The Imaginary Order

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-Jan 17

Eunice Tsang dips into the dark and disturbing days of the bubonic plague in our city ahead of the HK Repertory Theatre’s new musical, 1894 Hong Kong Plague

It first betrayed itself by the emergence of tumours in the groin or the armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple...” says 14th century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio in his celebrated work, The Decameron. The author continues: “Black spots [make] their appearance on the arm or the thigh or elsewhere, now few and large, now minute and numerous...” Boccaccio also notes that these spots were ‘an infallible token of approaching death’.

That’s a graphic and pretty disturbing description of the symptoms of the ‘black death’, one of the largest disasters in history. This bubonic plague spread across Europe in the mid-14th century, killing 25 million people in just five years. That’s almost one third of the European population. But it wasn’t just Europe which was struck by the same plague in the last millennium. Nowhere near as well known is the outbreak of black death in Hong Kong in 1894. It’s a dark page in the history of our city that is seldom mentioned or discussed in modern times. So why not take the subject to the stage, now it’s 2016? This is just what Hong Kong Repertory Theatre is doing. It’s retelling the tragedy, with a refreshing twist, by presenting life back then in the form of a musical.

Co-writer of the musical Gerard Tsang started on the original script for 1894 Hong Kong Plague several years ago, when he was researching the history of medicine in the city. Having been the vice-director of both the Hong Kong History Museum and the Hong Kong Museum of Art, Tsang is no stranger to local history. With a kind of enthusiasm alongside the subdued excitement of a scholar, he patiently and eloquently takes us through the intriguingly complex history of the city’s version of the black death, which lasted for a horrifying 35 years.

A direct translation of the play’s Chinese title would be The Plague of Tai Ping Shan Street, marking the importance of this Hong Kong Island location. Running parallel to Hollywood Road, Tai Ping Shan is situated along the slopes in between Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun. This is where British forces made a garrison in 1842, when China was forced to lease out Hong Kong after losing the First Opium War. The Chinese were forbidden to live in the Victoria Peak area, which became the residence of the British elite, so Tai Ping Shan Street became a crowded settlement for the working classes, who unfortunately had little to no knowledge of urban planning and hygiene.

“These poor Chinese people were crammed into wooden huts that had no windows,” Tsang tells us. “Some of the abodes were just 500sq ft in size and would often house up to 50 people. In addition to that, what’s even more appalling to us nowadays is that pigs and chickens were also kept indoors with the humans.” With animals in the houses, no fresh water supply, no proper sewage and no drainage system, Tai Ping Shan Street was a dire and dirty place to live in.

So it wasn’t long before a disaster reared its head. Tsang says that, in May 1894, the first few cases of the bubonic plague were discovered in Hong Kong, centuries after it swept unceremoniously through Europe. And within two months there were 2,442 deaths. It’s a terrible and undoubtedly significant phase in our SAR’s history, which is strangely barely ever even mentioned in city schools. Only a trace remains these days, in the form of an unassuming rectangular plaque in Blake Garden, Tai Ping Shan Street.

The facts are undeniably gruesome but what’s even more fascinating to Tsang is the tension that grew rapidly between local people and the British government, despite the authority trying so hard to resolve the pandemic. One of the government’s first actions was to set up Hygeia, a massive cargo ship that acted as a contained isolation area just off the coast. Hospitals were established on board but, in truth, it was more like a minimalistic room where patients lay waiting for a quick-yet-agonising death. The main problem arose with the new laws drawn up by the government’s Sanitary Board, which included forced isolation on the Hygeia for anyone who has contracted the plague, sudden house-to-house sanitary checks implemented by the military and a horribly controversial one that really fuelled the tension. Basically, when a patient died, the body was to be disposed of by the hospital, never to be returned to the family for a proper burial.

In addition to all the new laws, Tsang says, there had always been a deep-rooted two-way prejudice between Chinese and Western doctors. Those wranglings by the people trying to medically help victims of the plague added to all the other stresses and the locals quickly felt their privacy was being invaded and their traditional customs were being rudely dismissed. As a result, there were riots. Hongkongers even began walking to the Mainland out of sheer frustration and fear.

“Public hygiene in a city is something that can only be regulated by the government,” says Tsang. “The British government took the right precautions, so why was there such outrage and hatred with the locals?” Tsang ponders for a moment. “It’s because the locals really found the government’s reaction unacceptable,” he says. “This shows that if a government is unable to get the approval of its people, despite its explanation, or even if they’re doing the right thing, people will be against it. There needs to be understanding and appreciation from both sides, just as we need it now.”

Although there are some heavy elements of political commentary in 1894 Hong Kong Plague, it also goes deeper into the human psyche. The main romantic plot revolves around a young girl who is sold into a Chinese doctor’s household during the black death outbreak. She is to eventually marry the medical man’s son. Interestingly, though, the son is studying Western medicine, in the hope of finding a cure for the disease. “There were a lot of ideological clashes between Western and Chinese medicines,” explains Tsang. “Western doctors forbade Chinese doctors to use certain medical instruments, which really obstructed their scientific progress.”

Artistic director and co-writer of the musical, Anthony Chan, says that so many people in Hong Kong, at the time of the plague, ‘were frantically searching for a reason and a cure’. “Actually,” he says, “it doesn’t matter what kind of medical practice you had. You just wanted to heal people and that’s what the different doctors in our performance are really doing. The piece is about urging people to work out a problem together despite having opposing opinions and cultures.”

But why a musical? A black death musical? “We all need to know this history,” says Chan, “especially the younger generation. If it’s simply a historical play, it might get a bit too heavy. So we use a musical style, with big scenes, songs and contemporary dance to create a deeper impression.”

Collaborating with Tsang and Chan is director Sam Lam, along with composer Alfred Wong and choreographer Ivanhoe Lam. They have all revisited the original script numerous times, discussing the allocation of scenes, structure and choreography. What’s on in the Grand Theatre at the HKCC between now and January 17 is actually the fruits of the 12th script. It’s a huge production, in fact, as there are 14 song numbers, including one that lasts more than 20 minutes. There are also contemporary twists in the music, with it being a mix of traditional Chinese and Western styles, effectively mirroring the societal and cultural changes in our city in the 19th century. The play is in Cantonese, with English surtitles, and those who speak it can imagine how difficult it is to write lyrics in such a complicated language. “It’s a very modern musical, says Chan in a proud tone, “and it’s very rare for a local theatre company to have the budget, time and effort to create everything from scratch.”

“In essence, 1894 Hong Kong Plague uses a love story to illustrate how Hong Kong folks struggled through obstacles out of sheer will and self-sacrifice,” says Chan explains. “There are people who say that the colonial times were better but if they understood history they might not say so. We just hope that the audience will reflect on what’s happening now and ultimately realise that instead of splitting our society with overheated criticisms, we should really be joining forces.” They may say that the most important aspect we learn from history is that we never learn from history. But, perhaps, we can learn from that too.

1894 Hong Kong Plague Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, until Jan 17. Tickets: $140-$420;


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