Monday, July 8, 2013

18F, Flat C

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed watching the play "Chinglish" last year, and had resolved to be more attentive to theater and the arts in Hong Kong.

It was in this spirit that I purchased a ticket for the play, "18F, Flat C."  First broadcast in 1968, 18F, Flat C, one of the longest running radio dramas, has recently been adapted as a play.  In the play, the characters gather at (where else!) a coffee stall in Wan Chai to discuss their daily lives and current events as the city of Hong Kong changes around them.  The coffee stall becomes a yum cha restaurant in 1973, but the same characters continue to meet and discuss the news and issues in their daily lives. 

The audience learns about the main issues of the day from the characters' conversations and the radio broadcasts, which cover labor strikes, government corruption, public housing, the implementation of severance pay and maternity leave, the rise and subsequent fall of the stock market, and, the unavoidable topic in any social and political commentary of Hong Kong, real estate (including but not limited to unsavory landlords, defaulting tenants, untenable rents, and the purchase of property).

Overall, I thought the play had great potential and could have been very good, but for a few key problems that negatively impacted the experience:

The play really should have been more accessible for non-Cantonese speakers.

First, there were major lapses in the translation - sometimes whole sentences delivered by the actors and actresses would go by before one very simple, truncated translation would flash across the screen.

Second, there was often a delay in the translation screen, such that the Cantonese speaking audience would already be roaring with laughter while I waited quietly and hopelessly for enlightenment.  This also made it hard to tell (sometimes) who was speaking what lines.  This became easier as the play went on and I learned the personality of the various characters, but it was enough to cast a shadow on the play.

Third, there was sometimes a scrambling in the English subtitles, so that after a long period of a blank screen, I would suddenly have to read four or five sentences in rapid-fire order.  Despite how quickly I read, in those moments I still couldn't catch most of what flashed across the screen.

Finally, I understand and appreciate that the songs and radio commercials that preceded each scene were likely carefully chosen for some historical or cultural significance - however, these songs and commercials completey eluded any audience member who did not live in Hong Kong in the 70s or understand Cantonese.  It would have been nice for them to include in the program a brief description of each of the commercials or songs that were played.  Some historical context of the popular culture (dare I ask!) would have been even better.

I know that these translation issues are not unique to this play.  Any play that requires translation will inevitably encounter some, if not all, of these issues. Still, it is soooo frustrating. At these moments I appreciate more than ever the complexity, the richness, and the nuance of language.

P.S. During my push to be a cultural maven, I also purchased a subscription to the Hong Kong Philharmonic for their upcoming season.  Thank goodness classical music is a universal language.

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