?
I’d love to do Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It’s one of my favourites. So intriguing, so full of passion! Amadeus, too.
Who are your favourite Hong Kong and Hollywood actors?
I have so many. I like Cate Blanchett, Jessica Chastain, Meryl Streep. As for old Hollywood icons, Paul Newman, Spencer Tracey. My all-time favourite Hong Kong actor is Wong Man-lei, who was iconic – the Katharine Hepburn of local cinema. I quite like Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Kara Hui Ying-hung, Josephine Siao Fong-fong, Deanie Ip.
What would you do if you weren’t an actor and director?
I’d be a pianist!
What are your favourite ways to unwind?
Since retiring, I’ve begun to appreciate classical music because my partner loves playing the piano. I like listening to Bach, Mozart, Gershwin, Vivaldi, Baroque opera. Now my ears are so attuned to classical music, and that helped me become calmer and a better person. Nowadays my life is all about music and gardening, and I have also become a pretty good cook.