‘Gweilo’: From Memoir to Solo Performance
For many of us, gweilos or gweipos living now in Hong Kong, Martin Booth’s memoir ‘Gweilo: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood’ has been probably part of our reading list once he was published in 2004, a few months after his author’s death.
Having read various novels set in Hong Kong during colonial times, what aroused my curiosity about this book was that the protagonist is a child. Martin is a 7-years old British boy who follows his parents to Hong Kong in 1952 (the father is a civil servant posted to the ex-British colony) and has the chance to get to know many aspects of city life while mingling with the locals and learning Cantonese. Therefore, what Martin experiences is never seen with the eyes of one of the privileged offspring of the colonizers, but with those of a ‘local golden boy’, a blond ‘ghost’, eager to explore every nook and cranny of a city that he soon calls ‘home’.
Booth’s memoir is an easy read, at times even a bit too sentimental, especially when he talks about the love and devotion for his caring and considerate mother, a character that is greatly in contrast with Martin’s frustrated, isolated and irritable father. But both Martin’s father and mother are also a good source of humour for the reader, as the father’s inconsiderate actions become often comical and the mother’s light-heartedness and opposition to whatever her husband says definitely make us smile.
Nonetheless, what is fascinating in this book, is the evolution of Martin’s character and his developing vision of Hong Kong and its society. Martin is a good-natured and outgoing boy, but also very naïve. He is adventurous and impatient to roam the city streets, but he risks, at times, to be caught up in some dangerous situations. As the memoir progresses, Martin not only turns into a more responsible person, but also feels even more integrated with Hong Kong and its people.
Once I got to know that ‘Gweilo’ had been adapted into a play and was being staged at the Sheung Wan Civic Theatre, I immediately bought a ticket and, on Saturday 16th of April, went to watch the show. I was particularly curious to witness the rendition of the different episodes marking Martin’s adventures around Hong Kong, as well as of the development of his character.
Micah Sandt, the young actor, delivered a masterful solo performance, playing the role of Martin (young and old), his parents and all the other characters, including Martin’s Cantonese-speaking friends and family servants. Sandt’s skills in shifting from persona to persona and from English to Cantonese were remarkable. Each character had its unique and distinguishable voice and personality and reacted in its own peculiar way to the different situations that developed during the plot progression.
The play starts with an old Martin who, back in England and on his deathbed, enjoys some Chinese food while reminiscing about his past life in Hong Kong.
Many happenings are part of Martin’s discovery of the city as a young boy, and they have been faithfully adapted. Highlights of the performance are the episode of the fire in Shek Kip Mei in 1953 that Martin witnesses and during which many squatter houses were burnt down; the discovery of the different secret corners of Kowloon City, the dangerous and crime-ridden area that Martin is intrigued to visit in particular because he is told not to do so; the meeting with the ‘Queen of Kowloon’, a mentally deranged beggar who supposedly belongs to the Russian royal family and escaped the revolution of 1917; Martin’s encounter with Nagasaki Jim, a resident of the hotel where Martin stays for a period of time. Jim is a sleazy man who is rumoured to have lost his mind after witnessing the US bombing of Nagasaki.
These are only a few of the many nice sketches that are part of ‘the story within the story’.
A special praise goes to Micah Sandt for the way in which he portrayed Martin’s mother, Joyce. He perfectly managed to show how she had been the force behind Martin’s exploration of a city that she found at first difficult to accept but that she slowly came to love, to the point of not wanting to leave it. Joyce will manage, in fact, to convince the husband to relocate to Hong Kong a few years after their return to England. Joyce’s curiosity, joie de vivre and encouraging attitude are a great guidance to Martin. Her acceptance and respect for Chinese culture and her friendship with her Chinese servants will never make Martin believe to be different or better than any of the local people.
I believe that nobody better than Micah Sandt could impersonate Martin. Sandt, who has a Finnish mother and a French father, grew up in Hong Kong and attended local school. In a way, as a gweilo among the Hongkongers (and able to master their language), he had the chance to grasp the city culture to the fullest, just like Martin did years before. Sandt is not only an actor but also a composer, arranger and musical director and at one point, during the show, he sat down at the piano to play.
Live musical accompaniment by two musicians, who played different instruments in the course of the evening, was a discreet and pleasant addition to ‘Gweilo’, and made it an even more memorable experience.
‘Gweilo’ is presented by Pants Theatre Production, a non-profit organization that specializes in works that reflect and respond to Hong Kong society. ‘Gweilo’ is performed (in English and Cantonese, with bilingual subtitles) until April 24 at the HKRep Black Box Theatre, Sheung Wan Civic Centre. http://www.hkrep.com/en/events/gweilo/