To take a photograph, Susan Sontag tells us, “is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power.” A photograph also preserves evidence and exposes the human condition, which the viewer then appropriates. Old photographs preserve worlds that are gone, but they also bring them back, because the moment which they record is there forever, and cannot be moved in time either backwards or forwards. David Bellis knows this, and he has given us a glimpse of a world that is still present in photographs, a world which contains stories that are also preserved.
The star of Opera Hong Kong’s recent Carmen might just be the set.
The 2018 “Le French May” opened in Hong Kong with The Painting on the Wall from the Ballet Preljocaj. The inspiration for this new work is a Chinese fairy tale from the Qinq Dynasty-era Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, collected (not unlike the Brothers Grimm, except more than a century earlier) by Pu Songling and published posthumously in 1740.
John Richard Duffy, whom his friends knew as “Richard” or just “Duffy”, was a successful thirty-three-year-old solicitor and businessman who in 1978 had been working in Hong Kong for eleven years. He was a man who elicited both hatred and affection, and has been described as “a Robin Hood character”. He was openly bisexual, with, if anything, a preference for youths, a man who took innumerable sexual partners and who was contemptuous of the legal restrictions placed upon homosexuals in Hong Kong. In this, and some alleged in perhaps other areas also, he sailed very close to the line, but he did so with much warmth of character and a visible twinkle in his eye. He was, therefore, a popular man to many, although not in the police force, at whom he cocked a continual snook. He had friends across all segments of Hong Kong society, and didn’t mind whether he mixed with taipans, barristers, high officials, or the poverty stricken, as long as he found them amusing.
Not all operas or performances are about the singers. The star of the Welsh National Opera’s performance of Pelléas et Mélisande at the Hong Kong Arts Festival was its orchestra and conductor Lothar Koenigs who did Claude Debussy’s seamless score proud.
In January 1980 a young police officer named John MacLennan committed suicide in his Ho Man Tin flat. His death came mere hours before he was to be arrested for committing homosexual acts still, at that point, illegal in Hong Kong. But this was more than the desperate act of a young man, ashamed and afraid; both his death and the subsequent investigation were a smokescreen for a scandal that went to the heart of the establishment.
Nigel Collett’s A Death in Hong Kong: The MacLennan Case of 1980 and the Suppression of a Scandal has won the 2017 Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong History Book Prize.