ANNIE HO NIM-CHEE is a woman of many faces. In supermarkets she is one of dozens of frenzied housewives fighting for fresh fish for dinner. At home, she is a mother dealing with her 18-month-old son's dirty nappies. At work, she is a clinical psychologist, normally dressed in a suit, who probes patients' minds. But on top of her hectic daily routine, Ho is also a comedian - one of the few female stand-up comics in Hong Kong.
The 35-year-old finds it difficult to manage her many identities. 'People - and even myself - expect me to be serious when I'm a clinical psychologist, whereas they expect a creative artist to be crazy,' she says. 'But we should be able to have multi-faceted personalities. This allows me to be both serious and mad,' adds the comedian, who uses the stage name Ho Ho - an imitation of the sound of laughter - to separate her serious and funny sides. 'I want to get the audience's attention and make them laugh,' says Ho, whose husband is well-known funny man and actor Cheung Tat-ming.
'My mission is to create original ideas and kill boredom in Hong Kong,' says Ho, who thinks local people are too conservative. Starting out in her theatre life as a playwright, Ho received a short-term fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council to study drama in New York and San Francisco in 1998. She returned home with an 'if-they-can-do-it-why-can't-I?' mentality and a desire to do comedy.
In 2001 she wrote and performed her debut show - A Woman's Stand-up Comedy: Miss No Fear - giving three performances at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. But that wasn't enough for Ho, who is soon to resume writing a column in Sing Tao Daily about women. While on maternity leave in February last year, Ho started writing and directing a sequel, All Against Men, which she performed to more than 1,000 people over four shows at the Sha Tin City Hall last month. Excerpts from the two Cantonese shows and her newspaper column also have been turned into a book, All Against Men.
Ho has taken on one of entertainment's most difficult tasks - making people laugh for an hour. 'I was attracted to it because of its difficulties,' she says. 'If I was doing drama, I would be protected as I would be only acting a role. As a stand-up comic, I'm opening myself to the audience. It is a challenge and a gift to interact with the audience and let them know my outlook on the world.'
She's happy to bare her soul and pokes fun at the aggressive and darker side of women, tackling taboo subjects such as sex, menstruation and one-night stands. 'I'd like to talk about something people are not so willing to talk about,' she says. 'Let's face the truth. Hong Kong women are so shy about sex and they have no sex training or learning opportunities. Despite suffering from the slimming craze and a desire for bigger breasts, they are reluctant to speak about their feelings and so I'll speak for them. Women are not ready to reveal all their feelings. It is because social expectations have made them act like tame cats. They are oriental virgins under western skin.'
In her latest stage performance, she donned a wig and Chinese prisoner's clothes and spoke to a judge in hell as a woman who had killed her husband and made him into congee.
'Aggression can take various forms - from verbal attacks to physical violence,' says Ho. 'For example, most serial killers appear to be men, but women can be just as violent, say as poisoners. My sensitivity to the dark side of human beings, such as depression, dishonesty and aggression, as a psychologist helps me as a comedian.'
Ho says her comedy career was not influenced by her husband, although she does watch his shows for pointers.
'Many male comedians are really good. But is humour the privilege of men? Can't women be humorous too?' asks Ho. This theme of equality appears in her work too. In her book, her main character says: 'The biggest secret to a stable relationship is for couples to develop common interests. Oh yes, both of us want to fool around.'
Colleagues, friends and even her mother have been shocked by her willingness to embrace controversial subjects and surprised by her ability to get people to laugh. 'How do I compare with other female stand-up comedians? I can't compete with them because they have been working in showbiz for so long. I'm just an alternative to them.'
To compensate for her lack of stage experience, Ho applies her psychology training to manage stress and anxiety to get her through shows. 'I don't get stage fright, but I worry about forgetting lines and falling off the stage. What if audiences don't laugh, what should I do?'
While considering her performances barely passable, she is developing a following. 'I knew she wasn't from showbiz, but her performance was very natural,' says 70-year-old contract actor Winson Tang Wing-sun. 'Her gestures were so much like her husband's. It's a pity that the show was so short. More sarcasm would have been even better.'
Samantha Yip Lai-chuen, a student in the University of Hong Kong's social work and social administration department, thought Ho provided some sharp insights into women's issues. 'Unlike other shows that focus on social issues, Ho's performance was more on day-to-day issues,' she says.
Ho's husband seems more critical. 'She is definitely not a born talent,' says Cheung, adding that Ho is no threat to his livelihood. 'But in many ways she is better than actors because she is being herself rather than acting a role. She is very natural and confident and earns a B-plus as a freshman in stand-up comedy.'
Not everyone agrees with what Ho does. Some people question why she spends so much time doing something that doesn't make money, while others think she should be at home looking after her son.
'I am like a tightrope walker. I worry about my [psychology] clients not coming to me because they think I'm not serious enough.' Ho smiles. 'But creative works - a painful yet satisfying process - are what I like and I have to bear whatever consequences arise.'
Ho doesn't see much room for development in stand-up comedy in Hong Kong. 'You can't make a living being a full-time comedian here,' says Ho, who suffered losses on both her shows. Her lust for laughs remains undiminished and she is planning a third show in 2005.
Even if comedy began to pay, says Ho, she would not give up her day job. Comedy, like psychology, fulfils her needs. 'I'm getting to understand about human nature and myself. I am also growing in confidence,' she says.
'And more importantly, I can test if my audiences share my empathy to life. I feel I'm achieving something on stage ... more than just getting giggles from the audience.'