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'Paramount lover?' Hong Kong opera puts new spin on life of Mao

Feng shui master plans on taking controversial production to mainland

A billboard advertising the Cantonese opera "Chairman Mao," at the Sunbeam Theatre in North Point, Hong Kong

HONG KONG -- Seen as either the benevolent father of Chinese communism, or a brutal dictator who ruled with an iron fist, Chairman Mao Zedong divides opinion. Nowhere is this more evident than in today's Hong Kong as it wrestles with its own identity and the specter of greater control from Beijing.

This makes it an intriguing location for a Cantonese opera production about the women in Mao's life.

The history of Cantonese opera, or yueju, goes back more than 300 years and its style differs markedly from its Beijing counterpart jingju, not least in its use of the Cantonese language.

The art form once enjoyed huge popularity in Hong Kong and the surrounding Guangdong Province but in recent years has failed to attract large audiences among younger generations.

While pretty much everyone in greater China has been schooled at length on Mao's role in the history of the country -- albeit from vastly different perspectives -- fewer people are perhaps aware of the man's colorful personal life.

"Chairman Mao" tells the story of the paramount leader's relationships with three of his wives -- Yang Kaihui, He Zizhen and Jiang Qing -- during the tumultuous period between the establishment of the party in 1921 and the foundation of the People's Republic in 1949.

Li Kui-ming

At the end of the production, Mao has a dream on his deathbed in which he meets his longtime adversary Chiang Kai-shek and the two look back on each other's lives. Chiang, the leader of the nationalist Kuomintang, fled to Taiwan after being defeated in the Chinese civil war.

When the opera premiered in Hong Kong in October 2016, the 1,000-seat Sunbeam Theater in North Point, a renowned yueju venue, was filled to capacity every day of its first run. The production was staged again only three months later.

According to producer Li Kui-ming, both party members and nonmembers enjoyed the performance. This, to him, signals success.

The 61-year-old feng shui master-turned-playwright believes the show has been a hit because it has no political line.

The former British colony was returned to Chinese rule in 1997. Between the 1950s and 1980s, nearly 1 million people migrated to Hong Kong from mainland China to escape life under communist rule.

Recently, the desire of Hong Kong's youth to shift away from mainland China has gathered steam. Student-led protests brought the territory to a standstill nearly three years ago.

In what became known as the "Umbrella Movement," citizens took to the streets to call for greater democracy in elections to choose the territory's chief executive, occupying major streets for 79 days in the autumn of 2014.

In Hong Kong, Mao is widely regarded as a power-hungry dictator responsible for the deaths of millions of Chinese.

Yet Li sees things from a fairly unique angle. "The fact that a very common young man rose to the top of China is interesting," he said, adding that his story has many things in common with other yueju productions featuring heroes from stories like the "Sanguozhi," or "Records of the Three Kingdoms."

Propaganda songs like "The East is Red," which extols the virtues of the late chairman, are absent, and the show makes little mention of sensitive themes like the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. "I am not interested in politics. I am interested only in humanity," Li said.

Before going into theater, Li made his fortune advising the superrich on how to lay out their homes, also authoring a best-seller on how to attract good luck. He has been flooded with requests for advice from companies, even once being invited to Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta to check the office layout and advise on product designs.

In 2012, the Sunbeam Theater was due to close its doors for good when Li came to the rescue, renting it for 1 million Hong Kong dollars ($127,000) a month.

"Traditional yueju stories were boring and many people were sleeping in their seats, Li said. "Now I let them wake up."

Li has so far written 30 original scripts and devoted himself to the revival of the art form. Chairman Mao has been the standout hit.

"I have poured money earned through feng shui into yueju. But I am losing money because of the huge production and advertising costs." Still, he said with a smile, "I am losing money in a very happy way."

He has now set his sights on taking the show overseas, with a performance in Osaka planned for September. Eventually, he is planning on staging it in Hollywood.

Perhaps even more ambitiously, Li has already filed the necessary application to put the show on in mainland China next year.

If he does manage to, it will be interesting to see what reaction he gets, with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who doubles as general secretary, maneuvering to reinstate the post of "party chairman" for himself at the quinquennial national congress this autumn.

The post was abolished after Mao's death, and bringing it back is seen as part of Xi's attempts to solidify his own grip on power.

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