On Friday 12, I went to the Sunbeam Theatre, in North Point, to see the sold-out opening of the Cantonese opera Trump on Show – an absurdist, crazy operatic comedy that, by inserting the American president in this niche art form, has attracted an awful lot of attention. The plot is predictably incoherent, so much so as to be quite amusing.
It unfolds like this: as the curtains are raised, a bosomy woman with a platinum-blond wig of long hair enters the stage. The background is covered by a large photo of the Oval Office. The blond woman opens a suitcase and then sits on an armchair with a book she has extracted from it, all the while turning her very prominent breasts towards the laughing audience.
On stage is actress and singer Chan Man, impersonating Ivanka Trump, and being somewhat transported, through the pages of the book she fished out, to a dreamy world from decades ago – not in the US, but in the People’s Republic of China.
There is a brief Cultural Revolution scene, taking place in 1966, with acrobatics and red flags – you’d be excused for thinking it is an extract from Red Detachment of Women or something of the sort.
Then, another Beijing scene, 1972: the stage background now is a picture of Beijing’s old airport as we await Nixon’s visit, the first by an American president to Communist China. A lot of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are dressed up as Red Guards (or is it Red Guards dressed up as PLA?), all the while dancing and jumping.
As Nixon, played by Roger Chan, arrives, he is greeted by Zhou Enlai, interpreted by Sun Kim Long, who has been scolded by the always difficult Jiang Qing (Madame Mao, played by Emily Chan) for being selfish (the plot gets further confusing: is this about Peking duck sauce? About Zhou’s wife? Who can say) and after a brief moment of worry over Mao Zedong’s health, Nixon, Zhou, Mao (Loong Koon Tin), an aide and a bodyguard sit together in the same room, packed with books and large armchairs.
The diplomatic encounter takes place, with a game of ping pong and much merriment. In one instance, Nixon has been gifted a half-empty packet of Panda cigarettes and says “oh, how nice, a half-empty packet of cigarettes,” to which Mao replies that he is, in fact, being gifted the two pandas printed on the packet.
Meanwhile – a precious object goes missing. This is because the Nixon delegation has brought to China a young unruly prankster called Donald Trump (“Donald? I thought that was the name of a duck!” says Mao, who knows his Disney characters). Trump has stolen a magical goblet. Mao decides not to worry about the theft but predicts that this Trump might bring problems to China in the future. Trump, in spite of his junior status, nevertheless has an audience with all the big leaders in Beijing, and asks if it is true that there is no more prostitution in China. “There are prostitutes in China,” he is reassured: “But they all work in Taiwan!” – hilarity ensues.
Trump abducted by aliens speaks to long lost brother! From space ship. He fires himself. pic.twitter.com/0Lb9GG6AaK
— Ilaria Maria Sala (@IlariaMariaSala) April 12, 2019
As the audience is moved by the death of Mao’s son during the Korean War, it turns out that an American soldier got lost in China during the war (the Korean one, which ended 19 years previously? Coherence is not highly rated here) and is now living in Kaifeng. It turns out that this is Trump’s lost twin brother!
Here, a play of words has the “Chinese” twin called Chuan Pu (also Loon Koon Tin,) while Trump is Telangpu (Loon Koon Tin again) – a confusion reflected in many Chinese language newspapers, which haven’t fully decided which transliteration is best for the American president. Here, inspired by Obama’s real half brother in Shenzhen, we have both, to good comic effect. Anyway. Chuan Pu works at the crematorium in Kaifeng, where he is getting ready to cremate former leader Liu Shaoqi (who died in 1969, but who’s counting) while having a painful separation from his love interest who wants to escape China. They sing Edelweiss.
Fast forward to 2019, Trump (the Telangpu, trickster one) is president of the United States, has started a trade war with China, singling out Huawei for unfriendly treatment (“Cell phone technology is a battlefield!” he sings.) Kim Jong Un is visiting Washington, and, by coincidence, so is Chuan Pu, Trump’s long lost twin. Ivanka is delighted to meet her uncle. But! Just as the family reunion-cum-state summit is about to get underway, woe strikes: Lincoln’s ghost appears in a cloud of smoke, announcing that Trump has been abducted by aliens! Sharp-eyed Ivanka decides to dress up Chuan Pu the uncle as Trump the Telangpu, and fool Kim, who is duly fooled. Ivanka also remarks on Chuan Pu’s previous job, in the crematorium, saying: “ah, if you could have also turned to ashes all those journalists from the New York Times and CNN! My dad would have been happy.” Chuan Pu’s long lost love interest is also there, sadly in a wheelchair. No matter: they sing Edelweiss.
While the US-NK summit is underway, though, Trump beams himself into the hall from the aliens’ spaceship, and seeing how well his Chinese-at-heart twin is running the country, he fires himself. No more trade war, and the background changes, from the White House to the Forbidden City. Huawei too seems forgiven. The background changes from the White House to the Forbidden City, even while Chuan Pu is still supposed to be presidential in Washington, but the show is over and the audience is ecstatic.
What did we just watch?
The author of the show is Edward Li Kui-ming, a former financial journalist and current fengshui master and impresario. Active in the magic world of Cantonese opera for years, has given it a Communist twist only recently: in 2016 he pioneered the genre in Hong Kong with a Cantonese opera on Mao Zedong.
The first Mao’s show was not concerned with any of Mao’s politics or the price China paid for them, but on his love life. Criticised for glossing over basically everything in Mao’s life, still, the novelty and boldness of the idea attracted attention. This new production further normalises Cultural Revolution chic on Hong Kong’s theatre stages, making it all the more acceptable as the emphasis is on – gasp! – Trump in a Cantonese opera!
Chinese opera – either in its Cantonese form, or jingju, sung in Mandarin, or the many regional variations of the genre – is intrinsically conservative: classical costumes, a lot of timeless tales from China’s literary repertoire, comic relief in the form of jesters and acrobatics, and a level of complexity that requires a long initiation to appreciate it.
Famously, Jiang Qing tried to modernise it, banning some of its “feudalistic” aspects and creating a type of revolutionary Chinese opera called Model Works, or yangbanxi – with six revolutionary productions. Their aesthetics and visual dazzle are overpowering, and to this day Jiang Qing’s operating works have some aficionados.
It isn’t likely that Li Kui-ming’s will last as long, but they are giving a sensational and humoristic take to a very straightforward political message, that is not revolutionary at all. Here we have an openly patriotic Fengshui master doing his part against the trade war, and opportunistically using the shock value of a Cantonese opera-singing Trump to further normalise a communist aesthetic in Hong Kong, at a time of heightened political strife and repression. So not that funny, after all.
Kong Tsung-gan‘s new collection of essays – narrative, journalistic, documentary, analytical, polemical, and philosophical – trace the fast-paced, often bewildering developments in Hong Kong since the 2014 Umbrella Movement. As Long As There Is Resistance, There Is Hope is available exclusively through HKFP with a min. HK$200 donation. Thanks to the kindness of the author, 100 per cent of your payment will go to HKFP’s critical 2019 #PressForFreedom Funding Drive.