Hubert Burda Media


When playwright SIMON WU steps out, he becomes a dance-floor law unto himself, as STEPHEN MCCARTY discovers

DR SIMON WU, phd, doesn’t change his clothes in a phone box. And though he may be a superhero to one section of society, he’s not on a mission to save the world. He is, however, part of a two-man team that proves that boys just want to have fun.

By day Wu is a solicitor and playwright, but mostly a playwright. By Hong Kong night he is Disco Bunny: a pink-fringed personification of fun on a gay scene hopping to the SAR’s answer to Seoul sensation Psy.

“I just love dancing so much,” says Wu enthusiastically, explaining his appearance as his alter ego – with bobtail and Bugs Bunny ears – in the video for Hong Kong Bar Hop. The song is the creation of Wu’s partner, Dino Mahoney, and London producer Steve Halliwell, who heard Mahoney performing Hong Kong Bar Hop as a poem. Mahoney added it as a flamboyant vocal celebration of gay clubs and nightlife to Halliwell’s dance-techno-disco number; but in the video, all shimmering Hong Kong skylines, city fleshpots and cultural touchstones, Wu, wearing hot pants and feather boa, steals the show. Still, “I told them they asked me 20 years too late!” says Hong Kong-born Wu, 52. “Back then I would have made a much better disco bunny!”

Compared to any other of the pair’s artistic endeavours, this sudden blast of YouTube celebrity might come as a jarring revelation to those recalling Wu and Mahoney as more measured Hong Kong arts-scene stalwarts, writing plays and newspaper columns and broadcasting. After more than a decade in London, both return regularly, Wu landing recently for the threeweek run of his play Wolf in the House, a taut psychological thriller. The award-winning work, staged by the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre in a new adaptation, is “about an encounter between strangers”, says Wu. “One hits the other in a road accident. He isn’t seriously injured but the driver is supposed to take him to hospital – instead he invites the victim home. It looks like the classic situation for a sexual encounter but it’s not what it seems: they both have hidden agendas and demons.

“It’s a psycho-drama with a supernatural twist, but you can also explain everything rationally. It’s really about grief, about a person who has lost his lover and is looking for a sign from him. He imposes that lover on this other person who, although not gay, eventually must do whatever the grieving guy wants so he can escape.”

The production played to full houses and sterling reviews, proving to its author that the work has retained its impact throughout its evolution.

“It’s been very long in its development and it’s changed significantly,” says Wu. “It was just about the first gay play in Hong Kong, written before homosexuality was decriminalised. Now it’s nothing new to have a gay play. When we moved to London I translated it into English and it was developed further.”

Not that Wu is a one-play pony. His comic dramas Yam Sing and U-Turn have been performed around Britain; The Two of Us, starring a man who confesses to killing his twin and assuming his identity, is his latest work in progress; Oikos, a contemplation of the need for redemption, was staged on London’s Southbank in 2010; and Pilgrimage of the Heart, featuring a fractured Shanghai family tormented by hidden desires, enjoyed a London run in 2008.

Does Wu now feel like an established “name” on the London scene? “As a Chinese playwright writing in English, I think I’m one of the more successful,” he says modestly. “My plays are also published, which is important because it gives you a chance to be performed again.”

Thus far we’ve neglected Wu the lawyer, whose first degree was in English Studies and Comparative Literature, who gave up Hong Kong secondary-school teaching to practise law and who was until recently a visiting fellow of Hong Kong’s City University law department.

“I taught the autumn semester for four years,” he says. “Company law, business law and the Hong Kong legal system. In London I work almost full time as a playwright but I’m also a legal consultant specialising in company and securities law.”

As an afterthought, he adds: “I’ve written several law books; the third and fourth will be published soon. And articles in legal reviews. Oh, and I’m writing a novel. [An earlier assertion by Wu, that “discipline is important” in his work, is starting to make sense.] It’s a Sung Dynasty 11th-century murder mystery,” he says. “I’ve written several drafts. I did a lot of research because I really want it to ring true. It was a very unusual period: Kaifeng, the setting, was the world’s biggest city, the first forensic autopsy book was written then, they developed a lot of warfare technology …

“I’m a very visual person too,” he continues. “I think I can tell a story with pictures, not just words, which is how the short film Merry-Go-Round, made with a former student, came about. It’s an urban love story without much dialogue: playwrights can write too many words for film and actors talk too much. I wanted a bigger audience and to show I understood the genre. The British Film Institute screened it. “And for the stage, I’ve done a lot of translation of other people’s plays from English to Chinese,” including, he neglects to mention, Alan Bennett’s Habeas Corpus.

And that, surely, is that. Isn’t it?

“Oh,” says Wu, “and I’m translating the libretto for Puccini’s opera Turandot, re-set in ancient China.” Pardon? “Turandot. Theatre director Jonathan Man asked me to do it, but it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, because of course it has to be singable. As the singers keep reminding me.”

There hardly seems enough time, let alone energy, for it all. He may in fact be the Duracell Disco Bunny. Or perhaps Simon Wu really does change his clothes in a phone box.