The year was 1992, and Joshua Wolper was 10. One night, before dinner, his mother told him she was going to take him to see history in the making.
“The sun had set, and it was dark,” Wolper told Young Post. “She held my hand and we walked through the city.” The mother and son duo ended up at the Kowloon Walled City, where its residents were being evicted and the city was being demolished. A park was later built where the city had stood.
Wolper, now a director and playwright, may not have fully understood what was going on at the time, but he took away with him an appreciation for Chinese history and heritage, which he ended up putting on stage.
The Light Dragon, Wolper’s latest play, tells the story of Kowloon Walled City using a simple stage set and three characters. In the play – thanks to a chance encounter in the Kowloon Walled City Park – Jenny, a local teenager with a map of the old city from her late grandfather, and Henry, a tourist following in his father’s footsteps, travel through time and explore the mythology around the walled city. All the while, Ho Je, a park custodial worker, tells the audience what life was like when she lived in the city.
The play is part of a Shakespeare4All project that is attempting to create engaging theatre for younger audience.
“[It’s] purely for enjoyment and engagement,” Fiona Kaaka, the theatre company’s managing director, said. “There’s no explicit educational purpose – we’re not trying to do anything other than create rich and wonderful entertainment suitable for all ages.”
When Wolper was approached to help share a Hong Kong story with a wider audience, he spent months asking himself what sort of story it was that he wanted to tell, and how he could make it unique. The answer came to him in the form of an old family photo.
“I started to look at the things that have changed in Hong Kong – at the things that we may perhaps never encounter or see again,” he said. Kowloon Walled City then, with its colonial past, its Chinese roots, and its long history in Hong Kong, was the ideal setting to build a story around.
“There’s a lot that’s just very fascinating about it,” he said of the walled city. “And there’s the challenge of presenting it accurately, because families lived there and children grew up there.”
After reading a lot of news articles and watching a lot of documentaries, Wolper – who admits that the “internet has saved me a lot of time” – started writing.
The three characters in the play were born in different places, in different times, and are of different generations – but they all have a connection to the same place.
“That’s a very Hong Kong thing, and we don’t always acknowledge that,” said Wolper, who added the beauty of theatre was that “you get to explore history through stories”.
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These stories were new to two Law Ting Pong Secondary School students in the audience, Eugenia Ngai Wing-yu and Newton Hung Yat-hin. Both students said their only knowledge of the city came from A Fist Within Four Walls, a 2016 martial arts action TV drama produced by Jazz Boon and TVB.
While Eugenia was moved by the monologues and the stories that the characters told, Newton said he was more impressed by the sounds and visuals woven into the story, because they really helped him feel like they had been taken back in time.
Mike Brooks, who stars as Henry in the play and has lived in Hong Kong for decades, said he has never been to the memorial park because when something is there all the time, “you just take it for granted”.
“People always complain that [the government of] Hong Kong doesn’t do enough to take care of certain things,” Wolper agreed. “Some of that criticism is correct but at the same time ... we have a tonne of museums and resources that we simply don’t use.”
One of those resources is the Kowloon Walled City Park itself.
The director’s first reaction when he thought of the park was “Pfft, the park? Seriously?” He didn’t believe that the park would have much in it that could properly reflect the city’s significance to Hong Kong. However, he realised after a few trips that the park – where some of the old city is still on display – isn’t erasing its history; it’s preserving it. Wolper felt awed and curious about the city – and that’s what he wants his audience to feel too.
Technology has gone some way to helping him with that – Wolper was able to digitally recreate the look and feel of the city in the 1980s without having to build a set.
“[New technology] means you get to play with things – lighting and sound – in a different way,” Wolper said. The sound of an approaching plane in the play, for instance, is used to emphasise how it felt for people to be living so close to Kai Tak Airport – which at the time was one of the most exciting airports in the world.
“It’s a way of engaging a modern audience of people who belong to a gaming culture,” said Kaaka of all the digital media used. She added that she’d heard students call the play “cool” because “it’s like being inside a movie”.
Again, Wolper emphasised that The Light Dragon isn’t meant to be a history lesson. What he wants to do is to cultivate a natural interest in Kowloon Walled City. By extension, he hopes that interest will grow in learning about the heritage of Hong Kong. Wolper wants people to walk away from his play asking questions – namely “What are we losing, what are we gaining, where is it going, what does it mean, what stories are there?”