After the indignities of the Opium Wars, and assaults on China’s sovereignty by Japan and Western colonial powers, titanic efforts to reclaim China’s honor have consolidated power in the hands of the Communist Party and wealth in the pockets of a small ruling class, at the expense of human rights. But feisty, freewheeling Hong Kong has largely refused to toe the Party line since its handover from Britain to Beijing in 1997. Thus, it is fitting that a major new opera – produced by an all-Hong Kong team under the auspices of the Hong Kong Arts Festival – tackles the fallout from a century of humiliation head-on, in unique and imaginative fashion.

<i>Datong: The Chinese Utopia</i> © Yankov Wong | Hong Kong Arts Festival
Datong: The Chinese Utopia
© Yankov Wong | Hong Kong Arts Festival

Datong: The Chinese Utopia dramatizes episodes in the life of a pioneering Chinese feminist, Kang Tongbi. Her father, Kang Youwei – a modern Confucian idealist, political reformer and author of a famous treatise on the concept of utopia – spent many years in political exile.

Librettist Evans Chan, composer Chan Hing-yan and director Tang Shu-wing have situated Datong over a period of successive upheavals in China, in a manner that resonates in the Chinese political climate today – and also as a universal tale of generational fracture, of the collateral damage to individuals from political power plays and massive failed experiments in social engineering.

We first encounter Kang Tongbi in 1901 on board a ship bound from Hong Kong to Penang, where she is to join her father. She meets a missionary, who expresses his contempt for Chinese society – to which she reacts spiritedly. From the moment she bursts on stage in her bright pink silk pyjamas and fluffy slippers, Louise Kwong dazzles as Kang Tonbi, beautiful and spirited, with a warm, velvety soprano.

This spunky young woman regales the missionary with the tale of her father’s attempt to resuscitate the moribund Manchu Qing empire by implementing modern constitutional reforms. The action unfolds in flashback. Kang Youwei is ultimately foiled by the evil, petulant Empress Dowager Cixi (a gripping performance by Carol Lin) and is forced into exile. (“For one woman’s pleasure,” notes Kang Youwei bitterly, “millions and millions had to pay.”)

In Act II, father and daughter appear at the U.S. State Department to pressure President Theodore Roosevelt to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Chorus indignantly chronicles the discrimination and violence faced by Chinese migrant workers. A sympathetic Roosevelt is incapable of turning the tide of anti-Chinese sentiment; our protagonists call for China’s boycott of American goods.

Act III fast forwards past the death of Kang Youwei in 1927, to the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1969. Kang Tongbi is on her deathbed, her daughter Lo Yifeng at her side. A Chorus of Red Guards chants revolutionary slogans in the street below, while Kang in her delirium sees visions of her father.

Kwong’s transformation into a frail old woman is remarkable – not simply a triumph of makeup and costume, but an acting coup. Meanwhile, a distraught Lo (the terrific Carol Lin, again) fears she will become a target of zealous revolutionaries, who have identified her as the granddaughter of a Royalist. Being a modern young woman of the 60s, she also laments being forced to give up the finer things in life (“lipsticks, bras and cheongsams have to go / revolution is no flirtation.”)

© Yankov Wong | Hong Kong Arts Festival
© Yankov Wong | Hong Kong Arts Festival

Before she expires, Kang Tongbi asks in anguish: “Has China come to this mad crossroad / because of Confucius / or because we have not followed his way?” The curtain falls on Lo’s sobs of grief, as the ghost of Kang Youwei and a somber Chorus in pale imperial finery confront us impassively.

The stage direction evolves from a restrained minimalism in Act I to a more contemporary naturalism by Act III. Act I needed more vitality of movement to hook the audience earlier. And a golden opportunity was missed to throw some ballet into the mix, in the august tradition of European opera, during the scene in which Kang Tongbi proudly declares her freedom from the barbaric practice of foot-binding; the moment begs for a ballerina to cast off her pointe shoes and flit about in the style of Isadora Duncan.

Apollo Wong portrays Kang Youwei with passion. Chen Chen storms the stage in the role of the fiery Missionary, but when called on to play Roosevelt in Act II, he dials down his performance. Surely a colorful character like Teddy merits a larger-than-life portrayal? The staging of the Chorus lacks imagination – particularly in Act II, when they lurk behind French windows, black veils over their heads.

The witty libretto by acclaimed playwright and filmmaker Evans Chan, provides much food for thought, balancing the essential exploration of the characters’ psyches with the need for historical exposition (not critical perhaps in Hong Kong or China, but if this production is to have a life overseas, we can’t have audiences scratching their heads.)

Then there’s the astounding music… Not exactly accompaniment, the score offers embellishment and commentary every bit as witty as the text. Sometimes it sounds like the orchestra is downright complaining – “harnessing chaos,” in the words of Kang Youwei’s guidebook to Utopia. I imagined the composer reading some lines tossed at him by the librettist and thinking “f*ck this.”

A benediction by The Beatles, to mark the passing of Kang Youwei at the top of Act III, was particularly inspired. A soulful saxophone played a verse and chorus of “Let It Be” while the other instruments gave it an occasional playful nudge. (The Beatles recorded the song in 1969, the year Kang Tongbi died.)

The youthful Lio Kuokman on the podium appeared to be throwing a raucous party in the pit. May the Party live on.