1996 January: Saturday
Next morning, I descended to ground level for a walk around the bay, half out of curiosity and half because I needed to run through the Wilde show lines. Although I trusted my memory generally, I still retained a fear of ‘drying’ on stage. If it happens in a solo show, there is no way out – no prompter, no fellow actor to cover, just an abyss of humiliation. With years of experience, I felt I could cope with almost anything except this one ultimate terror.
The day was a gloriously sunny 80F and a sea breeze had driven away the humidity. I strolled through the shopping mall and piazza above the beach – arcades of expensive shops and restaurants, mature oaks swaying above the immaculate lawns, fountains playing in the sunlight. Not bad.
Repulse Bay had acquired its name because in the 1840s it had been a pirate lair; the Royal Navy arrived and repulsed them, (geddit?). In the 1920s the original hotel was constructed here and the area developed as a beach resort. It was demolished in the 1980s and replaced with the current high-rise development. The only surviving relic seemed to be a large Chinese bell kept in a glass cover.
When the Japanese attacked Hong Kong Island in 1941, they came from the northern Kowloon side. The original hotel was one of the most southerly points so was packed with civilian refugees. The British troops were fighting on the hills above them. Suddenly the refugees saw the Japanese gunboats coming round the headlands towards the beach …..
Despite its now placid opulence, I felt an atavistic shudder. It was very easy to imagine what it must have been like.
I idled my way along the manicured sands muttering Oscar’s immortal quips to the gently lapping waves.
Then, at the eastern end of the beach, I found a genuinely odd spot – the Kwun Yam Shrine. It was a cluster of statues and altars, some set back into the cliff side but most standing on small piers and quays jutting into the sea. There were about sixty of them, ranging from a small black Buddha on a plinth to two 20ft white goddesses towering over the rest.
In addition there was a ceremonial archway, a small open-sided temple, a hump backed bridge (the crossing of which was reputed to add three days to your life each time you performed it), Confucius sitting on a turtle, three white rams guarding the sea, and a 12ft grinning Buddha waving what looked like an electric guitar (the Eric Clapton Buddha?) His pink bare belly had turned grey from people touching it for joss (luck).
There were a profusion of different gods here; defences against the sea, the wind, death, dragons, ancestors, you name it. If mankind doesn’t understand something, it worships it. (Although I learnt later that Chinese ancestor worship was a bit of a misnomer. In fact, ancestors were not regarded sentimentally at all, but as malevolent spirits who were actively out to get you if you put a foot wrong, especially where their interests were concerned.)
Admittedly, on the cliff tops above loomed the real gods of Hong Kong – the inevitable tower blocks. Looking more closely I noticed that this was all relatively new. Each exhibit had been ‘Presented by Mr T. Jarvis of the Kowloon Rotary Club, 1989’ or some similar inscription.
All this could have been the height of kitsch, and to many probably it was – but not to me. The sea lapping around it, the obviously genuine respect of the visiting Chinese tourists, the garishly lunatic colours, the sheer crammed overcrowding of shrines (very HK); well, I loved the place.
Beyond the shrine jetty but still in the immediate bay, there was a floating semi-circle of yellow plastic, marking the shark nets. There was a small sign on the railings looking very like a ‘No Smoking’ sign – the illustration of a diagonal line crossing out a cigarette, except here it was a diagonal line crossing out a shark. (Paul mentioned last night that three HK people had been killed by them last year.)
It reminded me of the death of Harold Holt – the Australian Prime Minister who had disappeared after going swimming in 1967. It was assumed that he had been eaten by a shark. More recently, a rival theory had arisen that Holt was plucked out of the sea by a Chinese Communist mini-submarine and spirited away to Beijing. Frankly, both versions were mind-boggling. Later, the state government in Melbourne decided there should be a monument erected to him and came up with: ‘The Harold Holt Memorial Swimming Pool’.
I circled back to the west end of the beach. A pretty girl in a bikini and Walkman headset danced by herself in front of the shimmering sea. I reflected that this was probably the most idyllic setting for a line rehearsal I had ever had. All the same, Repulse Bay was such an obsessively neat place that I had the sensation that as soon as I left, someone would hurtle out of the bushes and erase my footprints from the sand.
During the bus journey back into Central HK that afternoon, I noticed a cemetery that had been built in tiers into a small cliff. Good God, even the cemeteries were high-rise! I wondered what happened with soil erosion – the gradual and grisly reappearance of Great Uncle Chen decades after you thought you’d seen him off?
Then, it was back into the real skyscrapers again – past the parallel Queens, Des Voeux, and Connaught Roads, and down to the terminal at Victoria Harbour.
The elevated walkways of Central HK seethed with pedestrians. There appeared to be a neat, doll-like uniformity to them; I suppose the citizens of many major cities have a similar air of blank purposefulness, but nothing I had seen before matched this. When I sat for a while in the small oasis of the St John’s Cathedral churchyard, the very act of relaxing on a bench in the middle of this ceaseless machine made me feel slightly guilty.
Last night, Paul had mentioned that some developers were considering replacing the Cathedral with another skyscraper. It seemed that nobody was particularly surprised by this – the whole city was a hard hat area of construction and reconstruction. Although the new edifices soared hundreds of feet into the air, the scaffolding consisted simply of bamboo poles balanced unceremoniously on the pavement. (The death toll among building workers was appalling, about ten times the UK rate).
