Li Kui-ming’s Trump on Show is, like its title character, over the top, sensationalist, and unpredictable. But is it enough to make Cantonese Opera great again?
Photo by Mary Hui for Washington Post
With a towering LED screen of Nixon’s Air Force One, a grossly exaggerated caricature of Kim Jung-un, Ivanka Trump in ball gowns, alien abduction, and the ghost of President Lincoln, all combined with off-key singing, you might think Trump on Show is the latest movie by the creators of South Park. Alas, it’s a four-hour Cantonese Opera — about, yes, Donald Trump — and over its four-day run at the thousand-seat Sunbeam Theatre, from April 12 to 15, it played to sold-out crowds and roars of laughter.
The show was written and produced by celebrity feng-shui master Li Kui-ming, who is no stranger to the cult of personality he both exalts and spoofs in this production. Trump on Show begins before anyone gets to their seat: Li, in gold sash, is on display himself at the theater’s entrance, shoehorned by cameras where one can pose with the master before heading inside. A goodie bag awaits at one’s seat, complete with a 630-plus-page tome (gold-sashed Li on the cover) detailing the producer’s Cantonese Opera ouvre, a DVD of “Precious Videos for Permanent Preservation: Li Kui-ming’s Cantonese Opera New Wave,” a sheet of coupons for discounted and free geomancy objects at a local retailer (while supplies last), and, finally, a slim playbill with two or three pages of actor credits and 20 pages of Li posing in front of Trump Tower, posing in front of the White House, a two-page ad for his feng shui tour of Dubai, his astrological reading of the Chinese characters for Trump’s name, a creative adaptation of the DC Metro map to illustrate the White House’s problematic feng shui, and other secrets only Li can reveal…
Now let the performance begin! Enter Ivanka Trump stage right with Gucci suitcase ready to move into the White House, against an LED backdrop of the Oval Office. Her discovery of a copy of Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book launches a story wherein a 26-year-old Donald Trump personally funds Richard Nixon’s 1972 China trip to meet Chairman Mao. After party-crashing the diplomatic dinner, young Trump discovers his long-lost twin brother who works at a crematorium in Kaifeng. There is a long scene where the twin brother saves an ailing Liu Shaoqi from Red Guards and sings “Eidelweiss” to his girlfriend Peili before she escapes to the U.S.
Zhou Enlai, Deng Yingchao, and Jiang Qing all make appearances (and sing Cantonese Opera arias). Mao and Nixon play an actual game of ping pong on stage, where the supertitles declare, “Who’d think little ball has fate of glory.” (Other supertitle winners: “Fondu is Fantastic.”)
When we are transported to 2018 after intermission, Trump is president, but the opera makes it clear Ivanka calls the shots. Our feng shui master has thrown a bit of numerology into his script — Trump is now 72, the same age Mao was when he started the Cultural Revolution. ’72 is also the year that Nixon and Mao had their historic visit, as depicted in Act I.
Trump’s red tie seems to grow longer as the play enters the third hour. Loong Koon-tin, the local opera star who performs, at turns, Trump, his twin brother, and Chairman Mao Zedong, captures Trump’s creepy finger gesticulations precisely — perhaps due to the uncanny resemblance those gestures bare to traditional Chinese Opera finger positions. Loong knows how to work a crowd, whether bellowing “You’re fired!” in English for easy laughs or eliciting knowing snickers at references to Trump’s extramarital affairs. The audience did grow uncharacteristically quiet on his line, “Hong Kong made me rich again!”
More young and international audience members filled the house than typically attend Cantonese Opera performances, and almost everyone stayed until the end. In the performance I attended, after Li joined the cast for a curtain call, he spent another 30-plus minutes talking to the audience about, well, Li.
But is it art?
The astounding commercial success of Trump on Show has some — Li in particular — declaring a new era of innovation in local Cantonese Opera. Like audiences for opera in the West, audiences for Chinese opera are aging, and the industry is desperate to reach new and younger markets.
Chinese opera, or xìqǔ 戏曲, is the general term for a broad genre comprising hundreds of regional forms, including Cantonese Opera, Peking Opera, Sichuan Opera, Kunqu, Huamei, and more. Although many will share plots based off classic stories, each has distinct singing styles, language dialects, movement vocabularies, and musical traditions.
In mainland China after 1949, opera troupes became owned and operated by different national and local government bodies, and in recent years the government has prioritized sending troupes on international tours as part of its soft power effort to promote China’s ancient culture to the world rather than focus on new scripts or local audience development. In stark contrast, Hong Kong’s British colonial government never supported local Cantonese Opera. Troupes were not top-down institutions but loose grassroots associations that came together for productions often centered around local village holidays and ceremonies. This practice continues today. These performances and organizations were funded almost entirely by individual contributions and ticket sales rather than government subsidies. Only in the early 2000s did the Hong Kong government set up a formal funding body to support its indigenous art form.
Trump on Show has received unprecedented coverage from international press, including Time, Washington Post, CNN, and more. Audience members over the four-day run included more young people and foreigners than typically attend Cantonese Opera in Hong Kong. Li Kui-ming is already seeking opportunities to re-run the production later this year, including at the recently opened Xiqu Centre in the West Kowloon Cultural District.
Traditional stalwarts, however, see Trump on Show as mere sensationalism, lacking substance or craft. Is this the kind of meaningful disruption needed to make Cantonese Opera great again? Or is it degrading the very artform it claims to be saving? One thing is certain: the attention it received is irrefutable, and Li is doing everything he can to ensure “Trump” gets another term on stage.