Readers of this blog may wonder why my writing seems to have slowed down recently, producing only two reviews of the same Cantonese opera performance last month. Some may think I haven't been to the theatre as frequently as I used to. Quite the contrary. In January I watched four Cantonese opera, plus two Kunqu opera shows. But it takes longer than usual to decide whether there is anything meaningful to write about, and even longer to complete the task. In fact, the performance I blogged about last month debuted before Christmas, but I had to spend more than a month to gather my thoughts, pick an end from a messed bunch of yarn and navigate my way out of the confusion and puzzlement.
Simply put, I am stuck in a bottleneck of writing.
At the first glance, there are at least two conspicuous symptoms.
For one thing, old tricks are running out, if already exhausted, and new ones have yet to arrive. I found myself repeating the same rhetoric, or adopting more or less the same approach when I started off some years ago. Not sure if Doraemon's inexhaustible pocket of wonders could offer any help, but I am not Nobi anyway. And don't forget that Doraemon has already retired to eternal peace.
Certainly it is not at all a problem to repeat truly important messages on different occasions. Consistent repetition sometimes does help amplify the messages, ensuring that they are clearly heard, seen and understood. But for the reviewer – and that's me – the intellectual challenge of coming up with new angles to discuss a performance has become more daunting than ever. Even though I receive from blogging next to nothing other than an opportunity to connect with people with similar interests, I do feel obliged to offer something interesting and worthwhile, if new, to my readers, however few there are.
The second problem, however, seems more crucial – the perceived freedom of writing as I please seems shrinking.
Apparently the first signal of diminishing freedom came with the malicious and unfounded attacks last year. Probably because I had written something blunt and unpleasant for some a couple of years ago, I was, and still am, mistaken as someone whom I never met and have no idea of whatsoever. As a result, I have been condemned as an insane woman who takes pleasure in spreading rumours, insulting people with slurs and smears. My personal details were thus publicised. By coincidence, at least hopefully so, someone whom I never met or heard of found my office address and wrote me letters shortly afterwards. He even came to a public event organised by my employer, demanding to meet me in person but for no reason. That was utterly scary. Really scary.
The second signal appeared when I came to know that some of my criticisms of individual actor or actress in a particular performance had been misread as mischievous personal attacks, rather than honest and well-intentioned feedback, though blunt and harsh at times, meant to spur improvements. To a certain extent, I suspect, such misunderstanding may just provide new ammunition to the defamatory attacks. Not that I give a damn to what those actors and actresses might think, but a very good friend of mine did make a fair point in our recent discussion: When so many people out there have been blinded and intoxicated by blandishments, my honesty is doing little, if any at all, to change the art scene for good but exposing myself to unwanted troubles. Where flattery is regarded as truth, genuine truth can only be banished as unfounded criticisms with ulterior, evil motives. Just like The Emperor's New Clothes, no one knows exactly what would happen to the little child after he pinpoints the naked stupidity of the despot. In retrospect, there is more than a grain of wisdom in my friend's analysis.
So, what next?
The key question is how I can better protect myself from all those ferocious abuses without giving up writing, which is not at all a bad option as a matter of fact. Stop blogging would spare me so many troubles in this troubled world, where speaking up one's mind often invites physical and mental hazards, as we have seen not only in my case but the horrendous attack at Charlie Hebdo. It will also save me considerable time and effort in order to focus on something else in peace of mind.
While quitting has not been ruled out as a possibility, another voice in my brain protests that there is no reason whatsoever should I surrender my freedom and legitimate rights to such intimidation. Very true indeed, but the risks of writing as I please now seem too immense to be ignored. I am just an ordinary person, so it happens to be a devoted fan of Chinese opera, who wants to help make it better and promote it to a wider audience as far as my capabilities permit. But I am not prepared to do so at the expense of my own dignity, privacy, safety and legal rights. Naturally, the solution lies in the content, which means what I publish and what not. Perhaps it is time for me to re-think the scope of critique, mindful of what I want to achieve by sharing my two cents worth in the first place, and how my personal interests can be best protected if I opt to continue exercising the freedom of speech.
Is it self-censorship? Certainly, because censorship means removing offensive content from creative works before they are broadcast or published, however "offensiveness" may be defined. This inquiry is precisely meant to identify areas on which candid comments are likely to backfire. But what is the better alternative of protecting myself while upholding my freedom and rights? Do I have the time, resources and intellectual power to deal with any abuse or attack that may arise?
Am I thinking too much? Indeed, and this seems a natural instinct by birth. Am I taking those unworthy people too seriously? Perhaps so, but again there seems no better way of self-protection in this increasingly savage world.
It is sad, isn't it? But it is the reality from which we have no escape.