Review: Floating Family- Hong Kong Arts Festival


By Emrys Barnes




It’s Hong Kong Arts Festival and the hype is particularly high for Loon Man-Hong’s Floating Family trilogy. An epic undertaking, Loon has penned three distinct plays following the lives of one Hong Kong family over 20 years before and after Handover. Following all three produced this year, we immerse ourselves in the family’s world, but each stands alone as a snapshot into a decade, and its zeitgeist.

I was here to see play one: Hong Kong Astronaut. Set just before Handover, in 1996, eldest brother Wong Chau-wing is sharing one last dinner at the family home before he immigrates to Canada. Tensions are high, especially among Chau-wing and his father Wong Foon, and unresolved conflicts surface, particularly over Chau-wing’s controversial marriage to Clara.

As we arrive at the theatre the set is open to us: it looks like what would today be considered a spacious and pleasantly furnished middle-class home. I wonder, with the escalation in property prices since ‘96, if an apartment like this would have been available to more than the middle classes. The family are not wealthy – Foon runs a struggling pest control business. In any case, the domestic comfort on stage contrasts the familial tension that is to follow. The room is in darkness, the only lights on stage are the fish tanks (with real fish!) and the soft red glow of the family shrine. Do these two objects symbolise life and spirituality? Or perhaps the family members are fish themselves, swimming in the ‘tank’ of Hong Kong, dreaming of life outside. Animals recur as a motif throughout the production.

Lights up, and a traditional Chinese opera song plays. Foon sits meditating on the poetry of history evoked by the song and enjoying a cigarette. As the song climaxes in a lament for losing one’s castle and land to the power of an invading enemy, he silently mouths along, gazing at – what? Then all is shattered as a plane passes thunderously over the building. Despite your anxieties, the change of the modern world is coming.

Foon’s wife, Ma Man-Kuen enters, and the atmosphere changes. The couple’s conversation is a joy to watch; we get the impression of a husband and wife negotiating along familiar established patterns, arguing tongue-in-cheek. The talk turns serious, and Foon evokes the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square to express his anxiety about the history of the mainland government and what Handover means for Hong Kong. But at this, the audience laughs. Why? Do they find his fears laughable? Or is there some joke of language, lost in translation for me? This is a common experience watching drama via surtitles: occasional nuances are always lost.  

As for the siblings: older brother Chau-wing is no-nonsense and speaks frankly, but clearly dotes on his younger sister Chun-ping, who is endearing and conciliatory. Younger brother Dung-dung (with his ears always covered by headphones) is convincing as a teenager – his actions make perfect sense from his point of view but bump against the expectations of others. It is heart-warming to see how Chau-wing and Chun-Ping can talk openly about life and their relationships but, when the conversation gets too intense, they revert to the ‘safe’ Hong Kong talk of business, as we speak of the weather in the UK. Another plane passes over, painfully reminding us of Chau-wing’s imminent departure.

As soon as the parents return, the atmosphere is awkward again. Conflict builds, and Chau-wing is about to leave when younger sister May arrives. There is great timing between the actors and much more comedy than I expected. This comedy comes especially from irony, between characters’ actions against their status and roles in the family. The hierarchy of family is stronger in HK than back in my home, UK, so it is interesting to see the subtlety and subversion of this throughout the performance. The siblings genuinely worry about how others will react and speak to them, an attitude that is less active in the more individualistic West. One of the strengths of this production is the interplay between conflict and humour, how one triggers the other and makes the family seem very real.

Later, with alcohol flowing, Foon and Chau-wing talk more openly, with less aggression. Chau-wing tells a story of how they were once hired to remove a pigeon trapped in a foreigner’s apartment. This anecdote is a clear analogy of Hong Kongers’ predicament at Handover, with the same anxieties of staying vs. leaving. The animal motif returns throughout the play and it is interesting that the animals mentioned usually provide a self-deprecating view of native Hong Kongers. They are not lions but fish, pigeons, rats. The plane flies overhead again, interrupting the few chances the characters have to talk openly. Time is passing, always passing.

Major themes keep returning throughout the play: food and business play a central role, among the heavier topics of family relationships, immigration, respect, freedom. Characters are always weighing their own happiness against the happiness and established order of the household. It reminds me in this way of modern classic realist dramas such as Look Back in Anger, pitting internal angst against changing times and frustrated characters, focussing mainly on men considering their agency. Eating, drinking and smoking – consuming together – bring the family together and facilitate conversation. But it is always interrupted by aeroplanes, new people, new problems. I can’t wait to see how their stories play out.


Floating Family shows on February 24-26, March 1-5, 8-11 and 15-19, 2pm, 3pm,4:30pm & 8:15pm (for precise programming, see HK Arts Festival website). For more information click here


Rate This Show: 1 2 3 4 5 Audience Rating: 5.0


No comment at the moment.

Post New Comment