Sunday, March 25, 2012

Who wins our "elections"? Not us.

Usually, I poke fun of the Hong Kong elections I'm allowed to vote in --  the  half-hearted campaigning, the typos in the crappy pamphlets, the fact that the winners have reasonably limited powers anyway, since only half our Legislature is elected by the people.
But I walk over to my neighborhood poll station and cast my vote every time.
Even the dinkiest district elections are better than what we had today, which I don't call an "election," since  there were only 1,193 hand-chosen elites -- out of a population of 7 million --  allowed to have a say in the chief executive, the guy who heads the government that spends my taxes and runs the city I live in.
In the end, they "chose" a guy named C.Y. Leung. Though how much they actually chose -- or were told to choose by Beijing -- I don't know.
Maybe I shouldn't call them "elites" either. The tycoons, etc., are elites. But who are the rest?
According to a relative in a New Territories village, there were guys going door to door last year asking for their vote, so that they could vote on the villagers' behalf for chief executive.
How complicated. 
"Why can't we just vote directly?" the campaigning guy was asked, and he had no answer.
My relative added that this guy had a mainland accent, no campaign materials, and no idea about local issues. He couldn't answer simple questions about his political position or platform, much less how he could help the people he was talking to.
Meanwhile, another family member wrote this on his Facebook  today. "Over 200,000 people made their voices heard in the pseudo election! This city is not dead yet."
(He was referring to the 220,000 Hong Kongers who participated in a mock vote held by a university -- one that mainland hackers tried to ruin.  For a nicely written blog post about that, go to Journey to Hong Kong.)
It's  interesting for me to see how my extended family reacts to these things, since they have nothing to do with the news, politics, blogging, etc. They're just ordinary working folk.
There have been reports that the Chinese government office here have been calling publishers and editors to rewrite columns -- to say good things about their chosen candidate, and to not print negative things about Beijing interference. I hope that's not true, because we don't want a censored, state-run media like the one on the mainland.
Here's what I don't get. Let's set aside the debate of how and when and if Hong Kong should be a democracy, since that's a whole other blog post.
Currently, Hong Kong is not a democracy. So why does it pretend to be one?
If Beijing is just going to hand-pick the guy they like, why bother with the facade of having people run public campaigns? Why bother "consulting" villagers and Chinese traditional doctors? Who is fooled into thinking that Hong Kong acupuncturists are choosing our leaders? For whose benefit is this song and dance?
Why bother hacking into a mock election held by a local university? What's the point of interfering in newspapers if -- at the end of the day -- they get to choose their man anyway?
They have a guaranteed win. Are our leaders so insecure that they also have to manufacture a false sense that everyone agrees with them?
What's an "election" without conspiracy theories? America still has its "birthers". Here are a few I heard around HK:
- By switching sides from Henry Tang to C.Y. Leung, Beijing lost the support of a traditional ally, the pro-business folk like tycoons and the Liberal Party.  
- Beijing is going to punish Hong Kong tycoons for not backing their Chosen One.
-  The government timed the election for the Rugby 7s weekend -- the biggest expat sporting event of the year -- so that socially conscious foreigners would be too busy (ahem, drunk off their faces) to make a fuss.
- The controversy over the high-level hob-nobbing  Donald Tsang was just a way to detract from even worse controversy over the wife-cheating, illegal basement-building Henry Tang, who was Beijing's favorite until recently.
(Please note that I do say "conspiracy theory" above. I don't know if any of these are true.)
Another interesting tid-bit. During the campaign mud-slinging, one insult hurled at C.Y. Leung is that he is (or was) a member of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which he denied. The local CCP is practically an underground  society here. While Hong Kong politicians will admit to sitting on various Chinese government boards, etc., few in their right mind would admit to being card-carrying CCP members.
And yet, that's the Party in charge of the country that runs us. It's all so very weird.
I was on my way to the office today. (Sigh -- working on a beautiful sunny Sunday. At least Marc and I got to take Baby Chloe to the park beforehand.)
Anyway, I was on my way in and saw protesters along Gloucester Road.
I read later on the South China Morning Post website that protesters tried to storm  the convention center, and that the police turned to using pepper spray.
This is very worrying.
I've always prided Hong Kongers on being peaceful, orderly demonstrators. We have the ability to take to the streets en masse -- like during the 2003 Article 23 debate, or  annual commemorations of the June 4, 1989 Beijing crackdown. But it's gotten a bit unruly recently.
I spoke to a HKU professor recently who said the same. He said that, after so many years of democracy protests going nowhere, the crowd is getting more aggressive. Meanwhile, the police were getting more aggressive, too. He said it'd turn ugly soon.
I hope not.
At the end of the day, do people really care how many wines Tang has in his illegal basement? Or that Tsang is retiring in style in Shenzhen? Or whether Leung is a CCP member? I don't think so.
What angers people is -- no matter what we find out about these guys, no matter who we like or don't like -- we can't choose them.
It's a sense of helplessness, and it's an awful feeling.
There's another worry. Whether or not Leung fulfills his promises to preserve freedoms in this city -- we know he is not beholden to us since we didn't choose him. 
We're told that we can have the vote in 2017. I'll believe it when I can walk to the polling booth behind my house, show my HKID, mark a piece of paper and put it in that little box. Until then, I'm staying skeptical.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Opportunity for new (and old) journalists

