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A Lifelong Devotion: Wong May Lan

Words / Huang Suhuai (Interview)Translate / Wei Shimin

Teacher Wong May Lan was born in Hong Kong in the 1950s. She mentions her memories of watching Cantonese opera as sparking off her journey in theatre. At that time, opera in Hong Kong was performed in tents upon empty spaces, and one ticket entitled entry for an adult with a child. Hence, she would tag along with her mother. Her theatrical ideals began from here.

Later on, May Lan participated in her very first theatre production as a student in girls’ school True Light Middle School. At that time, there was a P.E. Teacher Zhu, who was also a member of the amateur theatre group of Anglo-Chinese Society. As he was familiar with the stage, Teacher Zhu was appointed by the school to organise the annual graduation ceremony. He brought the secondary five students together to rehearse for a graduation performance, and held basic makeup lessons for the students. As a secondary five student, May Lan did not have the chance to perform, but was in charge of the “sweeper” role. In between afternoon rehearsal and night performance, she would sweep the venue clean. She recalls standing on the empty stage, and gazing at the projected moon upon the screen (in the age of low  technology, this was already considered a remarkable special effect). She would think to herself how beautiful it was, and this sprouted her seeds of passion for theatre. She still clearly retains this vision in her memory till this date.

However, she only started acting in a passive manner. After graduation, a friend invited her to join the theatre group at YWCA (Hong Kong Young Women’s Christian Association), but she hesitated and said that she didn’t know how to act. Unexpectedly, her friend retorted that someone as talkative as her should be good at acting, hence she was tickled and decided to give it a go. Learning and performing at the same time, without any particular training foundation, she became an actor. May Lan laughs and says that she would always take on grandmother roles due to her low-pitched voice.

Kuo Pao Kun once wrote: “In the 1970s, drama in Hong Kong was infused with two types of new energies. One came from the grassroots, sprouting from the theatre workers of the youth student movement. Another was the elites who studied overseas and brought back their professional expertise from Europe and America.” May Lan started upon her professional theatre journey amid these two energies.

In 1975, the Hong Kong Urban Council organised a “Cao Yu Theatre Festival”, bringing together 24 local theatre groups, with the objective of recruiting members to set up the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre. Thereafter, the Urban Council also held a series of theatre training courses, which May Lan registered for. At that time, May Lan was working in a bank, and checking invoices on a daily basis. That was her one and only job that had nothing to do with theatre. As she was concurrently attending theatre activities, she had to run back and forth in between the office and training venue. Later on, Hong Kong Repertory Theatre was founded, and it advertised for 10 full-time actors. May Lan started to seriously consider not having to rush from work, and take on a full-time acting position instead. She applied for the job, and due to her numerous performing experiences, she successfully entered Hong Kong Repertory Theatre as its pioneer batch. Due to the official bearing of Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, it received government subsidies, and thus provided well for its members.

In 1979, the British Council set up the Anglo-Chinese Theatre Group. As the group’s artistic director and performing artistes were all from England, they auditioned for local talents in the hope of developing a bilingual company. The artistic director at that time was the director of the translated version of Romeo and Juliet for Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, and got to know May Lan. Hence, Anglo-Chinese Theatre Group obtained a six-month loan for May Lan and another male actor from Hong Kong Repertory Theatre. After that half-year, Anglo-Chinese Theatre Group requested for May Lan to stay on full-time.

May Lan later mentioned that the philosophy and training methods of Anglo-Chinese Theatre Group complemented her own ideals towards theatre, and thus had a deep impact upon the rest of her career. Firstly, Anglo-Chinese Theatre Group’s use of games as a form of body movement training very well suited her character. Besides that, she was also taken by the group’s passion and emphasis on theatre education. In order to further her learning, she decided to join the group once she completed her contract with Hong Kong Repertory Theatre. She recalls that at that time, the group would have two English and one Chinese touring shows in schools every year. As there were not enough local and experienced actors, the group had to employ part-time actors and also rely on its full-time actors from England to take on various small roles. At times, even the musician had to chip in onstage for a scene. This method of cooperative team work was something that May Lan treasured. The school tours at that time mostly comprised classic works by Shakespeare, or translated Western classics that were then performed in Cantonese. During those years, May Lan completed her transition from actor to director. When she started to direct, she found it difficult to transform back into an actor, as she would view the play from a director’s perspective. Hence, she gradually relinquished the role of an actor.   

In 1984, Kuo Pao Kun, the then-director of Singapore Practice Performing Arts School, attended the Hong Kong Arts Festival with a team of people. In regards to the festival, Kuo Pao Kun wrote: “While Singaporeans have discussions on how we now have the spare time and money to focus on the arts, Hong Kong has already dedicated hundreds of millions in igniting the arts, despite the heavy financial gloom and instability of the country’s economy.”

