Hong Kong Stages 'Chairman Mao' Cantonese Opera Amid Strong Criticism

china-sunbeam-oct72016.jpg Hong Kong's Sunbeam Theater stages the Cantonese opera 'Chairman Mao,' Oct. 1-5, 2016.
Facebook/Sunbeam Theater

A controversial Cantonese opera depicting the private life of Chairman Mao has opened in Hong Kong, amid concerns that it glorifies one of the bloodiest dictators in history.

The specialist Sunbeam Theater staged the production to mark the 67th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, which was proclaimed by late supreme leader Mao Zedong from atop Tiananmen Gate in Beijing.

While the plot of the opera revolves largely around Mao's love-life, it gives an easy ride to the architect of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960) that saw tens of millions die of starvation, critics have said.

The opera was announced with huge fanfare, as organizers put up huge billboards in prominent locations, including at the entrance of a road tunnel under the city's iconic Victoria Harbour.

Local media reports say that librettist Li Kui-ming, who is also a feng shui master, is "highly popular in political and commercial circles in mainland China."

Many politicians and influential people are said to be his clients for feng shui advice, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reported recently.

"Critics say Li is using the opera to show his loyalty and patriotism toward Beijing," the paper said.

And Hong Kong current affairs commentator Chin Chi-kin warned people not to forget the massive suffering behind cultural expressions of "red fever."

"The Sunbeam Theater is showing a Cantonese opera titled Mao Zedong, but at the same time we in Hong Kong shouldn't forget the 10-year catastrophe that was the Cultural Revolution [1966-1976]," Chin wrote in an editorial in local media.

"If we don't respect history, then such tragedies are likely to be repeated," he wrote.

'Evil, criminal'

One of the actors in the production, Australian Gregory Charles Rivers, has come in for particular criticism on social media.

Rivers, who plays pro-China American journalist Edgar Snow, recently told the pro-democracy Chinese-language Apple Daily that public is overreacting, however.

"Mao's was a life of evil, criminal behavior, and he led a violent revolution and class struggle that did huge harm to China," a media commentator who asked to remain anonymous told RFA on Friday.

"We are sick to death of the ways some groups are always putting on red performances," he said. "We don't know what their background is, but their cultural influence is pervasive."

Some online comments appeared to agree.

"We are traveling back in time to the era of the Cultural Revolution," wrote one commentator.

Another wrote: "If somebody tried to stage a play about Hitler in Germany, would the German people allow it? Why aren't the people of Hong Kong protesting about this? This is Hong Kong's tragedy."

Mixed messages

The ruling Chinese Communist Party has given out mixed messages as the country marks the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution this year.

In May, some 300 performers took to the stage in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, for a concert of revolutionary songs from the Mao era.

While no high-ranking leaders attended the concert, which drew a crowd of 6,000 people, it was given by the Fifty-Six Flowers entertainment troupe that is ultimately controlled by the Ministry of Culture.

While revering Mao as the leader who founded the People's Republic on Oct. 1, 1949, the party has been forced to conclude publicly that the leader made some "serious political mistakes," although criticizing the Great Helmsman in public is still taboo.

But retired Shandong University professor and veteran democracy activist Sun Wenguang said "red fever" in China shows no sign of abating, in spite of the jailing of former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, who encouraged it during his tenure in the city.

"There are red song movements all over China, not just on public squares but even in the Great Hall of the People," Sun said. "And they're not just singing them in China: they're singing them overseas as well."

Last month, authorities in Australia's two biggest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, canceled planned concerts commemorating Mao's death after Chinese Australians complained the content was insensitive.

"All of this indicates that the government wishes to affirm the Cultural Revolution," Sun said.

Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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