The 52nd HK Arts Festival

Between Weakness and Triumph, We Dance

Text / Rebecca Lee

The original musical I Am What I Am is adapted from the popular 2021 Chinese animated film of the same title. The Cantonese version, helmed by Dr Terence Sin and an all-star team of Hong Kong musical theatre veterans, will premiere at the 52nd Hong Kong Arts Festival. It also marks the first time composer and music arranger Leon Ko, lyricist Chris Shum and playwright Cheung Fei-fan have reunited since their collaboration on the award-winning The Impossible Trial.

The musical is produced by various mainland Chinese units including Guangzhou Opera House, Guangdong Song and Dance Ensemble, Guangzhou Song and Dance Theatre, co-executive-produced by Beijing Splendid Culture & Entertainment Co., Ltd, with Hong Kong artists. Interwoven with traditional lion dancing, I Am What I Am tells the story of a group of "left-behind" teenagers following their dreams in Guangzhou. Inspired by a girl with the same name, protagonist Ah Kuen and his two friends, Cat and Dog strive to become protégés of reclusive lion dance master Salted-fish Keung as they prepare for a tournament. However, hurdles and obstacles are constantly thrown over Ah Kuen's path.

"This story is about underdogs finding success," Ko says. Hungry for change, Ah Kuen falls in love with lion dancing and starts pursuing his dream. In the beginning, he is like a toddler learning to walk and keeps trying even though he continuously falls down.

For the stage version, playwright Cheung has introduced a devastating plot twist that increases the dramatic tension. As in the original film, Ah Kuen has to give up lion dancing to earn money for his father's medical expenses. In the stage version, Ah Kuen is discouraged by the gap between the harsh reality and his dream. Heavily crushed in his dream path, he gets depressed and bewildered, paving the way to a climax. Thankfully he is saved by his master.

"Things go wrong for everyone during their youth. But we just pick ourselves up from wherever we've fallen—both lion dance and the art of life are like that. As the saying goes: success is but one more attempt than failure," says Cheung.

For this inspirational musical, lyricist Shum didn't want to create lyrics that dealt with a melodramatic awakening, but instead revolved around the theme of catharsis. "Every step, to progress, we together, to progress, to advance, to pioneer, to refine, to invent, to grow, to leap, to go higher." While the ascending melody dictates the use of two Chinese words per line, Shum wisely adopted a combination of words with a progressive meaning, visually depicting the leaping motion of a dancing lion.

The three core creators, Cheung, Ko and Shum, agree that I Am What I Am is a perfect story for musical theatre as it deals with a wide range of relationships. Ko and Shum were also touched by the unwavering love between Salted-fish Keung and his wife, Ah Chun, two humble peasants who rarely speak about love. Their love is a low-key love, and this is reflected in the plain but sincere lyrics: "Troubles unavoidable, just blame yourself, left no stones unturned, chose no one but me at first", "Dream your dreams, before you can make ends meet."

Ko remarks that it is probably the first musical in Hong Kong centred on lion dancing, which makes it a fascinating experiment despite the considerable technical difficulties involved. And if you come away with anything from the show, it will be a renewed belief in the maxim that we should "listen to our hearts".

China Resources Group Proudly Sponsors I Am What I Am the Musical

Date: 8-10 Mar 2024

Venue: Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre

Details: https://www.hk.artsfestival.org/en/programme/I_Am_What_I_Am?