It was amid the fervour of this very festival that Kuo Pao Kun met May Lan for the first time. May Lan recalls that she was rehearsing for the children play, Legacy of the Dragon, and experimenting with a playful movement, just like how everyone was still within the exploration stage. She felt uncomfortable as the team from Singapore observed them.

In an article by Kuo Pao Kun, he wrote on his impressions of the actors of Anglo-Chinese Theatre Group – “how young they are, that is my impression upon coming face to face with them”. He also watched a school performance, Mystery of the Stars, an English children’s play directed by Colin George from England. This piece was adapted from a legend of China’s Miao tribe. Although it was presented in the English style of farce, it retained Chinese flavours such as ribbons and painted opera masks. Kuo Pao Kun mentioned that assistant playwright/director May Lan also had a hand in putting together such a piece.

Kuo Pao Kun also wrote that for plays in Singapore’s English schools, there was an emphasis on the Westernised effect, and emulation of the Western “demeanour” and performing style. For Anglo-Chinese Theatre Group, however, especially in their rendition of children’s play Little Children, there was a strong Chinese flavour to it – despite it being written/directed by an Englishman.

Although there was not much interaction, Kuo Pao Kun retained a favourable impression of May Lan. Hence, he later invited May Lan to come to Singapore to organise a workshop for students. During that two-day-one-night workshop at Sentosa, they were casually chatting while waiting for the students to have their meal and go swimming. Kuo Pao Kun proposed the idea of her working in Singapore, and this proposal greatly attracted May Lan. Kuo Pao Kun honestly admitted, however, that he could only afford to employ her when “they had money”. 

May Lan did not immediately come to Singapore, however, she had an another invaluable opportunity to work overseas. She secured a 13-month contract to direct and train with Resister Theatre Group in England. She became involved in organising productions, school and community touring performances, thus increasing exposure of Chinese culture. She also taught drama lessons to first- and second-generation children of immigrants, inculcating life and cultural philosophies through theatre. She felt a deep respect for the local social workers, who gave their all for the education of Chinese people from all over the world. At that time, the non-profit organisations in Chinatown held a “Walk for A Million” fundraising event in aid of their relocation, and she invited famous Cantonese film star Mr. Cho Tat-wah to help raise funds. With his star-studded support, the event managed to raise a total of 100,000 pounds.

With her contract in England coming to an end soon, May Lan started to consider her next step. She thought of Singapore, and contacted Kuo Pao Kun. The latter immediately offered her a job and prepared for her to come over. May Lan made a brief stopover in Hong Kong to drop off her winter clothes and pack for warm days, and flew to Singapore in 1991. Thereafter for the next 20-odd years till the present, she has been steadily cultivating her profession upon this land.

A few years after May Lan arrived, the Practice Theatre Ensemble introduced the “Student Theatre Exposure Project” helmed by May Lan. Till this date, she is still tirelessly giving her all for drama education and curriculum design. When asked if she felt any difference upon her initial arrival in Singapore, she frankly admits that as the theatre industry in Singapore was in a relative stage of infancy as compared to Hong Kong, and there was not much demand from schools and audiences for productions, this gave her the chance to “go slow”. At that time, she would be rehearsing for school shows with a few full-time actors, and they had “sufficient” time for creation and bonding.

When asked for her opinions on the current state of drama education, May Lan feels that students’ perspectives are influenced by various factors – their teachers, the number of performances watched, their likes and dislikes, ability to absorb and understand, etc. She believes that teachers and students should not be overly competitive and neglect the learning process, as this would reduce the inspirational impact and influence of drama education.

Besides teaching and managing school shows, May Lan has also directed numerous productions in Singapore, such as The Legend of Giants, The Soldier and his Virtuous Wife, Where Love Abides, Love A La Zen, Women Play: Lights Up, etc. She says that she honestly loves both directing and teaching, however, she is unable to multi-task both at the same time, as it would divert her energy.

If she had not been in theatre, May Lan says that she would have chosen to become a social worker. She recalls the period when she was teaching at Shenzhen University, and her student remarkably transformed from a repressive state to that of being self-confident. She attributes it to her social work methods.

May Lan says that she was lucky in being able to embark upon and grow together with the then-nascent theatre industry. If she had been born instead among the present generation that requires fierce initiative to fight for opportunities, her passive character might have resulted in her not joining the industry.

When asked if she regrets devoting her whole life to theatre, May Lan says she does not. She says: “Although I have not been very, very successful, however, I have been successful at times, and challenged at times. Is this not what life is all about?”

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(Cover picture: May Lan was directing The Soldier & his Virtuous Wife in 2008)

(Picture at the bottom: Student Theatre Exposure Project was established in 1994)

arrow  Continue reading on Issue 6 / March 2015:Living in the Present, Not Forgetting the Past