I have a new job at work. I'm now in charge of the I.H.T.'s education coverage, particularly a page of education-related articles we publish every Monday. (Yes, I will still be writing about culture. This is on top of what I normally do!)
We have one great main writer based in London, but the page also uses contributions from freelancers, particularly Masters of Journalism graduates who have recently finished work internships.
If there are any young (or not so young) freelancers who want to pitch, my email is on the right.
For now, we're focusing on tertiary education, particularly medical, law and business schools, and issues related to international exchanges.
Send a resume, short cover letter, contact details, and several story pitches that are 1-3 paragraphs each. These should be concise, original ideas that you can feasibly report and write yourself. Also, they should not have any conflicts of interest -- you can't write about the school you attend, the school your rich dad donates money to, the school whose PR department just gave you a "hongbau", etc.

I shouldn't have to say this, but judging from the correspondence I often get, I will: Your pitches should be written as professionally as you can manage. I'm not fascist. One typo is not a deal-breaker. But I'll delete anything that's lacking in basic grammar or spelling -- meaning, lacking in basic respect and effort. Also, if you're going to pitch, pitch a good idea. Sending email that says, broadly, that you want to write is not good enough. You have to have an idea of what you want to research and say.

I've gotten some impressive submissions from the interns / ex-interns from our Paris office, many of whom seem well on their way to becoming excellent professional journalists. I haven't had quite the same response from young Asian writers. It'd be really great if we could have some fresh, new voices from this part of the world.

Monday, March 12, 2012

What to wear to a Black Tie event?

I sank to fashion lows the first two months of motherhood. I'm sorry -- no matter how hard designers try, nursing tops will never be flattering, nor will jeans with stretchy tummy panels.Now I'm back in the real professional world -- though not back into all my real professional clothes, unfortunately. And I've been invited to a black tie event. 
So what do I wear now that I'm between sizes? (Maybe fashion bloggers like Privilege or Hong Kong Fashion Geek can help me out).
When you're pregnant, it's cute to show off your big belly. From Linea Negra, I bought a  black stretchy dress with a sweeping long skirt and a halter top. It worked as a summer dress. It worked for the office with a cardi. It worked for evening with jewels and heels.
But it doesn't work anymore, because it's embarrassing now that my baby is 6 months old. 
On the other hand, I still can't quite fit into my old formal evening dresses, most of which date from around the time of my wedding which was (gasp) more than five years ago. 
So I need a Black Tie gown. And I need one that does not expose too much still-flabby skin or require my old nipped-in waist; but also does not look matronly or like a muu muu.
Honestly, Black Tie in Hong Kong is usually not really Black Tie.  I'm sure there's some echelon of society far, far above me, where people swan around in diamonds and enormous puffy ballgowns. But in my world, the  rare Black-Tie invite is usually for something media or arts related --  and scruffy journalists and free-spirited artists are not good at this stuff. For men, the terms are straightforward. But for women, Black Tie basically means Cocktail. 
It means, C'mon, You Can Do Better Than Smart Casual. 
Here's the economical solution: I have a plain Little Black Dress from Giordano Ladies, a mid-range local brand. It's  not high fashion, but you can't really tell with Little Black Dresses. Sans label, it could be a simple shift from Prada. 
It's my most reliable piece of clothing -- it doesn't fade, it doesn't sag, it stretches, it can be used a million ways. And with some new accessories, I could probably doll it up to an acceptable level -- maybe not Black Tie, but definitely Cocktail.


