In the wooden panelled music room of the century-old St Stephen’s College, Ohin Cheng Ngo-hin was contemplating his imminent death. Besides him, three other students were kneeling down in prayer, desperately asking for God to save his life. Hands clasped, eyes looking far off into the distance, Ohin burst into song. “Let me survive,” he pleaded in a solid tenor voice.
The Form Four student was rehearsing his role in the school’s upcoming musical as Tam Cheung-huen, a 40-year-old teacher at the school during the second world war.
December 1941 was one of the darkest times in Hong Kong history. The Japanese military were taking over. Heavily outnumbered, the city surrendered on Christmas Day. Troops stormed St Stephen’s College, which was being used as a hospital, attacking doctors and wounded soldiers. Tam, who was standing his ground to protect the 50 boarding students still at the school, was killed.
Tam’s bravery inspired Out of Place, the school’s first original musical. Doing an original show means the school can freely film and distribute it, says Alex Yu Chi-kei, the school’s Head of Music. Out of Place was written, scored and performed by students, something that was made possible because of the school’s Creativity Programme, launched in 2008, that trained students in songwriting.
The first step was writing a script. In a writing workshop guided by a professional playwright, five students brainstormed ideas and came up with the storyline: Selena, an indifferent teenager, travels Nutcracker-style to an alternative universe where Hong Kong is at war with the Japanese and befriends an orphan boy called Thomas.
“Getting the dialogue right was really tricky because you want to show the character with depth,” says Form Four student Victoria Moo Pak-hei, who likes reading, and watching reality TV show Keeping Up With the Kardashians. “Like the part when Mr Tam was about to die. He was protecting and comforting the students, but he was actually very scared himself. We had to show that inner conflict.”
With the dialogue and lyrics ready, the script was then passed on to the student and alumni composers to write the 10 original songs. The task of scoring Tam’s final song before his death fell on the shoulders of Form Five student Anson Wu Chun-long, who has been writing songs for three years.
As one of the guides for the school’s Heritage Trail, Anson was familiar with Tam’s story, but he needed a deeper connection to write a song about it. So during recesses, he would go to the spot in front of the school library where Tam was murdered. “I envisioned the moment when he was shot, and I thought, where did his courage come from? He must have been able to take death as it came because of his strong faith in God’s power,” he explains.
Sitting at the piano, Anson came up with a dark melody, contrasted against a military beat that symbolised the looming approach of the Japanese troops. A key change further pushed the song’s tension into an impressive climax. “It only got this good after it was produced,” he confessed, as the students performed the song for Young Post.
To Ohin, a seasoned singer, the biggest challenge was putting himself into the shoes of a man three times his age. “I was constantly listening to the song Gethsemane from [the rock opera] Jesus Christ Superstar to understand Jesus’ conflicted feelings before his death,” says the first-time actor. “Chinese poet Su Shi’s works also helped me get a feel of what it was like to be older, and I also went to Tam’s grave to think about my role.”
Ohin is among the 40-strong cast selected from more than 200 hopefuls. The audition process involved singing a song of your own choice, a set piece, and a monologue. Hugo Leung E-heng, who plays Thomas, said the first part was the most important, because it can show your full potential as a singer. “The song I did, Lady Gaga’s The Edge of Glory, was great because it was very vocally free, and I could just let it out,” he says. Right before the audition, Hugo says he also relaxed by thinking about funny YouTube videos.
To do well in the monologue, Pinky Tsang Lok-man, who plays Selena, recommends referencing different script interpretations on YouTube and adding your own personal touches. She also practised with friends during recess. “They’d laugh at me at first, but their feedback is very important. After all, you are performing for an audience,” she says.
While the students joke about each other’s clumsy dance moves and makeshift props, Form Three student Brian Lee Tsun-lam says the musical has helped him relate to the conflicts happening around the world today. “I didn’t really care about the news before, but to get into character I had to read up about the war in Syria,” he says. “I’ve truly come to realise how horrific wars are.”