The Professor

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James Bien speaks to scriptwriter Candace Chong and director Chan Cheuk Wai about the delicate teacher-student relationship, explored in their play The Professor

Candace Chong hesitated when the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre approached her to write a drama in honor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s 50th anniversary. After all, everyone knows Hong Kong’s education system is constantly under fire in today’s political climate. How could she accurately celebrate her alma mater’s spirit in present-day context?

Turns out, it only took a little reflection for her to be reminded of the CUHK morale. “I remembered Joseph Sung’s speech to CUHK’s graduates, where he urges them to be simple, noble and modest,” she says. “It reminded me that that was what CUHK was like, it reminded me that those are the values I hold dear, and it reminded me that I share an emotional connection with the school.” And so, she wrote The Professor, a play that revolves around a student, Lucretia, and her professor. Both share different world views and, ultimately, different opinions of Hong Kong’s education system.  

While the two protagonists could not have more opposing perspectives, the director Chan Cheuk Wai and Chong’s viewpoints are surprisingly similar. Both graduates from CUHK, they share a concern about the present state of education. “A university education used to be about the freedom to choose what you were interested in studying. Now, it’s all about the business,” Chan says. “As dramatists, it’s no surprise that we’re idealists. We just don’t want our education system to be so driven by money,” Chong echoes similar sentiments.

However, don’t walk into the play expecting a bitter commentary on society. “There isn’t a particular message we’re giving the audience. Instead, we have questions for them,” Chong explains. “What do they think a university graduate should be? What is education for? Is it ever definitively right or wrong for students to participate in political activities?”

Questioning and reflection are just two of the play’s major themes. After all, its central characters are students who are lost in their search for what is right. It’s an experience both Chan and Chong are familiar with. To them, uncertainty is the key to making change happen in today’s society. “Every student walks into their first year of university with a very strong idea of what they want to achieve, but somewhere along the way, something changes,” Chan says. “Lucretia and Jeremy are lost souls, and as students, they have to be. You have to be lost in order to reflect, and you have to reflect in order to act,” he continues.

This life principle is conveyed through one of the play’s lines, “a life without reflection is not worth living.” As a result, to Chan and Chong, the role of a professor is to give his students the freedom to find their own way to truth and enlightenment, instead of giving them the answers. “The title, The Professor, isn’t just about a person. It’s about the processes of teaching and learning,” Chan says. “It’s about planting a seed and hoping it will grow into something beautiful.”

Ultimately, the play’s sphere of influence could be greater than the professor’s living room, where most of the action takes place. Chong urges her viewers to reflect on the way we educate the future leaders of our society, as it is an issue that permeates every sector of our city. She summarises her drama with a line from it: “Protecting our students’ freedom is protecting our society’s freedom.”

The Professor, Hong Kong City Hall Theatre, Sept 1-11. Tickets: $280-$180, urbtix.hk.

 

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