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Hong Kong opera brings together China, Trump and ping-pong

Fengshui master Li Kui-ming, creator of Trump On Show, hopes his latest work will usher in what he calls "opera diplomacy"

Loong Koon-tin, who plays the roles of both Mao Zedong and Donald Trump.

The Sunbeam Theatre in Hong Kong.

Mr Li stands in front of the show poster.

Hong Kong

START with a performer playing US President Donald Trump. Then bring in a long-lost brother who was raised in China.

Throw in castmates portraying a ping-pong-loving Mao Zedong, a deal-seeking Kim Jong-un, Ivanka Trump and Mr Mao's power-hungry fourth wife. They are singing. Opera. In Cantonese. And, well, it's complicated.

Trump On Show opens this Friday in Hong Kong with its creator - 64-year-old fengshui master Li Kui-ming - offering something of a fever dream of politics, history and diplomacy framed around the current tensions between Washington and Beijing.

Mr Li, who writes Cantonese operas and manages a Cantonese opera house, is certainly not the first to find art amid Mr Trump's improbable rise to power, his public bluster and prolific tweeting. Mr Li, however, went retro.

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He found inspiration in the so-called ping-pong diplomacy of the 1970s that helped bring groundbreaking openings between Communist Party Chairman Mao and former US president Richard Nixon.

Maybe, Mr Li said with a hint of boundless optimism, his latest work will usher in something called "opera diplomacy".

"Cantonese opera diplomacy means that through Cantonese opera, it'll make the Chinese people and the American people join hands and harmoniously resolve the US-China trade war," said Mr Li, a well-known soothsayer in Hong Kong who is said to count among his clientele many of the city's rich and powerful.

If nothing else, the performance does not skimp on plot.

It revolves around Mr Trump's fictional twin brother, a character inspired by former US president Barack Obama's real-life half brother, Mark Ndesandjo, who lives in China.

The Trump twin in the opera grew up in China after being separated from his wet nurse on a trip during World War II, ending up in an orphanage and eventually living through the upheavals of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

"Growing up, he was constantly being discriminated against because he was blond, a foreigner," Mr Li said of Mr Trump's fictitious twin brother. "But he speaks Cantonese. So through him, we can bring out the modern history of China."

Eventually, Mr Trump and his twin brother are able to reunite. At one point in the opera, Kim Jong-un visits the US and meets with Mr Trump, who teaches the North Korean leader how to turn his country's economy around overnight by partnering with Coca-Cola to develop a Coke brand infused with ginseng.

The cast of characters also includes Mao's fourth wife Jiang Qing who was jailed after his death in 1976, and his protege Zhou Enlai.

Curiously, Mr Mao and Mr Trump are played by the same actor, Loong Koon-tin, for the opera's four-night run.

"Trump has a lot of characteristics that people the world over would recognise. Like these hand gestures," Loong said as he flashed okay signs with his hands. "It's very special."

Loong channels Trump by donning a blond wig, wearing a power suit with a red tie, and holding up a red ping-pong paddle. In other scenes, his Mao has a stiff smile, wears a Communist Party army uniform and also has a ping-pong paddle in hand.

Capturing attention

"Trump can really capture the attention of his audience," said Loong. "It's very similar to what we do in Cantonese opera, to get everyone's eyeballs on you. And this president - this is what he has achieved."

Trump On Show follows Li's 2016 production Chairman Mao, which chronicled the story of the Great Leader's love life and dove into the details of his private relationships with three of his wives.

The 2016 production drew an intense backlash in Hong Kong, with critics condemning the playwright for whitewashing Mr Mao's atrocities and one opposition politician accusing him of putting a "red star over Hong Kong".

The show was nevertheless a resounding success, playing to a full house at the 1,000-seat Sunbeam Theatre every day of its first run, and restaged again three months later. He even took it on tour to Japan.

"I thought, after the success of the Cantonese opera on Mao, could we do a second instalment featuring both Mao Zedong and Trump onstage?" said Mr Li.

To write the opera, Mr Li pored over Mr Trump's speeches and used the president's turns of phrase in the lyrics.

"It was a huge operation," he said. He also studied the president's quirks and habits - his penchant for fast food and television-watching habits - to develop Mr Trump's character.

Mr Li, however, was struck by similarities between Mr Mao and Mr Trump.

"What they share in common is they both started a cultural revolution," he said.

"The cultural revolution Mao Zedong started was to overthrow an entire country's politics through the power of a single person. Now that Trump has become president, he has also overthrown the two-party check and balance in Congress," he said. "So both of them have created a one-man revolution." AFP

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