Or I could wander  Elements and Lane Crawford and splurge on a new gown.
Practical? Not entirely. Like I said, I only go to these events maybe once a year. I'd have to buy it a size or two too big. And then, after I lost the rest of the baby weight, I'd have to get it re-tailored.
But a part of me is a little sick of being so practical. 
Motherhood is absolutely wonderful, but it also makes you forget to take care of yourself. In the beginning, that's the way it's supposed to be. You give everything up -- your body, your sleep, your free time, your social life, your hobbies, your professional work, your hard-earned money -- to your baby.
Every day is planned far in advance -- from getting a nanny if I have to work on Sunday, to pre-making homemade baby food.
Shopping is entirely at places with names like Bumps to Babes. I'm not thinking about frocks. I'm thinking about whether I'm out of breast milk storage bags.
And except for some ridiculously un-attractive shoes I bought to accommodate edema in my ankles (yeah, sexy), I haven't done anything fun or luxurious for myself for a long time. Hell, I've barely been out for dinner with my husband.
Still, at some point, you have to find a balance and become yourself again and not feel guilty about it.

Evening gown

I chose these at random off Polyvore, not paying attention to the labels. It turns out (big surprise) that I have expensive tastes. The red toga-like dress on the left is Lanvin and the silver one next to it Valentino -- both outside my budget. The surprising floral one is actualyl a budget no-name brand. The short white one is Diane von Furstenberg, which I can afford financially, but not in terms of the current shape of my legs.
And the poufy prom gown? Totally impractical. But I added it because I happened to love its write-up: "1950's Vintage Persimmon-Pink Beaded Sequin Chiffon-Couture Sweetheart Low-Cut Plunge Shelf-Bust Strapless Nipped-Waist Rockabilly Ballerina-Cupcake Princess Circle-Skirt Bombshell Bustle-Peplum Formal Wedding Evening Cocktail Prom Party Dress." I mean, how many adjectives is that?
This seems like a good time to dreg up that old joke that was bouncing around the blogosphere way back in 2008. Here's the classic world's worst maternity evening gown, from

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Blogging in triplicate? And news flash: The art world is pretentious

I don't always love going to gallery openings -- but you do get to meet the artists. I like that Gilbert & George refer to everyone outside of the two of them as "the enemy." I presume that means me, too.

The I.H.T.'s new Rendezvous blog means that I sometimes hwrite my articles twice.  I do my proper critique -- usually a carefully penned 1,000-1,300 words -- that appears in the proper paper edition. Then I do a snappier, more casual 300-400 word thing for the  I.H.T. blog.
The pro of the longer article is that, well, it's a proper article. I  worry if the craft of writing (and thinking) is getting lost, as the younger generation depends almost entirely on very short social media posts. Also "proper" print articles are more carefully edited than the quickly posted stuff that just goes through a web producer.
The pro of the Rendezvous post is that we can put more links, video, etc. Plus, it has an RSS feed. One complaint I hear  is that people have a hard time following a particular writer on The New York Times website unless they're scouring the whole thing all the time. Since all N.Y.T. and I.H.T. material from all over the world goes to one place, it's easy for smaller articles to get lost. 
And art has a hard time competing with war, politics and business.
Once that's all done, I put my writing here on Joyceyland, my personal blog. 
It feels a little weird to be doing everything in triplicate. 
I guess, if I were really ambitious about self-promotion, I'd  be tweeting and pinging every time I wrote, but I don't bother. I figure if people want to read my stuff, they'll come here. (This is probably why I'll never become really well-known -- as everyone knows, it's all about promotion).
Speaking of promotion, the new White Cube gallery opening was a PR mad-house. I hinted at it in my I.H.T. article(s), but I can be more straightforward here  -- it was one of the most pretentious opening parties I've ever been to. That's saying alot, since I'm an arts writer. I spend much time hanging out with people far, far richer than I, buying things that are equal to my entire year's salary, so I'm no stranger to pretension.
It wasn't White Cube's fault. It's their job to get the biggest crowd they can, with the most buzz and the most buyers. They definitely succeeded at that.
And, from a measly critic's point of view, they were a joy to work with. They were friendly, down-to-earth, organized and open with information. Since they're from London -- which has a famously critical press -- they didn't do the smarmy Hong Kong  thing of insisting on seeing articles in advance (which I never do) or trying to force me to guarantee that I'd only write positive things (which I also never do). * There's a reason I am not universally loved among PR folk.
So they're not responsible for the high number of hipsters ironically wearing bowties (you'd figure Donald Tsang would have shot that fashion trend out of the water by now) or the Chinese rich guys' pretty dates who were so clueless they didn't even know who the artists were.
I've been writing about art in Hong Kong since I started at HK Magazine in 2000 -- long before Art Walk, ARTHK, international big names, or anything fashionable at all. Then, there were a handful of modest galleries in SoHo and Central, selling mostly Asian stuff for reasonable prices. In 2000, a struggling young journalist in her mid-20s could afford to buy art, albeit on monthly installments. Now, forget it unless you have a rich daddy or husband. Even when I became the SCMP's art editor in 2003, it wasn't trendy like it is now.
Even back then, I didn't like openings. Again, I'm not blaming galleries, whose job it is to promote and sell their art. I just didn't like standing around with a bunch of drunk people who would never go to a gallery otherwise, and would stand in front of the art (so I couldn't see it). 
I'd only go to openings if I was writing a story and wanted to catch some color for my article, or chat with the artist, or get some quotes from the gallery owner.
Otherwise, I'd wait for some random Tuesday afternoon and go anonymously. Since all I really cared about was the stuff on the walls.

