Colour-blind

Colour-blind

Celebrating differences and being accepting is at the heart of what Hairspray represents, and is particularly apt in HK

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Seaweed (in red jumper), and members of the culturally-mixed show.
Seaweed (in red jumper), and members of the culturally-mixed show.
Photo: Venture Photography
You may have watched the Hollywood version of the Broadway musical Hairspray. But dazzled by the A-list cast, you might have overlooked the issues at its heart.

Hairspray is set in 1960s Baltimore. White and black did not mix by choice, but schools had been desegregated, forcing children of both races to spend time together.

Face Productions' upcoming production of the show strictly follows the Broadway script; but there is an obvious hurdle - despite Hong Kong's cultural diversity, the native-English-speaking black community here is small.

But that didn't put off director Vincent Warren. "The 'race issue' has possibly been one of the reasons people have avoided doing this show in Hong Kong, feeling it may be difficult to successfully reflect the central themes through casting," he says.

"Though Hairspray is set within a very specific social and historical context, it focuses on ... the celebration of difference. ... I believe this production's success is in its use of the rich diversity of Hong Kong's unique social demographic."

With this in mind, the production team took a little artistic licence with the casting - not all the "white kids" are Caucasian, and the "black" people are a mix of races.

Motormouth Maybelle, a black woman who occasionally hosts The Corny Collins Show, a popular (white) TV show for teenagers, is being played by a Filipino man, Joms Ortega. Despite Hong Kong's open-mindedness, the 27-year-old kindergarten teacher says a racial imbalance is still evident.

"It's quite hard ... if you're "of colour" and applying to be an English teacher," he says. "I've encountered cases where I wasn't ... considered for a job just because I'm not Caucasian."

Motormouth's son, Seaweed, is played by 23-year-old HKUST student Phraveen Arikiah. The ethnically-Indian Malaysian - "a cultural hybrid" - says the city is far less discriminatory than his home country. Although locals are surprised when he speaks a word or two of Cantonese, he says he has never have been shunned or looked down upon ... just because of the colour of my skin" - yet in Malaysia, he was aware of discrimination from a very young age.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, French International School student Lola Bezancon, 13, is biracial, with a Nigerian father, and a white, French mother. She plays Little Inez, Seaweed's younger sister and, like her on-stage brother, doesn't find Hong Kong racist - but says that Chinese people are often "curious" about her skin colour, adding people "often want to touch my hair!"

But she feels schools like hers, which has students of 26 nationalities, are part of what makes Hongkongers so accepting of other cultures. That, for her, is what lies at the heart of Hairspray.

While 1960s America seems a world away from Hong Kong in 2013, the cast and director insist the story is relevant. Arikiah says the show "celebrates differences between people - be it in terms of shape, size or colour. That is a lesson we need to pass on to coming generations because, like it or not, it is the differences between us that make us unique, and make the world beautiful".

Ortega goes further, saying the show's racism is representative of other issues affecting minorities. "There will always be people who are not open to change," he says, "but there will always be those who will challenge them, and try to change the world."

Warren sums up the show's significance saying: "the concept of acceptance lies at the heart of a place like Hong Kong, and is what keeps it functioning and alive."

Hairspray is showing at the Cultural Centre, June 27-30, with a "Highlights" version also showing on June 29-30. Tickets from Urbtix.

Young Post has five pairs of tickets to give away to the 3pm show on June 30. For a chance to win, email your name, age, school and contact number to syp@scmp.com


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