Kevin Wong (Project Director of “Research Project—Oral History of Hong Kong Dance Development”)
Translated by Nicolette Wong
Hong Kong dance has developed over time and it is thriving today. In addition to a few hundred local dance productions in the city each year, there are countless other educational and outreach activities. As well as looking to the future, we also take retrospective glances at local dance development and are stunned to realise that there has not been any systematic examination of its history. A look at research findings reveals that as early as 1918 the Chinese YMCA of Hong Kong organised Western folk dance activities,1 and in 1922 the Russian dance artist Anna Pavlova visited Hong Kong to perform classical and modern dance ballet programmes.2 Events such as these in the dance field have been forgotten as time passes. What’s even more regrettable is that due to the lack of documented history, it is impossible for the new generation of dance practitioners to build upon the experiences of their predecessors. Every time we speak about this with our predecessors in the dance field, we are aware of the concern that these early historical materials are becoming scattered and lost, and that it is necessary to have them documented and organised as soon as possible.
To date there are three relatively large-scale dance research and documentary research projects that have been conducted in in Hong Kong. They include:
The “Research Project—Oral History of Hong Kong Dance Development”, which is curated by the City Contemporary Dance Company, attempts to draw on the abovementioned research projects and focuses on the “pre-professionalisation era” of Hong Kong dance from the 1950s to the 1970s as the main time frame of the research. It hopes to provide more comprehensive historical materials and literature for scholars and creative artists who wish to conduct further research on Hong Kong dance.
The two researchers Joanna Lee Hoi-yin and Lam Heyee conducted interviews in Hong Kong, the US and Canada with ten pioneers who were active in Hong Kong dance between the 1950s and 1970s, and recorded and organised the information. The interviewees include (in alphabetical order by surname) Ms Florence Mo-han Aw, Mrs Joan Campbell, Ms Cheng Wai-yung, Mr Stephen Kwok, Mr Lau Siu-ming, Ms Lau So-kam, Ms Lorita Leung, Ms Julie Ng, Mr Ng Sai-fun, and Mr Yeung Wai-kui. They have different backgrounds, expertise, personalities and roles. Some of them moved to Hong Kong from the Mainland or Europe, some returned to the city from overseas, and some left Hong Kong to settle down in a foreign country. Their stories are mirrors to the demographics of Hong Kong. The city has been influenced by constant population movements in various ways; Hong Kong’s culture, including dance, has been gradually shaped in this environment.
With the publication of The Unspoken Dance: An Oral History of Hong Kong Dance (1950s-70s), We hope to derive different perspectives from these pioneers’ memories, and, in the form of oral history that embodies a personal touch, construct a body of historical materials regarding the early development of Hong Kong dance. We have not only been concerned with events and facts, but we have hoped to unearth the feelings, points of view and opinions of these pioneers in the dance field as they experienced those events and facts at the time, in order to preserve diverse records of dance development. Taking the nature of oral history into consideration, we have included additional information from various materials that contrasts and supplements the perspectives of oral history. Joanna and Heyee have used the materials they collected for this project as the basis to raise discussions from artistic and social points of view, which represent the fruits of this research project. As part of this project, edited videos of the interviews are also available on the project’s website, as we hope to offer channel for future researchers to learn about the thoughts of these pioneers.
While working on this project, we encountered quite a few difficulties; thankfully, we had help from many of our industry friends as contacts and liaisons. The project team made many revisions to the research framework to adjust to different situations, with the objective of covering the most representative dimensions in this project. Due to some constraints, however, we were not able to include various historical perspectives or fulfil the initial framework we conceived. History is like the boundless sea. With each interview we conducted, or every piece of additional information we found, we realised that there were some areas of dance history that could not be fully illustrated by this project. Therefore, this oral history project is just a beginning, one that we hope will inspire further efforts by future researchers in order to fill in the blanks.
The City Contemporary Dance Company has been able to undertake the “Research Project—Oral History of Hong Kong Dance Development” thanks to funding from the “Contestable Funding Pilot Scheme for the Major Performing Arts Groups” by the Home Affairs Bureau, and support from the International Association of Theatre Critics (Hong Kong) as well as from our predecessors and our industry colleagues. It represents a small step in the collection of historical materials about Hong Kong dance, and we would like to extend our deepest gratitude to those who have made it possible. However, historical materials about Hong Kong dance are constantly becoming scattered and lost, particularly video recordings of performances, stills, flyers and posters, and reviews and interviews. We hope the government, the industry, and scholars can contribute to the organisation and preservation of these valuable materials, and we look forward to the day when the Hong Kong performing arts archive may finally be established.
1 The Hong Kong Dance Sector Joint Conference. A History of Hong Kong Dance (Hong Kong: Cosmos Books Ltd., 2000), p.29.
2 Ibid, p.60.
Lo Wai-luk (Veteran art critic, and Chairman of Arts Criticism group, Hong Kong Arts Development Council)
Translated by Nicolette Wong
Dance criticism has received increasing attention in Hong Kong in recent years, which marks a welcome trend in the city’s dance culture. There are also a growing number of aspiring dance critics in Hong Kong.
