19 September 2019
Yuen Che-hung, better known as Uncle Hung, has been a storyteller for over 20 years. Photo: HKEJ
Yuen Che-hung, better known as Uncle Hung, has been a storyteller for over 20 years. Photo: HKEJ

A wandering storyteller keeps the oral tradition alive

To Yuen Che-hung (nicknamed Uncle Hung by his fans), life is story.

A storyteller since 1994, he wanders freely, everywhere from schools, streets and city centers to villages, telling stories about himself and others.

This month, Uncle Hung will give a performance that centers on the problems of housing in Hong Kong faced by the previous and current generations, leading in with the experiences of his own grandmother.

“In the 1950s, my grandma made her escape from China to Hong Kong,” Yuen told the Hong Kong Economic Journal.

“There were quite a lot of street sleepers, but they could hope to move into real homes.

“However, many years after the economic boom, people are, in fact, doing worse rather than better.

“Everyone works so hard, not daring to secure a home but simply a dwelling place where they can rest comfortably after work.

“Not only do I see elderly people staying overnight in McDonald’s but also people dressed in a suit and tie.

“They are not homeless guys, but it is very likely they live far away, in places like Tuen Mun or Yuen Long, so instead of rushing to and fro between home and office on Hong Kong Island, they stay in the fast food shop.”

Yuen is not Hong Kong’s only storyteller, but he is one of a kind in the range of venues where he performs and his audiences, which are made up of young kids, schoolchildren and adults.

“Instead of creating stories, the stories find me,” he said.

He was first inspired by the stories told by his teachers in primary school.

“Those were the days we had story lessons,” Yuen said.

“Teachers would tell fables like ‘The Three Little Pigs’ or ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’.

“All we had to do was to listen, and we didn’t need to write book reports.

“It took me less than 30 minutes to finish my homework, and then I would go out and play.”

As the fifth child out of seven, Yuen enjoyed much of his happy, carefree childhood in Sham Shui Po.

His uncle taught him storytelling tricks when Yuen was as young as four.

One Mid-Autumn Festival, they were walking in Pei Ho Street.

His uncle suddenly stopped and pointed at the bright full moon, warning Yuen not to tell lies, or else the moon would follow him always.

Street artists Yuen encountered were magical, too.

They performed kung fu and told stories such as Journey to the West — one of the four great classic novels of Chinese literature.

Their goal was to attract bystanders to buy a salty dried plum and stay around for the story.

During his high school years in the 1970s, which was the prime of students’ activism, Yuen, like many other teenagers at that time, read Karl Marx and took part in social movements in pursuit of an ideal society.

In the end he was caught by the police.

“It was 1974,” Yuen recalled.

“After my father heard the trial, he stroked my back and urged me not to show up at any more protests.

“I was reminded of his gesture when I retold this story to my son, who asked me if Grandfather did it the same way like when I stroked him.

“Emotions we are unaware of will show up all of a sudden as the stories unfold.” 

In the streets, people come and go. How does Yuen retain the attention of his audience?

He said his definition of failure is when it is one man doing all the talking without hearing from the audience.

Or if storytelling is done in too slick a way, like an entertainment production.

Yuen sees storytelling as a means for him to raise awareness of social issues and improve the lives of the people around him.

And creating new works is, for him, the greatest joy of all.

The performance — The Second Solo by Uncle Hung: Habitat Enigma — will be held on Nov. 20 and 21 in the multimedia theatre at the HKICC Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 2.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version中文版]

Uncle Hung: 50 years of Sham Shui Po, in Autobiographical Cultural Tour Theatre 2014:

 (Cantonese only)

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Children and parents sit in a circle, listening to Uncle Hung tell his stories. Photo: HKEJ

Anywhere can be a stage for Uncle Hung. He appears at an event in support of villagers who faced being forced to move out of their homes in the northeastern New Territories. Photo: HKEJ

Apart from telling stories in person, Uncle Hung has published illustrated compilations of his stories. Photo: HKEJ

Uncle Hung studied abroad when he was young. He wandered across Europe. Photo: HKEJ

Hong Kong Economic Journal writer