How many of us would be brave enough to put our own lives on stage for the world to see? Few, I think you'd be safe in answering, and even fewer of us would use a public forum to resolve our internal conflicts, to dissolve the clouds of our own confusion and at the end to bare our soul naked in public. But that is precisely what Pak Li, youngest of Hong Kong's gay playwrights, has just done with Rope of Love, his play about the lives of three gay men, staged at the Fringe Theatre between 3 and 8 April.
Rope of Love originated in 2008 as class work for his Masters in Playwriting at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. Pak's teaching staff were so impressed with it that they pushed him to rewrite it to make it suitable for the public stage, where it has now achieved full houses on five nights at the Fringe, and this despite its two and a half hour length. Though this is the play that will establish him with the public, it is in fact his fortieth script, of which all but two have been performed. He has achieved this mammoth output by the age of 28, having written his first play at school at the age of 14. His early works were short plays performed at primary and secondary schools for drama competitions. In his early days, Pak appeared in some of these, but (and I don't accept this!) decided that "I was too ugly to be an actor so had better stick to writing scripts." After taking a degree in cinema and TV at Hong Kong's Baptist University, he took a series of jobs as a researcher for TVB and RTHK, a period when he wrote the script for the TV feature made for the opening of Hong Kong's Disneyworld.
All this time Pak was writing. He made the breakthrough onto the public stage in 1997 and 1998 when his two plays I Have AIDS and One Night Stand played at the Sheung Wan Civic Centre and won him best playwright and best actor in both years' Teen AIDS Drama Competition (evidently, they didn't take his line about his looks either). In 2006, his play Queue to Die was put on by amateur play group Red Theatre at Shatin Town Hall, this a play about a fat girl having an internet affair with a man who turns out to be gay. Another amateur group, Azure Shore, performed Pak's The Song Half Undone at Sai Wan Ho Civic Centre in 2007.
Towards the end of this time, Pak ended up back at Baptist University as a research assistant. This was a turning point, Pak believes, as he had the great good fortune to work for Professor Jessica Yeung, who was the chairman of the International Association of Drama Critics. With her, he researched the Chinese novelist Gao Xingjian (author of the Nobel prize winning Soul Mountain). Yeung's resulting biography of Gao, Ink Dances in Limbo, was published in 2008. A second project took him straight back to the theatre, specifically the history of Hong Kong's theatre from 1962 to 2006.
Yeung encouraged him to take up the theatre as a profession, encouragement which took him to the APA, where he continued his work for the stage, in September 2008 getting his first chance with a professional theatre company, the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, as Playwright Assistant for the musical Field of Dreams at the Kwai Hing Theatre. He also had his own play Farewell Cambridge read at Ngau Chi Wan Civic Centre as part of the 3rd annual play reading scheme run by Prospectus Theatre.
All of his plays have so far been performed in Hong Kong in Cantonese. "I include a lot of local lines, local jokes, in my plays," he says, "but would like to have them translated into English too. I last tried writing plays in English at school. The process of writing was very different. "Despite being fluent in English, he clearly feels most at home writing in Cantonese. There's no doubt this limits my audience", he acknowledges.
And now Rope of Love, a play about some of the stranger and darker byways of gay life, of semi-closeted characters ashamed of their own appearance yet at the same time exercising dominance and control over others, of promiscuous and dangerous sex, of the pain that unfaithfulness causes, and of the resulting confusion arising from all of this. The character at the centre of the knot, naive and inexperienced Sean, meets Marcus, who will not allow Sean to see his face or to take any active role. So for their love making Sean must be blindfolded or Marcus wears a mask. Eventually, Sean cannot take this abnegation and starts to look elsewhere for fulfilment, unfortunately for him falling in love with Billy, who is a dancer but who is straight. This destroys the imaginary world created with Marcus. Sean finds another lover, Ronald, who lets Sean be the active partner but cheats on the side. Eventually, by now confused and unhappy, Sean gravitates back to Marcus, who makes use of him but offers him no love. At the end of the play Sean is once again alone, no longer innocent or hopeful, standing on his bed stripped down to his underwear, at a crisis in his life with no discernible road forward. "I wanted him to be totally stripped," says Pak, "to indicate his loss of everything, but that wasn't possible in Hong Kong."
This very bleak conclusion is not something I can see reflected in Pak's own life, despite the self-avowed foundations of this story in his own history. His experience as a gay man has not all been so confusing. He recalls idolising boy classmates as early as the age of seven and of thinking of them as objects of desire as early as eleven. Noticing the personal ads of men seeking men when he was only 14, he fell in love for the first time the following year. Out in Form 5, he joined the Joint College Queer Union in 1998, which Tommy Jai had helped to found, and acting as assistant director of two of their theatre productions. At the age of 18, he had an affair online for the first time. His first serious relationship started at university and lasted for over three years. He's been active in the tongzhi community, helping Rainbow Hong Kong to run a course on gay movies in 2008.
He's had a long distance relationship (hence the play about Cambridge) as well as the tortured type of relationship he's now written about. So he's had plenty of experience to pack into Rope of Love, which, I confessed to being rather startled to learn, both his parents watched (though Pak confesses he's not sure how much of it they believed was really about him).
Gay love has given Pak Li much food for his theatrical talent to feed on, but he doesn't see himself at all as just a gay writer. He considers that a lot of the themes about relationships in his plays are applicable to all, straight or gay. "Some of the straight couples who attended the play have said that they recognised a lot of the issues as the same ones affecting them", he says, "and that the play made them think about the way they were." He sees no difference between the ways that love affects us all, but neither is he worried about being seen as a playwright who is gay and whose experience is therefore of gay life.
Rope of Love may re-run later in the year, but it's yet to find a venue. After he finishes his Masters this year, Pak intends to take some time off in Australia. "I need a job to cover the debt I took on for the Masters' he confides. Whatever work he finds will be in the theatre. "I'm going to be a playwright", he says, "though I don't know if I can make a living out of it. I can write ten plays a year but earn only enough to cover two to three months. I'll probably end up freelancing for something like RTHK." He's got several new script projects in mind. But he does not intend to give up on gay themes or on analysing his own life on stage. "I'm inspired by the film Milk, he adds. "I would really like to write something like that. I also want to work on a play working out the next stage in my life." In which case, his audience can only hope that his future experiences are as interesting as those he has had to date!