Gilbert & George open the new White Cube Hong Kong

From the I.H.T.'s Rendezvous blog:

Gilbert & George's new series ‘‘London Pictures’’ opens White Cube Asia in Hong Kong, the London gallery’s first overseas branch. 
Photo by Kin Cheung/The Associated Press
 March 7, 2012, 7:00 pm

Look Who’s in the New White Cube

HONG KONG — “It’s about sex! It’s about love! It’s about abstract art!” Graham Steele, the director of White Cube Asia, gestured at a crystalline Damien Hirst “diamond cabinet” in the private viewing room of the gallery’s new Hong Kong space, which opened last Friday.
In recent years, Larry Gagosian, Ben Brown and other major dealers have followed the money trail to Hong Kong, which has become the world’s third-largest art market in terms of revenue — thanks to wealthy Chinese buyers, a booming auction scene and an art fair that has grown into a major event in less than five years. The city, long derided as a cultural desert, now has more big-name international galleries than probably anywhere else in Asia. (It’s still lacking truly great museums, but that’s another story).
White Cube Hong Kong, the London gallery’s first venture outside Britain, is the largest among the new offerings. It also had the quirkiest opening show – the world premiere of “London Pictures,” the latest series by Gilbert & George, the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of the art world. Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore, a gentlemanly couple who dress near identically and complete each other’s sentences, used hundreds of sensationalistic tabloid headlines to make the series’ 292 works. In fact, they stole them from unwitting London newspaper vendors. One man would distract the proprietor by buying a chocolate bar, and his husband would whisk away the poster with that day’s headlines — turning them into probably the East End’s oldest and best-dressed petty thieves.
According to Mr. Steele, Gilbert & George have not changed their prices since 2005, “which is remarkable for artists of their importance, though perhaps not surprising for artists whose mantra is ‘art for all.’ ”
“London Pictures” is far too big to be shown in one place at one time. So the Hong Kong show will be followed by openings at three White Cube spaces in London this Friday, and then in various other galleries in Europe and the United States.
Read more about White Cube Hong Kong and Gilbert & George in Joyce Hor-Chung Lau’s article here.

And the proper article in the I.H.T. and N.Y.T.

