A playwright from Hong Kong describes how the changing political climate has shaped the future of writing and performance art in her country
Since 1967, around 1,500 writers from more than 150 countries have spent their time in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP). A group of 18 established writers from around the world have just arrived in Iowa to attend an autumn residence.
Candace Chong is a playwright, screenwriter and translator from Hong Kong. In addition to writing dramas, she has also worked as a writer and librettist in music theater and opera. The South China Morning Post named her one of the 25 most inspiring and influential women in Hong Kong. She is a six-time Hong Kong Drama Award winner and has received a number of international awards. Her plays have been performed on European and American stages.
Ben Kieffer spoke to Chong on River to River.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Kieffer: “Tell us more about your writing, Candace, the subjects that attract you?”
Chong: “I would describe my piece. I am very interested in exploring humanity. So I think my piece explores romance, family politics, and the press industry. Sometimes I feel like I’m working like a journalist because I enjoy it. I did a lot of research on movies before I put my hand on paper. And that’s why I really need to know as much as possible for the subjects I’m writing about. And then I’ll work on it. So I always feel like my work reflects the reality in Hong Kong. Most of the inspiration came from Hong Kong. Hong Kong people, Hong Kong changes. So yes, this is the environment that has shaped me and also shaped my writing. “
“Can you give us a concrete example of your work, a topic that you have addressed with your work, your drama?”
“One of my works is a play called Wild Boar, and it’s a play about the Hong Kong press industry. It was written when I realized that the Hong Kong press industry was going through some changes, but it’s not obvious. I have some reporters right now and their superiors, and I realized that much of the press has been bought up by mainland Chinese businesspeople, which will affect the principles of the press itself If our city’s press were brought into being by a unanimous government, so will our press votes And so I imagine what would happen and it goes very badly. Then I write the piece Wild Boar. Unfortunately, I think that after two years of performance, things happened – a lot of the press got botched. “
“So the piece you wrote very much predicts what actually happened. Let’s talk more about the dramatic changes in your home country, Hong Kong. This is the first paragraph of a recent New York Times article summarizing the changes in Hong Kong. Let me just quote and respond: “Unions have banded together, political parties have closed, independent media and civil rights groups have disappeared. The Hong Kong government, its authority wholly supported by Beijing, is closing civil society, once the most dynamic in the world Asia, one organization at a time. ‘
“Is that right? Is that what you see?”
“Yes, it is correct. Just listening to it make me cry. We have just pushed through another amendment to our censorship, namely a film on the screen. It harms my work and also my feelings as a Hong Kong citizen, who has enjoyed so much freedom of speech and writing over the past 40 years. “
“To what extent are writers, not just playwrights like yourself but also other writers in Hong Kong censored, restricted in what they can write about?”
“The thing is, a lot of the stage performances are funded by the government. So in this funding system we can literally write any topic. But now they tend to censor the issues we are working on more heavily that some of our writers or creative actors and theater people have been blacklisted. Once you were blacklisted, all production would worry that they would die [play] in the market or to mainland China. So it really influenced creativity, our voice, whether we were brave enough to express our feelings and do our job because now we know we have to take the risk of not getting on stage or on screen. “
“A chilling effect. Can you imagine a time in Hong Kong when you will be forced to stop talking?”
“It’s already happening. Not for me, but for other people who don’t work in the theater, but in writing. And so my friends and family were worried about me because some of my words also touch on political issues. I have mine made to finish some of the works in my hands and i want to try to write without devoting time to full production, not taking assignments and just writing in my own room, it can help me ignore the censorship thing and the risks of writing something faithful. Otherwise, I can’t think of any other method that I can write without fear. “
“Finally, Candace, can you say how this time in Iowa, during this International Writing Program writing residency, the interaction with the other writers in the group you are with will shape you, shape your writing? Do you know how this will affect you? “
“Well, I got the idea not to take on a missionary assignment in the first month of my writing program here. And I have a lot of conversations and listen to a lot of our authors from different countries, also important, because I see that they also have obstacles and difficulties going through their own way. And that gives me the strength not to see myself as the lonely and only writer who is oppressed. And that’s why I think it’s important to me because it gives me the strength to keep writing. “
To learn more about these fascinating writers participating in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program 2021 and the events you can attend in person or virtually, visit the International Writing Program website.