Mulan, Disney and Putonghua: how Yew Chung International School - Secondary put on a truly unique production

Mulan, Disney and Putonghua: how Yew Chung International School - Secondary put on a truly unique production


From left: Michelle Lau, Yubil Das, Cissy He, and Anna Suen starred in a unique production of Mulan.
Photo: YCIS

A story of dual identity may seem familiar to many teens in Hong Kong. And while most students probably aren't disguising themselves so they can join the army, the story of Mulan is still one that strikes a chord with anyone trying to figure out their place in the world.

And to bring this story of dual identities into an even broader Hong Kong context, the Yew Chung International School - Secondary (YCIS-Secondary) production also made it dual-language.

YCIS-Secondary student Michelle Lau Hoi-ting, 16, was part of the group who took on the challenge of translating the story from English into Putonghua. Once they got the English script, she and the other student translators set to work deciding when to use which language, and which characters should speak the different languages.

"The team sat down together and went through the script lots of times before translating the lines," says Michelle. "As we translated, we had two rules: first, we had to have a good reason to translate the line. And it had to be accessible to all speakers."

For each line that the team changed from English to Putonghua, they needed to make sure it would support the play and the story, and that everyone in the audience could guess or understand the meaning.

"The translation team had to find a way to make sure everyone understood," explains Cissy He, 17, another of the script translators who played the role of Mulan. "This was done by having a few characters acting as the translators of the story. In our case, Mushu the dragon was a key translator.

The group decided to use Putonghua to show the level of honour a character had earned. "We set the translation rules around the theatrical concept of honour," says Cissy. "The more honourable a person, the more lines translated into Putonghua he or she would get. So the Ancestors had all their lines in Putonghua because they are the most honourable."

Cissy says even choosing which language to use wasn't easy. One reason the decision was so tricky was because the team wanted to perform the play in the style of a Cantonese Opera.

"We wanted to use English together with a Chinese language," says Cissy. "Normally a Cantonese Opera performance would be carried out in Cantonese, but we decided to use Putonghua instead, because it is our school's official education language."

But after deciding which languages to use, the team still needed to make sure that everyone in the audience would be able to understand the whole production. So for some professional guidance, they turned to the company that made Mulan famous - Disney.

"We made a video recording so that Disney could watch our mock performance and assess the effectiveness of the whole production," says Michelle, who played the role of Hua Li and was also the assistant director and choreographer.

With Disney's feedback, the students were able to tweak their script so that it was easier to understand.

All the hard work that went into preparing the dual-language script paid off. The shows in early November were such a success, the school put on an additional special charity performance last Saturday.

Michelle explained that the team had a panel of different language speakers: those who could speak only English, only Mandarin, only Cantonese; bilingual speakers; and trilingual speakers.

And while this might sound like it made matters hugely complicated, Michelle says the group actually had a great time doing it.

"The most fun part was definitely the translation stage," she says.

Working with everyone's input was sometimes more confusing than helpful, but Michelle says it was fun figuring out the phrasing and structure that would make everything work out best.

"We were laughing so hard for one word because it had so many meanings, that could seem inappropriate and quite disturbing as well," she says.

"The last thing we want is to confuse the audience."

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Mulan like never before


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A great performance! Congratulations to all actors and participants! Pity the article does not mention that the role of Mushu the Dragon, the key translator, was played convincingly and with bravado by barely 13-year old Chinese-Swiss Lina Luedi, currently in year 8.