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A New Opera and Hong Kong’s Utopian Legacy

This year, the 43rd annual Hong Kong Arts Festival commissioned a chamber opera in three acts called Datong: The Chinese Utopia. Depicting the life and times of Kang Youwei (1858-1927), a philosopher and reformer of China’s last Qing dynasty, it premiered in the theater of the Hong Kong City Hall, a stone’s throw away from where the Umbrella Movement protests of 2014 demanded universal suffrage and greater democracy.

Kang was one of the central figures of China’s late 19th century reform movement. His writings—on the ideal society and the role of Confucius as reformer—were explicitly political. During the time he wrote, China faced defeat to a rising Japan, and Kang advocated constitutional reform, arguing that the traditions he defended were themselves built on adaptation and change.

The irony of an opera on Kang’s life, six months after one of the biggest and most persistent mass protests Hong Kong has ever seen, could not have been lost on the audience. On opening night, the theater was filled with older Hong Kongers and a few student groups. The former included its intellectual and political elite; Hong Kong University professors were out in full force, and the audience also included Martin Lee, founding chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party. The audience thus included activists—young and old—who had just seen their own demands for constitutional reform denied. What could it mean for them to watch an operatic tale of a failed utopian dreamer?

Yankov Wong

Kang Tongbi (played by soprano Louise Kwong), left, and Kang Youwei (played by bass Apollo Wong) in Act I of Datong.

Datong tells a history every Chinese schoolchild knows. The opera begins with Kang and his students’ thwarted attempt to introduce political reforms in the Qing court, and it ends in the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution, in the 1960s. The first act opens in 1901, with Kang Youwei’s daughter, Kang Tongbi, sailing from Hong Kong to meet her father. In a haunting and clarion soprano, she sings her family’s story to an itinerant missionary, flashing back to the 1898 reform movement, whose failure is the reason for her father’s exile.

Datong’s audience knows how the story will end. The missionary and Kang Youwei are tragic heroes even before they begin to sing. Kang’s dream of constitutional monarchy quickly becomes as archaic as the queue he wears, and in the upper left corner of the stage the Empress Dowager Cixi twirls her long fingernails, illuminated in a wash of red. Throughout the first act, the chorus of the ship’s other passengers sings of an age of chaos. But the historical tumult that tosses them about does not give way to firmer ground.

In the second act, Kang Youwei and his daughter arrive in Washington in 1905 to petition Teddy Roosevelt to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act. This scene, which unfolds in a White House reception room, underscores Kang as a patriot, indignant over the treatment of his compatriots. He relates his vision of China’s chaos giving way to utopia. But this scene, too, rings with premonition. Kang Tongbi and Roosevelt sing in English, and we learn that Roosevelt supports the republican revolutionary Sun Yatsen. Though the writings of Kang Youwei and his students inspire revolutionaries—including a young Mao Zedong—his constitutional monarchy is already a thing of the past.

“the ideal society that Kang Youwei dreamt of has yet to come about in China”

When the curtain rises on the third and final act, Kang Tongbi is attended on her Beijing deathbed by her daughter Luo Yifeng. It is 1969, and outside her bedroom a chorus of Red Guards sings of “attacking the four olds.” Luo laments that they have exhumed Kang Youwei’s grave and desecrated the body. Luo Yifeng is frantic, tearing through the gowns of her mother’s past life and sawing the heels off satin shoes. Kang Youwei’s ghost enters the courtyard with other elemental Confucians, and before Kang Tongbi dies mother and daughter page through one of his manuscripts, which falls from her hand with her last words: “Have we too lost the Way?”

Is Datong simply a historical tragedy? Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post review did not read it for any political content. Yet both director Tang Shu-wing and librettist Evans Chan interpret Kang’s failed vision in the present. Tang writes in an essay about the operat that “the ideal society that Kang Youwei dreamt of has yet to come about in China,” and Chan argues that for Kang, the wealth created in China in recent decades “should be a step toward Datong, not an end in itself.” Thus the opera begins in chaos and ends in chaos, and while the shade of Kang Youwei speaks through the doors of a Beijing hutong house in 1969, his words might be admonishing the China of today. From his desecrated grave he sings from the Confucian Book of Rites of a public spirit ruling all-under-heaven, men of virtue, and social provision for all. The abrupt ending of Datong leaves us too in ferment, dreaming of utopia.

A different interpretation of Confucianism has been revived by China’s Communist regime, with President Xi Jinping quoting Confucius’ writings to justify his own policies. But in Hong Kong, the story of Kang Youwei proposes the power of the individual—not the state—to interpret Chinese tradition and justify democratic reforms. In this way the staging of Datong revives Kang Youwei’s ghost.

(Wikimedia Commons)
Kang Youwei, 19th Century drawing.

Finally, the performance of the opera is an argument for Hong Kong’s own place in the Chinese political sphere. Like Hong Kong, Kang Youwei is Cantonese, a cosmopolitan exile, a representative of an alternative way of being Chinese. Kang Tongbi the daughter, as Chan writes, is “the bearer and preserver of that utopian legacy,” and so therefore is Hong Kong. The opera itself is a western form for a Chinese history, the sound of a two-stringed erhu—representing Kang Youwei—threading its way through the musical score.

When the curtain falls after act three, it rises again for a brief glimpse of an empty set. A little girl in a Hong Kong school uniform runs out and picks up one of the broken shoes, bringing the story to the present, and—away from Beijing—back to the city where Kang Tongbi set sail in search of her father.