Gilbert & George Take Britain to Asia

Photo c. Gilbert & George, via White Cube

March 7, 2012

HONG KONG — Interviewing the art duo Gilbert & George is like talking to Tweedledum and Tweedledee — not only because they are inseparable, dress near identically and complete each other’s sentences, but because they are so eccentric in that very British way.
Gilbert Proesch, 68, and George Passmore, 70, have long appeared together in their works — both in early performance art and in Pop Art pastiches inspired by the urban weirdness of London’s East End, where the two have lived together for more than 40 years. They have become contemporary art icons, winning the Turner Prize in 1986, and putting on the largest artist retrospective to date at the Tate Modern in 2007.
Dandyish in their fine tweed suits, they possessed the calm of any couple who have been together for nearly a half-century (they were married in 2008) and seemed quietly bemused by the hurry and flurry of their latest trip to Hong Kong for the unveiling last Friday of their new series “London Pictures” — an event that also marked the opening of White Cube Hong Kong, the first overseas branch of the London gallery that represents Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst.
It was the first stop for “London Pictures,” which comprises a whopping 292 works, and is so enormous that it would be impossible to display in just one of the White Cube’s venues. There will be more openings Friday at three White Cube spaces in London. After that, “London Pictures” will move to other galleries in New York, Paris, Salzburg, Naples, Brussels and Athens. Eventually, Gilbert & George are hoping for larger-scale museum installations.
Major Western galleries, like Ben Brown and Gagosian, have opened Hong Kong branches in recent years. But Graham Steele, the director of White Cube Asia, said they hoped to offer something other than more high-priced celebrity artists in their two-story, 6,000-square-foot, or 557-square-meter, space in the city’s Central District.
“Each show we curate will be new and we will try to fly the artists out,” said Mr. Steele. “We’re not interested in bringing out shows shown in New York four years ago.”
Mr. Steele said that White Cube saw itself as something more than just a commercial enterprise, which is why a library was built into the Hong Kong space.
“Gilbert & George have about 150 publications — for example, the catalog from their 1993 show in China,” Mr. Steele said. “Everything we’ve done is archived, like sketches from Tracey Emin’s first show. And no other gallery in Hong Kong is doing that.”
Messrs. Passmore and Proesch, whose works draw heavily on urban life, said they had explored the grittier parts of the city.
“Hong Kong, we love,” Mr. Passmore said. “Oh, but we saw the dirty part last night, in back of the hotel.”
“There were dripping ducks,” Mr. Proesch said.
“And strange animals,” Mr Passmore added.
Gilbert & George have long produced “Pictures” series, which have used racist slurs, nudity and obscenities to address issues like patriotism and crime.
“They are about the dynamics, the pain, the serial violence of metropolitan cities,” Mr. Steele said.
Compared to past works, the “London Pictures” have a relatively restricted palette: tabloid black and white, highlighted with blood red. The only other hue is the eerie flesh tone of Gilbert & George’s faces, which hover like apparitions in the background.
There are two recurrent elements: splashy newspaper headlines and Queen Elizabeth II’s profile, as seen on coins. These are particularly apt images for Hong Kong, a city with its own raucous tabloid press and a former British colony where so-called “queen coins” can still be found in pocket change, though more rarely these days.
As with most Gilbert & George creations, the idea was inspired by daily East End life.
“We saw a policeman and policewoman ringing a doorbell, and we got an awful thought in the head, an awful feeling in the stomach — death, suicide, a motorcycle accident,” Mr. Passmore said. “Whatever it was, it would be on a newspaper poster for only one day; but the tragedy and sorrow of what had happened would affect that family forever.”
“Artwork is frozen in time forever,” Mr. Proesch added, his voice still tinted with the accent of his native Italy. “So we started to steal posters the next day.”
