Eighteen Springs

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Zuni Icosahedron’s new adaptation of Eileen Chang’s heartbreaking Eighteen Springs channels its characters’ regrets through experimental music arrangements. By Edmund Lee.


Eighteen Springs, the first full-length novel by the late, great writer Eileen Chang, is a 1930s-set tragic romance that’s been causing heartbreak in every generation of the Chinese audience since its publication in 1948.

Not that the modern classic is crying out for more adaptations – the book has had film, TV drama and theatre production incarnations over the decades – but a new presentation by Zuni Icosahedron is set to add a new dimension to Chang’s wrenching meditation on the cruel irony of fate that reveals its full impact on seven young men and women over nearly two decades.

Rarely a fixture on the stage since her little-known singing career back in the 1970s, Elaine Jin is thrilled by the special appearance that she’s been assigned in director Mathias Woo’s new production – as Eileen Chang. While she’s given no dialogue at all, the 57-year-old actress will be gliding among the lovestruck characters as she bursts into original Mandarin ballads composed by Yu Yat-yiu for the occasion, as well as rearranged English oldies that were supposedly prevalent in 1930s Shanghai.

“I think my part is quite intriguing,” says Jin, who is as revered today for her appearances in TVB dramas as she’s known for her acting career in movies, most notably in the works of Stanley Kwan (Women, Love Unto Waste, The Island Tales) and Edward Yang (A Brighter Summer Day, A Confucian Confusion, Mahjong, Yi Yi).

Chang is not an author who Jin was overly familiar with before this project, even though the actress was immediately convinced to take part in Woo’s new adaptation after knowing it’s taking the stage of the Grand Theatre of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. “The venue’s sound system is just great,” Jin says of her last performance there in The Seventh Drawer (2004), the Ho Ying-fung-directed play which also featured Sam Lee and Josie Ho.

“And I actually got a chance to speak in that play,” Jin recalls fondly of her role as a ghost in that earlier theatre show – one of only three the actress has ever taken part in (the third one is a 2005 musical adaptation of Sister Act, in which Jin headlined with the renowned pop singer Tsai Chin). “I had one line in Ho’s play, which is to say that it’s already better than Eighteen Springs [where I have none]!”

Mathias Woo’s decision to bring back a text he’s already tackled once – in 2003, together with co-writer-director Edward Lam and star Rene Liu – may surprise a few of his regular audiences, although Yu Yat-yiu, the music director of the current production and a longtime collaborator with both Woo and co-scriptwriter Jimmy Ngai, sees ample room for creativity in this multimedia music theatre rendition of the familiar story.

“As many people are already familiar with Eileen Chang, with Eighteen Springs and with its various characters, there’s no need for us to do a literal adaptation of the novel,” says Yu. “We don’t need to treat the material like the TV dramas did.”

Rarely one to shy away from the social hypocrisy of her time, Chang’s work magnifies its long-lasting damaging effects on her protagonists’ emotional lives with an elliptical temporal structure, which may prove to be oddly in sync with Woo and Yu’s evocative yet modern music arrangement.

Rehearsals have yet to take place when we meet up with Yu for this interview but the composer is already filled with excitement about the theatrical experiment in his hands: apart from the songs performed by Jin, this version of Eighteen Springs also pits the performances of seven actors of the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre against running commentaries in the form of Suzhou tanci (a traditional type of storytelling and ballad singing), to be performed by two masters of the craft, Jin Li-sheng and Yu Qun.

Yu Yat-yiu says of his music direction: “I want to make it impossible [for the audience] to tell which era the songs are from. If we had wanted [a faithful portrait of the era], we could’ve simply played the original version of the songs. The moment we asked Elaine Jin to perform them we [had decided to] express our views on the story from our perspective today.”

“My greatest source of pressure,” Yu continues, “comes from the fact that this is such a well-loved book. Every reader has his own impression of the story and the personalities of its characters. It’ll be a challenge to find an angle that can easily earn the acceptance and approval of the audience.” Jin adds jokingly: “I think it’s definitely not an easy task. I’ll wait to find out about our director’s ability!”

Eileen Chang would probably appreciate their collective attempt – however tentatively.

Eighteen Springs 半生緣 is performed at the Cultural Centre’s Grand Theatre, Fri Sep 14-Sat Sep 22, in Putonghua with English and Chinese surtitles. Tickets: 2734 9009; urbtix.hk.

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