Lyrics and Libretto by Dean Barrett
Music by Ed Linderman
The musical FRAGRANT HARBOUR is based on a poisoning case that took place in Hong Kong on the morning of 15 January, 1857. On that day, as usual, most of the thousand or so foreigners in the 16-year-old British colony took their bread from the E-Sing bakery in Spring Gardens (now Wanchai). However, this was not to be a normal day in the lives of either the foreigners or of the Chinese because, in what may have been history's only mass poisoning attempt, someone had placed ten pounds of arsenic in the bread.
That act resulted in an incredibly ill and panicked foreign population (British, American and other nationalities), a sensational five-day trial and the testing of Governor SIR JOHN BOWRING's principles. BOWRING insisted on a fair trial when most of the residents demanded that the bakers be strung up from lampposts without delay.
The dress, objects and language of the period - crinolines and top hats, punkahs and pidgin, queues and palanquins, clipper ships and opium dens - are extremely colorful and the period was one of the most exciting in the colony's often dramatic history. But the musical can be performed with a fluid set and the poisoners can easily double in various roles.
In this musical, the baker himself is ignorant of the fact that his father and brother-in-law have finally succumbed to the pressure of anti-foreign "mandarin" agents to place poison in the bread of foreigners.
The baker's father and brother-in-law try to persuade the baker's wife (AHEE) to obtain the arsenic on the Kowloon side of the harbor and bring it to Hong Kong Island. They feel that, as she is well educated, speaks English and is attractive, she can pass through the British sentries without being searched. But AHEE is fascinated by things Western and has no intention of poisoning anyone. She refuses.
AHEE is the main character of the musical. She is locked into a loveless, arranged marriage with an older man who has taken a concubine. Where her husband is practical, realistic and immersed in his baking business, AHEE is idealistic, full of dreams about being a "lady," and longs for the elegance of Western society, far from the troubled, dangerous and sordid world of Hong Kong in 1857. Like Madame Bovary, AHEE flees tedium and melancholy to enter into an impossible world of dreams.
AHEE learned English well from missionaries and loves to converse with foreigners who take bread from her husband's shop. She meets and falls in love with an American surgeon (CHARLES TAYLOR) recently arrived in Hong Kong. But after one such visit from her lover, just when she is deliriously happy, the door barges open and the poisoners bring in her brother's body.
He died while trying to obtain the arsenic and AHEE blames herself for his death. With her dream world shattered, AHEE now understands that when danger comes, there is no middle ground.
She announces that yes, she is a woman, "but first I am Chinese." By deceiving her lover, AHEE obtains the arsenic but loses her one chance at love. At the trial her husband is found guilty and is hanged; AHEE is banned from Hong Kong.
At the wharf she sees her American lover who is leaving on a clipper ship to return to California. Despite everything, he still loves her and asks that she come with him. But AHEE has now put her world of dreams away and, in accordance with her husband's wish, decides to return to China. After saying goodbye to her lover one last time, AHEE leaves Hong Kong forever to live in China.
No one died directly from the poison (the poisoners used too much - such a vast amount acted as a cathartic) and this irony suggests much of what the musical is about: "Joss" and fate and historical forces impinging on the main characters and how those characters are unable to escape their fate. The governor, Sir John Bowring, represents the best of the British as he sings of the Hong Kong that he knows will be: "A City Richer than Many a Nation; and Chinese Leading in Every Occupation."
Although the musical will benefit from the growing interest in Hong Kong and things Chinese, its main focus is the story of a woman who must make a terrible choice - between being a patriot or being with the man she loves. At the core of "Fragrant Harbour" is a woman who dramatically transforms herself from a docile and obedient wife into a woman who finds the strength of character to do what she must regardless of consequences.
FRAGRANT HARBOUR brings a little known incident in Hong Kong's early history
dramatically to life. It also suggests parallels with Hong Kong's present and
future, especially in such songs as "I See Hong Kong, Future Hong Kong," and
"The Day will Come."
1. Cheung Ahee - (soprano) The main character of the musical. A beautiful, educated Chinese woman dissatisfied with her life in Hong Kong and fascinated by things Western. She becomes involved in an illicit love affair with a foreigner but, in the end, she chooses to give up the man she loves and return to China. A woman, like Hong Kong itself, unable to escape her destiny.
