SCMP 48 Hours
If you want to learn about Hong Kong’s “Lion Rock Spirit” — local slang for a can-do spirit — go see the theatre production The Amahs.
Showing in the 43rd Hong Kong Arts Festival, this drama follows the lives of three women who came from rural China in the 1950s to live and work in the city as housemaids.
Vowing not to marry, and pledging their lives to each other, the three experienced the ups and downs of life together, witnessing Hong Kong emerge from postwar poverty, then the economic boom of the ’70s.
“To my mind, our heroines were brave pioneer women who were ahead of their time. They bonded with each other to declare and celebrate their independence from men, financially or emotionally,” says Roger Lee Yan-lam, one of the writers.
“Although they were destined to be illiterate due to the gender discrimination of that time, they worked hard every day to compensate for their disadvantages,” Lee adds.
Lee also is the writer and producer of Ann Hui On-wah’s critically acclaimed film A Simple Life (2011), which was based on his relationship with his amah.
Although the movie went on to become the most celebrated Hong Kong film in years — with Deanie Ip Tak-han winning the Volpi Cup for best actress at the 68th Venice International Film Festival — Lee says he still wanted the story to be told on stage.
During his research, Lee chatted with 30 retired housemaids in their 80s and 90s.
Playwright Roger Lee with real-life amahs.
“I admire them. Most of their stories are remarkable,” says Lee. “They chose not to marry as they needed to concentrate on earning money to support their families in China. They came to Hong Kong by themselves, and by working hard and continually improving themselves, made their own world here.”
Lee showed his story treatment to stage scriptwriter Wong Wing-sze, who helped him turn it into a full script. After reading the finished item, Roy Szeto enthusiastically agreed to direct the production.
“From then on, everything else just fell into place like a jigsaw puzzle. That included putting together our dream cast and our elite production team,” says Lee, smiling. That dream cast features veterans Alice Lau Nga-lai, Louisa So Yuk-Wa, Pang Hang-ying and Shirley Tsoi Wan-wah.
“When I first saw the script, I had a great respect for these strong women. I admired them,” says Szeto. “Their stories of courage and selflessness should be shared with more people.”
Commissioned and produced by the Hong Kong Arts Festival (HKAF), the production sold out more than two months before it takes to the stage.
So Kwok-wan, associate programme director of HKAF, believes that is due to the drama being “very meaningful” and starring well-known actresses with great acting skills.
“Most Hong Kong people nowadays only know about Filipino and Indonesian maids. They don’t know that, in the past, there was a group of Chinese women who made their living by being stay-at-home maids,” says So.
“With most of the amahs now in their 80s and 90s, they are a disappearing group. This drama pays tribute to them.”