Newspaper vendors were unwilling to hand over the posters proclaiming that day’s headlines, so the two became perhaps the oldest and best-dressed petty thieves in East London. One would distract the proprietor by going inside to buy a Mars bar, they said, and the other would steal the sign out on the sidewalk.
“We spread them out and had this huge carpet of sorrow. And we thought, ‘Is this the world we live in?”’ Mr. Passmore asked.
Aside from describing their chocolate-bar escapades, they refused to answer any questions about how they have managed to work together for so long.
“You must never ask us that question,” Mr. Proesch said.
“It’s not a collaboration, as we are two men, one artist. It just happens like magic,” Mr. Passmore added. “We made one rule in 1969: Never discuss. We don’t argue. But even if we did, we wouldn’t tell you.”
As monarchists and supporters of the former British Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the duo have unusual politics for members of the art world.
“We didn’t see the movie,” Mr. Passmore said, in reference to “The Iron Lady.” “We saw the real thing. She opened the economy.”
“And that’s why the art world became successful,” Mr. Proesch said.
The self-described “former country bumpkins” were influenced by the fact that they were among the less affluent students at the Saint Martins School of Art in the 1960s, and struggled to make a living. It was only when England’s economy improved in the 1980s under Mrs. Thatcher, they said, that artists like them could afford to support themselves.
“Before, you couldn’t be a self-sufficient artist in England,” Mr. Passmore said. “And we didn’t want to be goody-goody artists who went out and got grants or a teaching job or a trip to Rome.”
They established their home and studio in the then-unfashionable neighborhood of Spitalfields — it was only long after that it became the center of London’s thriving creative scene.
“All the world is an art gallery, or at least that’s true where we live,” Mr. Passmore said. “Now in every back street there’s some pop-up art gallery run by a Bulgarian curator. Anyone who created anything, they moved to Spitalfields.”
“Forty, fifty years ago, nobody could name a living artist,” Mr. Proesch said. “That changed in the 1980s. Art became famous in London, more famous than anywhere else.”
“The press coverage is massive, much more so than in Paris or New York. Art reviews take up two full pages in the newspaper,” Mr. Passmore said. “People look at us through the window of the restaurant where we eat dinner every night.”
“We take the bus and wave down like we’re the queen,” Mr. Proesch said.
It was out of concern about their legacy that they married several years ago.
“This way, when we are no longer here, our house, studio and archives will remain,” Mr. Passmore said. “Otherwise, we don’t need the papers for a fake straight marriage. We were always romantic anyway.”
Despite their fame, the two men lead a quaintly domestic life.
“We do a big show. Then we go back to the studio and don’t see anyone. That’s it.” Mr. Proesch said. “One hour without George and I’d be very lonely.”
“We live a very, very quiet life,” Mr. Passmore said. “We don’t go to the Gucci parties.”
Yet the next night, they were at an opening so loud that attendees had to yell at each other over their Champagne flutes. Gilbert & George were squashed into a corner next to the library, patiently signing autographs. Their next scheduled event wasn’t quite Gucci, but it was close — dinner at the private club Armani Privé.
The crowd — a combination of genuine art enthusiasts and nouveau-riche beautiful people — were heading out. A Porsche, a Jaguar and a Ferrari battled for space on the curb outside the new White Cube door.
Upstairs, Mr. Passmore smiled gamely for one more iPhone photo and put a hand on Mr. Proesch’s arm. “We got a bit of rest, but we are...”
“... a little tired,” Mr. Proesch finished for him.
“London Pictures” at the White Cube Hoxton Square, London, through April 14; White Cube Hong Kong, 50 Connaught Road, through May 5; White Cube Bermondsey and Mason’s Yard, London, through May 12.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Missing in India