2. Charles Taylor - (tenor) An American physician visiting Hong Kong. He falls hopelessly in love with Cheung Ahee but, when faced with knowledge of her actions, he is forced to leave her. And, acting on her behalf, he will be forced to leave Hong Kong..
3. John Avery - (lyric baritone) English businessman and long-time resident of Hong Kong. As his business fails, he makes an "arrangement" with the baker; an arrangement which unintentionally aids the poisoners..
4. Sir John Bowring - (bass baritone) Governor of Hong Kong. Practically alone in insisting that British justice must be done and that even Chinese poisoners have a right to a fair trial. As popular with the Chinese community as he is unpopular with the foreign residents..
5. Cheung Ah-lum - (lyric baritone) The husband of Cheung Ahee; practical, guileless, profit-minded, interested only in his baking business and trying desperately to avoid trouble. But his world is quickly closing in on him..
6. Bakers/Poisoners - They may appear as naughty or sinister - but these are poisoners determined to rid their land of all "foreign devils." .
7. Sarah Avery - (alto) A Hong Kong version of a mem'sahib, desperate to keep up with the Joneses and willing to spend her husband's money to do so. Perpetually locked in a losing battle with her servants to determine who really runs the household.
8. Father - Father of the baker and a man afraid for both the future of his country and the fate of his family. Regardless of his personal feelings, he feels he has no choice but to obey the orders of the mandarin officials.
9. Wong Yong-sang - Brother of Cheung Ahee. A patriot willing to go to any lengths and to pay any price to drive the "barbarians" out of Hong Kong and out of China. When he cannot convince his sister to smuggle arsenic into Hong Kong he knows he must attempt to carry out the plan in her stead.
10 British policemen/sailors - Rowdies, ruffians, poorly educated men always ready to mistreat the one social class they feel is beneath them: the Chinese.
11 The Punkah-puller - A symbol of the silent Chinese masses: a man with no power; but the type of Chinese "everyman" who will survive imperious emperors, corrupt warlords and the latest invasion of "barbarians."
12 British residents of Hong Kong - Furious, frustrated and in some danger from Chinese "patriots." They seem at least as angry at Governor Bowring as they are at the "celestials." They may also double for the Avery's neighbor's, magistrates, jurors, etc.
13 Fortune Tellers - Avaricious, cynical, mysterious. They know all the secrets of the future or, at least, will be happy to invent some if their palms are crossed with taels of silver.
14 Various small character parts to be cast from the chorus.
The baker and his father being interrogated before the trial as illustrated by Baptista, an artist living in Hong Kong at the time. Please click on picture to enlarge.
In 1857 the town of Hong Kong on Hong Kong Island had been built along the harbour and was known as "Victoria." Across the harbour was Kowloon peninsula which, in 1857, still belonged to China. All action in the musical takes place in and around the town of Victoria.
1. Punkah puller; Chinese children; A Hong Kong street 2. Living quarters above a Hong Kong bakery's retail shop 3. Verandah of an Englishman's house 4. British Governor's residence (Government House) 5. Office behind a Hong Kong bakery's retail shop 6. Interior of an Englishman's house 7. Main Bakery - Spring Garden Lane 8. Hong Kong bakery's retail shop 9. The colorful lanes of Hong Kong 10 Guest room above Main Bakery - Spring Garden Lane 11 Billiard room of the Hong Kong Club 12 Guest room above Main Bakery - Spring Garden Lane 13 Office above a Hong Kong bakery's retail shop 14 A pier along the shore of Hong Kong Island 15 The streets of Hong Kong 16 Aboard a steamer in Hong Kong Harbour
1. A courtroom on Queen's Road, Victoria, Hong Kong 2. A Hong Kong street 3. Another Hong Kong street 4. The flower garden at Government House 5. Guest room above Main Bakery - Spring Garden Lane 6. Outside a prison; Government House; outside a prison 7. Inside a Chinese temple 8. Inside St. John's Cathedral 9. Inside Government House, Victoria, Hong Kong 10 An Englishman's house: Verandah, inside, outside 11 Peddar's Wharf beside Hong Kong Harbour; on board a boat
The bakery retail shop on Queen's Road & Aberdeen Street, closed by police. Please click on picture to enlarge
Fragrant Harbour was selected by the National Alliance for Musical Theater for a 42nd Street performance in New York. In addition to several New York City presentations, the musical was staged at Penn State University.
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Click here to read ACT ONE of the Musical