Hong Kong pro-democracy movement through an artist’s lens

“As the Chinese government puts more measures and efforts into silencing its people in Hong Kong or elsewhere, we over here have the privilege to speak up and with this privilege we have a responsibility to keep the story alive,” says Derek Chan, writer and director of yellow objects, a play inspired by the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

Originally a stage play, yellow objects is now both an art installation and digital experience as a result of the pandemic. Audiences can begin their journey at home on April 19, and end it at the Firehall Arts Centre where the live performance/in-person installation is scheduled for May 11 to 23, 2021.

A tragic past

yellow objects takes place in both 2019 and 2050. Mostly in English with sections of Cantonese, the play imagines what the future of Hong Kong might look like after the
current protests.

In the story, a young Chinese-Canadian woman, Sandra Wong, returns to Hong Kong to perform a ritual for family members in 2050.

“Through her journey she finds out that her family has a bit of a dark history,” says Chan.

While trying to find shelter from a storm, Sandra stumbles upon an old school where she meets Uncle Chan, a former student of the school and activist who was involved in the protests in 2019.

As a result of performing a ritual for Sandra to connect her with her family, Sandra learns of Uncle Chan’s tragic past.

The need to get out

Derek Chan was born and raised in Hong Kong when it was still a British Colony. He is old enough to remember the handover in 1997, one of the few evenings his parents let him stay up as a child. Even back then, there was an underlying fear, he recalls.

Derek Chan remembers the Hong Kong handover in 1997 on one of the few evenings his parents let him stay up as a child. | Photo by Maria Zarrillo

“That’s why so many people left,” he says, remembering wanting to leave himself when he turned 16. “Maybe it was teenage rebellion or a desire to see what’s out there.”

Whatever it was, it led Chan to Norway, where with financial help from the institution, he was able to finish his high school years. It was there Chan decided he wanted to pursue theatre.

“For the longest time I was already interested in storytelling, theatre and making art, and it was around then that I decided that I really want to give this a serious go,” says Chan.

Then one of his teachers suggested the theatre program at Simon Fraser University, Chan headed off to Vancouver.

A passion for theatre

After obtaining his degree in theatre performance, Chan and his friend from the program, Pedro Chamale, decided to create their own theatre company.

“There weren’t many platforms out in the west coast that we knew of that supported original theatre work by artists of colour, so we started our own company,” he says.

Although it was a long journey, they now have some resources to support artists who are telling stories that mean something to them, the community and the world. In the case of yellow objects, Chan is telling a story that he can’t tell in his home in Hong Kong due to national security laws; as many people have been arrested and sentenced for their activism.

Although the play began as a response to the democracy movement in Hong Kong in 2019, Chan says it also became his way of reconciling with his different identities. Living in Canada, Chan thought he had to speak perfect English and pretend that he didn’t understand Cantonese, so he suppressed core parts of himself and rejected his identity.

“It’s a terrible thing. I don’t want anyone to feel the impulse to do that, especially as a new settler,” says Chan.

yellow objects is a story Chan that can’t be told in Hong Kong | Photo by Heidi Taylor

Now, he’s trying to work Cantonese into his plays.

Chan’s hope is that people will walk away with a sense of curiosity and action to learn about what’s going on and take part, whether it be on the frontlines, through advocacy or with education.

It’s a relay, says Chan.

“All we can do is carry the baton in the ways we can and pass it on with all of our energy, spirit and concern to the next person so they can run their miles and maybe one day, 400, 500 or a thousand miles later, we’ll see the finish line.”

This is not the last story Chan will tell about Hong Kong.

yellow objects is scheduled for production in May 2021 at the Firehall Arts Centre, in collaboration with Playwrights Theatre Centre. Find out more at
http://riceandbeanstheatre.com/yellowobjects

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