The KT Wong Foundation is an organisation set up to bridge the cultural divide between China and the West. Their latest collaboration is a brave re-imagining of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Coriolanus, showing as part of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. Neil McEwan speaks with Lady Linda Wong Davies, founder and chairman of the institute.
Tell me about the KT Wong Foundation and its mission?
It was formed in 2007/2008 in memory of my father who was an overseas Chinese. It was only after he passed away that I began to think that perhaps I should go back and see what I could do. I had been back before and it was still very much Maoist days, by the time I went there in 2006-2008 it had really transformed. The big transformation came in the run up to the Olympics. The various projects we came up with and the whole genesis of what the foundation should be doing happened between 2006-2007 and our main projects began in 2008 as part of the China Now festival in the UK. From there the mission became to create cultural platforms to initiate, create and ultimately produce different projects that would bring in all the diverse, emergent new talent and to pair that with all the different types of things going on elsewhere.
The Cultural Revolution really cut off Chinese culture at its legs. Now there’s this big generation of very young people and the country is in a different stage of discovery and economic development. There’s a hunger from these young people, a lot of whom are highly educated, to soak up culture. The good and bad thing is that they want to take on everything, but there’s no reference point so you will see some very strange things happening, because there’s no contextual background.
Strange things like the sight of heavy metal bands in opera?
There I have to disagree. I think that’s hilarious and very clever. I expect to see this sort of thing at Edinburgh, whether it comes from Romania, the States or Australia. But it’s brilliant if you’re trying to get a new young audience to Shakespeare. Also there are a lot of issues in Coriolanus that I can see why they appealed to this particular director. There are the big crowd scenes, which make very good theatre and are also something that Chinese people are used to. Also there is the relationship with his mother. Filial duty is central to Confucian teachings and nobody could sway this man’s mind except his mother, who gets on her knees and begs him, and that’s why she gets him to do what she asks of him at the cost of his own life. In a sense there’s also the idea of the sacrifice of the individual for the betterment of society, which is another theme running through much of Chinese culture.
Can you tell me a little more about this production and the Beijing People’s Art Theatre?
This is one of the great theatre groups of China. It goes back to the centrality of our great universities and education being such a huge thing in our culture and also those who have courage in both pre-cultural and post-cultural revolution days still continuing in the Chinese theatre tradition, as well as adapting various playwriting and theatre techniques. The foundation heard about this production from a good friend in the Ministry of Culture and it immediately stoked my interest about the Heavy Metal bands, as this is one of the most traditional theatre groups in China and yet they could take that big leap, which is wonderful. Again it’s that whole thing of them breaking free of the boundaries. Jonathan (Mills, EIF Director) is very clever and recognises a good show when he sees one. I told him about this show two years ago and said it’s too big for us and would be perfect to be part of a festival.
How important are festivals like EIF in fostering the work of the foundation?
I think the foundation is a one off. I’d describe us as entrepreneurial philanthropists. We initiate projects and then we collaborate and find the right partners and the right subject matter that would tick all the boxes for the foundation, to contribute to a better understanding of each other’s culture. That’s our number one criteria and that’s why we don’t normally do straight sponsorship. The other aspect is education. It’s all about education and about transfer directly or by osmosis. The EIF itself is quite exceptional; it’s very diverse and not afraid to embrace a lot of very different things. Certainly in Jonathan’s period he has opened the doors even wider. In 2008 we co-commissioned a new piece of work for the BBC proms to celebrate the Beijing Olympics that premiered on the night it opened in Beijing. Now we have something completely different, still very Chinese, but in their own vernacular way and with all the contemporary twists to it, but yet the costumes are all very classical and it doesn’t look strange. It takes a very straightforward direction and it’s basically about the truths the director wants to examine.
Since the foundation began have you noticed a change in cultural relationships between China and the West?
It’s slow and it’s very fast. You go to the main centres in Shanghai and Beijing and not a week passes without some great western orchestra passing through. You see more there than…well perhaps not as much as in London, but in London and New York there’s planning and perhaps a theme. In China it’s who you can slot into the schedule. Now, especially with the five-year plan, huge changes are happening and people now realise they can make money, so everybody wants to jump on the bandwagon. The big danger is you get a lot of rubbish. They’re not just coming from the UK, but from everywhere. Print media is also huge in China and as well as the Vogues there are Chinese versions of all sorts of western magazines springing up. All this is part of what I call cultural transfer and I think in Scotland it’s terrific because there are many more Chinese here than when I first came here which you tell from the proliferation and variety of Chinese restaurants. But even the concerts I’ve been to have far more Asians attending.
What benefits do you think cultural exchange has over diplomatic and political?
When we started to do this a lot of people thought we were crazy, but I kept saying to friends in the industry that they should get in now before the avalanche. Some heeded, some didn’t. Then about 18 months ago the Chinese government, in their five-year plan, targeted culture as what they call, a ‘soft power.’ They recognised that culture is an industry that they can harness and they broke it down into very systematic areas that brings in all sorts of businesses. In the UK the best thing that you have isn’t the Rolls Royces or the Dunhills, it’s the people and the creativity and it’s fostered because of a very open and liberal society. With that comes the expertise in running things and harnessing all that creative power. For those who are brave enough to venture to the west there’s a lot to learn from. It’s a hard slog, but there are huge business opportunities in training themselves in arts programming, management of venues, technical training and planning – there’s no planning in China. For example Jonathan tried three times to convince the Ministry of Culture that this show was a great piece of PR for China and that they could show the world that they could do this type of production as well as anybody else and not just stick to The Peony Pavillion.