It is fashionable to describe Hong Kong as a cultural desert. This ego-boosting comment (for those passing judgment on the city’s cultural scene) becomes a tad hilarious when those making the remark are: a) hardly connoisseurs of culture to start with b) haven’t sampled much of what is actually on offer in the so-called cultural desert and c) are ignorant of the existence of a local art scene. Although people in that scene also repeat the cultural desert mantra, I put this down to Hong Kongers inveterate tendency to criticise anything less than utter perfection, partly in a bid to push for better.

In an attempt not to be one of these people, and also keenly aware of a clock ticking down on my time here, I have decided to plunge into whatever culture is on offer with gusto. Thus, when booking for the Hong Kong Art Festival opened, I overcame my disinclination to plan anything earlier than two weeks prior to the date, and coordinated the booking of a couple of shows months in advance. My cunning plan was to book cheap tickets and see more. This was not entirely successful but you live and learn.

I browbeat V into coming and he finally agreed to come to one of the two things, and asked me to pick. I knew he was probably more likely to enjoy the play Chinglish but we  only got weekday tickets for that and my goal was to make him experience something new, so I counted him in for The Reef presented by the Australian Chamber Orchestra. In the end, he came for both because one of our friends couldn’t make it for Chinglish.

The play is a comedy about an expat trying to set up a business in China and presents all the cultural stereotypes and confusions with elan. It is entertaining, but not high art though the set design is really good. There are no profound lessons you take away, except possibly a subtle understand of how things work in China and how a lot of the criticism of that way of doing things is like the pot calling the kettle back. There are some really masterful performances by the side characters and we were in splits a lot. If you get a chance to catch this one, do go. It’s fun. The only false note was that we  booked HK$200 tickets, and were in these balcony nooks that are totally cramped. I was the shortest person in our group and even I suffered so I can imagine the plight of the taller ones.

Thankfully we had booked better seats for The Reef, in the balcony again but in the middle section with a good view and reasonable leg room. The selling point of this for me was that while the orchestra played, a film on surfing would be screened, which I thought might be helpful for those not completely into the music. When the performance opened, I was concerned I had made a very big mistake because the first couple of pieces were totally avant-garde and discordant.

However, then they did a Bach fugue, which was lovely and this was followed by a solo on the didgeridoo which stunned everyone and after that there were many pieces to enjoy, although we weren’t quite sure when one ended and the next began because this group didn’t wait for applause. I found that the film being screened was totally irrelevant because although my eyes were open, my sense of sight had been effectively turned off by the beauty of the music. There was only one piece where I felt that the video totally melded with the music so that they were one. However, the others said they liked the film so maybe it worked for some.

When we exited, I was surprised that none of my friends throttled me on the spot and they even said they liked it. One of them said she liked the very modern pieces more than the classical ones, as the latter just made her sleepy. Basically, listening to those post-modern pieces is like listening to an abstract painting and I am constantly amazed at how traditional my taste (and going by the reactions of the audience, the taste of most others) is. I had this reaction even to a Stravinsky piece I once heard and he was a contemporary of Picasso. It also occurred to me that the only route left for art in the modern world is fragmentation and deconstruction or reconstruction because everything else, all other beauty, has been done. This was part of our fascinating conversation post the concert and my friend helpfully pointed out that had we gone to a more traditional concert, we might not have had so much to talk about.

Finally, yesterday, I watched English Vinglish in the cinema in Hong Kong. Now, more Indian movies are being screened here, after 3 Idiots did very well. It was an interesting experience watching the show with an entirely Chinese audience and hearing them chuckle at many jokes and not some others (the one where the Pakistani guy called the Chinese girl “spicy noodle” and “yellow”  elicited uncomfortable silence). There is a lot in this film that a Chinese audience will identify with, as a conflicted relationship with English is very much an issue here too. After the film, V said he hoped these films would promote inter-cultural understanding between Chinese and Indians; I think they will to some extent.

Although this film was ostensibly about learning a language, the truths about a specific kind of marriage it portrayed resonated with me. How cruel jokes and put-downs can be, how they chip away at your self-esteem, how family is supposed to be your safe place and the hardest times are when the attacks are from within. I also agreed with her little speech – in the end you can only count on yourself, the things that hurt you the most are the ones that target your own insecurities, so the way out is to overcome that yourself. Though as I told V later, life is not a Hindi movie so it can’t always resolve so neatly. That French dude was yummy though. The sweetest part in the movie was when he gave her that crepe and said “it’s 76% organic chocolate”. Awww! I am heartened by the fact that were I too encounter a Frenchman of his distinction I would be reasonably able to understand mostly everything he said. Not sure a propos of what this is.

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