Nearby, I passed the Connaught Centre, the exterior of which was covered with hundreds of small round windows. I learnt later that it was alleged to have very bad feng shui; the Chinese hated the place and had nicknamed it ‘the House of a Thousand Arseholes’.
Although the enormous Bank of China over-shadowed it, Cenotaph Square consisted of a football pitch sized enclave of grass that had miraculously survived development. However, the Cenotaph itself was a thirty-foot slab of concrete – yup – a high rise War Memorial.
Walking eastwards towards the Wanchai district, life at street level began to show a more human face; awnings stretching out over the pavements, live chickens in cardboard boxes awaiting sale, steam rising from plates of noodles, the clack of mahjong tiles from open-fronted cafes. There was an undeniable buzz about the place.
Then came an inexplicable sight. On the pavement ahead a tall dummy of a large feathered bird loured over the heads of the passers-by; truly incongruous amidst the trim orderliness. A little old man, presumably its owner, was arguing with a couple of police who stared dubiously at the bird and fingered their gun-holsters. With a broad grin, I stopped to take a photograph. The police glared at me – a seven-foot mangy kestrel was an obvious threat to Hong Kong efficiency and definitely no laughing matter.
Returning to Repulse Bay in the evening, the bus followed the route over the central hill known as the Peak, a hair-raising road of hairpin bends and sheer cliff drops. At about 1,500ft up I looked back at the priapic HK skyline – God knows how Wilde would function in this fanfare to consumerism?
1996 January: Sunday
Despite staying in one of the culinary hot spots of the world, (Pia told me that one of the Kowloon restaurants could seat 6,500 customers at one sitting), I choose to eat lunch at the Fringe Club Health Food Bar. It turned out to be a mound of under-cooked vegetables. When it comes to food, health and happiness rarely arrive in the same package.
Flipping through the Fringe programme, I spotted an advert for a Taiwanese women’s troupe, directed by one Wei Ying Chuan. Their show consisted of ‘three lesbian women who wear serious suits and play with a broom’. Hmm?
Over the club tannoy, a Chinese official periodically issued announcements about various Festival offerings. The Chinese have an oddly unfinished sound to their English accents. For instance, ‘Hong Kong’ was pronounced ‘Hon Kah’. I started chatting to one of the stage managers, a young tough-looking Hong Konger called Born Yuan. He told me that the Chinese language had a much more limited range of sounds than English. This meant that many Chinese jokes are based on puns.
Westerners were known by the derogatory term of ‘gweilo’ (or ghost), while the Hong Kongers themselves were known by the even more derogatory term of ‘banana’ – ‘yellow on the outside and white on the inside’, (a similar jibe to the West Indian ‘coconut’).
Most bizarre of all seemed to be the Chinese notion of an insult: ‘turtle’s egg’ being one of the more inscrutable. The one I liked best was that accusing the then British Governor of Hong Kong, the portly Chris Patten, of being ‘a tango dancer’.
Hong Kong Harbour
I spent the afternoon hanging around the club awaiting the first night. Born Yuan introduced me to a fellow performer – a large woman who lay sprawled out full length along a wall seat, another knackered victim of the 12 hour flight from London. She turned out to be the well-known jazz singer Beryl Bryden, a friend and associate of Billie Holliday and Louis Armstrong. She seemed a game old girl who advised me to visit Macao while I was in the area. “I opened the Mandarin Club there in 1963.”
By 7pm, the theatre was crowded and the front-of-house staff were forced to add extra chairs to accommodate the overspill. Very gratifying. Then, dead on time, the house lights dimmed. Recently, I had become so accustomed to lackadaisical stage management and late starts that this unaccustomed efficiency rather threw me off balance.
Unfortunately I felt that the performance itself just did not take off. There were some fluffs and the edginess did not dissipate. Although there was laughter, I did not feel that there was any real power in the delivery. The jail sequence was OK – it was difficult to mess that up – but the final sequence was under par. The show passed muster but…..
Back in the dressing room, I heard an English voice over the tannoy. In a deeply depressing Birmingham accent, it intoned lugubriously: “In ten minutes time, Mr Titley will be telling yow about Victorian theatre one hundred years ago. Please do not bring food into the auditorium. And do not bring alcoholic drinks inside either. And no fizzy drinks. You will be allowed to ask questions.” God, man, perk it up a bit!
The après show chat actually went well – embarrassingly, it drew more laughter than the show itself. Afterwards, two journalists invited me to the Foreign Correspondents Club next door, where I discovered that the Chinese for ‘Cheers’ was ‘Yam Seng’. By 11 30pm, there had been quite a lot of Yam Senging and I suggested heading on to another venue. The journalists demurred but suggested that I try Wanchai:
“It’s the most peaceful red light area in the world. The Triads have got it fixed and don’t allow trouble there.”
As the district was in the direction of home, I decided to take their advice. By midnight I was in the heart of Wanchai. Glaring neon lights, dark evil-looking alleys, grubby massage parlours, and a deep aura of sleaze everywhere – it looked great. I went into a bar and ordered a pint.
Well, one more wouldn’t hurt.