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My life: Joanna Chan

The playwright, director and nun speaks to Oliver Chou about falling in love and the rewards of helping sinners

 

COURAGE UNDER FIRE I was born into an intellectual family in Fanling, in the New Territories. My father was a graduate of Peiping (now Beijing) Yanching University, specialising in agriculture. He took a picture of me as an infant lying next to the tomatoes he experimented with, using imported seeds. There was also one of me as a toddler among Leghorn chickens. Before I had turned 10, my parents had lost everything - twice. First was our Fanling farm falling to the Japanese invasion, in 1941. We moved to Guangzhou, and rebuilt our family (life) there. But we lost everything again in 1949, in the regime change. My parents were then in their 20s, living in tumultuous times with a family to feed, but never uttered a single word of complaint. Their model of bravery and courage has affected my entire life.

A-GRADE REBEL After we relocated back to Hong Kong, I enrolled in Tack Ching Girls' Secondary School. I did quite well and scored No1 in class every year. Writing was my favourite subject, so I chose arts instead of science as my major in the senior form. The decision shocked both the principal and my family because all good students took science by default in those days. That is why I chose mathematics as my major at Hong Kong Chinese University. Though I graduated in math, I did not give up writing. Once I contributed three short stories to the Kung Sheung Yat Po (newspaper) and got a HK$87.50 writing fee for each - not a small amount in those days. One of the stories was about a young girl killing her father, a subject definitely not suitable for children. I had no idea where I got that story from; perhaps it was some kind of teenager's fantasy.

THE NUN'S STORY Aside from writing, I studied painting with Hon Chi-fun, one of the leading modern masters, thanks to a university classmate: his sister. I studied under him for seven years. He harboured high hopes towards the second student he had ever recruited. But I gave it all up and joined the Maryknoll convent and became a sister. I think my decision had something to do with The Nun's Story, a movie starring Audrey Hepburn as a nun showing her vow to God by sacrificing what she loved most. But the true reason is that I had fallen in love with Jesus. With him as a soul mate, I have had no excuse not to treasure anyone who comes into contact with me. That's what has been behind me in the following 50 years of my life.

Despite the huge shock dealt to my family, I left for three years of training at the Maryknoll novitiate in the Philippines. After that I was sent to help with new immigrants, first in Chicago then New York. There was no e-mail in those days and I spent a year's savings on long-distance phone calls, which were US$12 for three minutes, just enough for a few words to my parents and my four siblings. I don't think I ever overcame the strain between me and my family over my decision, at least for 20 or 30 years.

MAKING ENDS MEET It was at Columbia University, in New York, that I finished my doctorate degree in theatre and communication. Shortly after that, Hong Kong Cardinal John Baptist Wu (Cheng-chung) invited me to return, to set up the Diocesan audio-visual centre. That is where my math training became evident. There, not a penny of deficit was registered. That was also true with the art groups I founded and led in New York (Four Seas Players and the Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America) and Hong Kong. No one believed I was also an artist, who are generally believed, though erroneously, to be not so organised and logical. So I am grateful to my parents and teachers for their insistence in my science training.

I gradually turned professional in the theatrical arts, first as a guest playwright and then guest director, and finally I became artistic director of the Hong Kong Repertory, in 1986.

SING SING'S SINNERS During all the years of my theatrical work, including commissioning new plays, taking the troupe to China and America and presenting productions at major arts festivals, I did not see its connection with my faith until 2001. It was the year when 9/11 took place. I was travelling to Tibet via Myanmar and the plane was so low I saw all these beautiful woods. As I was turning 60 soon, I asked myself, "Why wait?"

Shortly after I returned to New York, I came across a small story in a local newspaper I seldom read. It was about a "rehab through the arts" programme and a play it produced at Sing Sing maximum-security prison. So I wrote to the prison, offering my 30 years of experience in theatrical arts. After six months, the programme's founder, a white lady, came to interview me for four hours. She was reluctant to accept my offer because I was a woman, an Asian and a nun, and it was too risky to confront an all-male prison of murderers and arsonists. I made it there nevertheless, on a probation basis, every Tuesday night. The inmates at first addressed me as Ms Chan, but now everyone calls me Grandmama. Of late, I have been teaching them Chinese and they are due to recite Su Dongpo's famous poem Red Cliff, which they became familiar with through the John Woo movie (of the same name). My fondest memory of Sing Sing was helping an inmate, who had served 11 years of a 25-year prison term on a murder charge, to be proved innocent and released.

A BIG ASK In my scripts, I raise questions, instead of imparting messages. My latest production, on the Soong sisters, for example, inquires into how an ancient culture tried to find a place in the modern world; whether ordinary people have a responsibility in the emergence of tyranny; why the United States - as much as it did in Nicaragua, the Philippines and Iran - has always ended up supporting the wrong government; and the conversion of China, which was the hope and dream of many churches, including the Maryknoll, which was founded for China, and why it failed.

 

Joanna Chan will direct the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre's The Soongs: By Dreams Betrayed, performed in Cantonese with English subtitles, at the Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, from today until Wednesday, at 7.45pm (and a 2.45pm performance today). For inquiries, call 3103 5900.

 

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