Dance as a means of expression utilising the body originated in prehistoric times, and its existence in human civilisation probably predated that of text or language. Dance as a means of human communication and a communal activity, where it was performed to convey thoughts and feelings or to recount events, originated in subsequent historical eras. Dance as an art form, or even a form of cultural discourse, emerged later, and it goes without saying that dance criticism appeared at even later times.
The development of dance criticism in Hong Kong points to a maturing ecology of Hong Kong dance.
Dance criticism is the examination, analysis, and discussion of dance as a cultural phenomenon. In the narrow sense of the term, it covers performances, dancers, and dance companies. In the broad sense of the term, it covers art movements, cultural history, and aesthetics: it is the synthesis of subjective descriptions and documentation, historical perspectives, theory and research, and value judgments. Whether in the narrow or the broad sense, methodology is key to the further development of dance criticism.
As its title suggests, The Unspoken Dance: An Oral History of Hong Kong Dance (1950s-1970s) presents an overview of a particular time frame in the development of dance in Hong Kong using the method of oral history. It may be regarded as an examination of the cultural history of Hong Kong dance, and a work of dance criticism in the broader sense.
The social existence of dance in Hong Kong may be traced back to the city’s colonial era. Against the glittering backdrop of the lives of socialites, overseas Chinese, and the Chinese elite in Hong Kong, stories took place in unseen corners and venues—such as the high society ballrooms before the fall of Hong Kong in 1941 that are depicted in Eileen Chang’s novel Love in a Fallen City. Yet on the brink of havoc, before Hong Kong entered the dark age of Japanese occupation which was to last for three years and eight months, there were flashes of modern dance in this land. The West Indies-born and renowned Chinese dance artist Dai Ailin (1916-2006) studied modern dance in Europe in the 1930s. After completing her studies, Dai returned to China to join the struggle of resistance against Japanese aggression. She later stayed in Hong Kong for a time and organised a fund-raising performance for the “International Anti-fascist Alliance”. Amidst the sirens of war, the aspirations of members of the Chinese intelligentsia and artists who gathered in Hong Kong rang across the city.
After the end of World War II, the peace talks between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party of China (CPC) failed. The Chinese Civil War swept the country in the latter part of the 1940s, heralding tremendous changes in China’s political arena. It was an interesting era in many ways. Chinese folk dance, ethnic dance, youth social dance, and folk waltz activities were extremely vibrant. At one point there was even a yangge dance craze in the left-wing cultural circle, left-wing labour unions and schools, which echoed Mao Zedong’s call to the people to rally behind the building of a Communist nation: “The 10,000-year quest is too long, and we must seize the day.” The flame of the red era was burning too bright. It prompted the Hong Kong government to expel the CPC auxiliary organisation the Zhongyuan Drama Club from the city. Subsequently, the club moved its activities to Southeast Asia.
In this context, the beginning of Hong Kong dance was directly related to a sense of communal belonging, which had been blooming in different corners of the city. After the rise of a local cultural awareness in Hong Kong in the mid-1970s, the emergency of Hong Kong dance that centred around artistic exploration followed. As the art thrived, the efforts of a small group of dance advocates, as well as breakthroughs in the government’s cultural policy, brought the development of Hong Kong dance to a momentous turn—professionalisation.
From the 1950s to the 1970s: The time frame covered in The Unspoken Dance stretches from the era after China’s political upheaval to before the leap forward of Hong Kong’s dance art. The researchers, Joanna Lee Hoi-yin and Lam Heyee, spent almost two years conducting, transcribing, and analysing the interviews, and they distilled their insights into thought-provoking essays. Joanna approaches this “oral history” from the perspective of cultural research, focusing on “the venues of dance practice”, “society and identity-building”, and “objectivisation of the body”. Regarding the dance practitioners of the time, she asserts that “they felt themselves responsible for what the public should see, even though they did not necessarily consider dance a manifestation of ideology. This sense of responsibility influenced their views on the nature and content of dance.” Lam Heyee focuses on “the dance that evolved through the political vortex of the 1950s and 1960s.” She traces the undercurrents of politics in Hong Kong’s dance culture by drawing on the discussions of “southbound intellectuals” and “the Dollar culture” in Hong Kong literature.
“Oral history” is not only a method of collecting historical materials. It is dynamic, and it holds great significance as an opening for the interaction between life and culture. On the one hand, it records the life experiences, retrospection, epiphanies, or even critical self-reflection recounted by the one who has lived the tales. On the other hand, it inspires understanding and empathy for the interviewee’s past in the interviewer and the readers, and reflection on what possible significance the subject of the interview may have in the present-day context.
The ten dance pioneers Ng Sai-fun, Julie Ng, Stephen Kwok, Lorita Leung, Florence Mo-han Aw, Yeung Wai-kui, Cheng Wai-yung, Lau Siu-ming, Lau So-kam and Joan Campbell worked in the dance profession in a particular cultural climate in Hong Kong. As we read their oral history accounts, we learn about certain events of the era. More importantly, we feel the passion for Hong Kong, dance, and life in these ten remarkable figures—it is a passion that still resounds today.
It tells the story of a convergence of sensibility and sense, and an interaction between different eras.
I believe this convergence and interaction will light up our path ahead.