I've gotten news that a work colleague has disappeared in India, near the Pakistan border. It's a long shot that any Joyceyland reader would have seen him, but I thought I'd pass this along. You never know who's reading. 
I can't say I know him very well, but he was friendly and lovely to work with in the office.
Anyway, here's the message from his worried parents:

"Jonathan Spollen is 28 years old, 6 feet tall, from Ireland. He was last seen in Rishikesh on February 3rd. He may have been planning to go on trek. If you have seen Jonathan or know where he is, please contact me or his Mum urgently.
You can phone, e-mail or text at any time:
Police: +91 135 243 0228
David mobile: +91 8802708618
David e-mail:
Lynda e-mail:
Phone: +353 1 216 4441
Phone or text: +353 87 243 8996
e-mail: or

Thank you for your help. Please, all of you, keep in regular contact with your families. Even if they don't say it, they care for you and worry about you!"

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Nobel laureate's play in Hong Kong

Photo courtesy the Hong Kong Arts Festival.

HONG KONG — Gao Xingjian, a Nobel laureate long exiled from his native China, had just flown in from Paris. He walked into a Hong Kong performance hall and embraced the theater director Lin Zhaohua as singers and dancers milled around onstage before a final run-through of their new production.
The two men, now in their 70s (Mr. Gao is 72, Mr. Lin is 76), last worked together 30 years ago when Mr. Lin directed three of Mr. Gao’s plays — “Absolute Signal,” “Bus Stop” and “Wild Man” — in China in the 1980s.
Soon after, Mr. Gao left for France and Beijing banned performances of his works, reportedly because of references to the Tiananmen Square crackdown in one of his  plays. Mr. Gao, best known for his novel “Soul Mountain,” went on to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2000. He never returned to mainland China. He also never worked again with Mr. Lin — until the Hong Kong Arts Festival commissioned a new production of the playwright’s “Of Mountains and Seas: A Tragicomedy of Gods.”
The rehearsal, a few hours before the opening last Friday, was Mr. Gao’s first glimpse of what his old friend had done with his script.
Speaking to journalists backstage, Mr. Gao said he was surprised by the result, which combines traditional arts, like the Laoqiang and Nuo forms of Chinese opera, with contemporary ballet.
A small, tidy figure with crinkly smiling eyes, Mr. Gao brushed away the inevitable questions about his relationship with Beijing.
“I have no interest in that. I’ve been away from mainland China for 24 years,” Mr. Gao said. “China is far away from my real life. My contribution to Chinese literature is finished. Now I live in the West and my concern is Europe, which is undergoing a crisis.”
He also dismissed his usual tag of writer-in-exile.
“I’m lucky to have had three lives: The first was in China; the second in exile; and the third in France,” he said. “I am a French writer with a French passport. I am a citizen of the world. For me, national borders are meaningless.”
Hong Kong, which reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997, is exempt from the censorship that bars works by Mr. Gao and others from the mainland. The fact many of the almost 300 participants at a public talk by the two men were mainland Chinese exchange students was notable.
The enthusiasm in Hong Kong — organizers said they sold nearly all tickets for the four-performance run that ended on Monday — was not unexpected. It was the Chinese University of Hong Kong that published “Of Mountains and Seas” in 1993 and staged it in 2008.
The festival, now in its 40th year, was not limited by the usual Chinese restrictions, but organizers also said they had not commissioned the work to be deliberately provocative.
“We do not seek to be controversial, nor do we present work because it is prohibited anywhere else,” said Tisa Ho, executive director of the Hong Kong Arts Festival. “We try to present work of value, in artistic terms and in terms of understanding the human condition.”
“What is controversial in one time and space may not be so in another,” she added.
Organizers said they did not yet know whether the show would tour after its run here, either in China or anywhere else.
According to Mr. Gao, the 2012 production is the first time in more than two decades that a mainland Chinese cast and crew have performed one of his works.
Mr. Lin worked with the Shaanxi Huayin Laoqiang Troupe, who specialize in an opera form found in an interior Chinese province, and Beijing Dance Theater, the nation’s pre-eminent contemporary dance group.
“Of Mountains and Seas” is an irreverent retelling of “Shanhaijing,” an ancient text that includes the classic Chinese creation myth.
Nu Wa, a wailing banshee of a goddess, expels the first humans from her bowels. They are a dirty, noisy, vulgar lot, dressed in rough canvas clothes, with distorted masks held over their faces. They fight and dance and copulate, to bear even more dusty offspring.
Local viewers would recognize elements from Chinese mythology: The handsome Yi the Archer shoots down 9 of the 10 suns scorching the earth. His wife, the lovely Chang E, wishes for immortality and rises up to the moon, in a legend still celebrated during the Mid-Autumn Festival.
There is a universality to the symbolism: the flawed woman eating the forbidden fruit, the punishing deluge cleansing the bickering mortals below, a god who becomes a civilization’s first emperor.
Because of Mr. Gao’s background, there is the temptation to look for political overtones. Surely, the gods lording it over the common man can be drunken, vengeful, petty, power hungry and self-absorbed. Deities are portrayed with larger-than-life figures topped with oversize masks. The frustration of being a lone individual going against the grain is depicted by a decapitated man jumping around in vain while a mean-spirited crowd plays keep-away with his head, represented by a basketball.
But “Of Mountains and Seas” should not be viewed too literally. Mr. Gao is a well-known absurdist, and Mr. Lin an experimentalist. Their collaboration is as fragmented, confused and chaotic as one would imagine the beginnings of humankind to be.
An audience struggling to follow the plot would be well advised to listen to the master of ceremonies, a grinning peasant who bangs on a gong and reminds everyone to just sit back and enjoy the show.
And what a variety show it is, with powerful singing, elegant dance moves and acrobatic fight scenes. The Shaanxi Province troupe adds grit and humor, while the modern ballet — choreographed beautifully by Wang Yuanyuan — adds finesse.
None of the performers are professional stage actors in the usual sense.
“It’s not a conventional play, and it shouldn’t have conventional acting either,” Mr. Lin said.
The elderly opera singers have a loose, natural style more suited to a village festival than the rather formal Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.
The most remarkable scene features colorful, gorgeously crafted, whimsical shadow puppets. The actors sit cross-legged on the edge of the stage, making the audience feel as if it is actually watching the show in some anonymous, timeless village.
“It’s strange seeing this play on stage,” Mr. Lin said. “It would be better to have it outdoors.”
Zhou Wenjia contributed reporting.