Review: The Amahs' disjointed storytelling lets down this marathon tearjerker
The title of this new Hong Kong Arts Festival commission refers to a generation of women who, because of the decline of the handmade silk industry in Shunde, left Guangdong Province in the 1930s and 40s to become housemaids all over Southeast Asia. Most vowed not to get married and devoted their lives to serving their employer’s family.
Co-written by film producer Roger Lee Yan-lam and playwright Wong Wing-sze, and directed by Roy Szeto, The Amahs revolves around three housemaids (also called ma jeh in Cantonese) who became “sworn sisters” after a chance meeting in 1953. Partly inspired by Lee’s own story of the ma jeh who brought him up (which was made into the 2011 movie A Simple Life directed by Ann Hui), the drama sets out to explore the world of these housemaids and some of their back stories.
The extensive research that went into this production is reflected in their accurate portrayal of these women – all the way down to their mannerism and accents. Though most were uneducated, these amahs excelled in their jobs, whether it’s cooking, sewing, housekeeping or looking after children. These were loyal, hard-working and stoic servants. They also looked out for one another and would do whatever they could to help friends and their employers in times of crisis.
Veteran stage actresses Alice Lau Nga-lai, Louisa So Yuk-Wa and Pang Hang-ying all gave strong performances, bringing both colour and dimension to their characters. Lau as the feisty and fierce big sister Kim, Pang as the happy-go-lucky Ho, and So the beautiful yet naïve Lan.
However, the overall storytelling of this drama is weak, if not disjointed at times. Much of the narrative is focused on the tragic Lan who despite her celibacy vow got married after getting pregnant by her employer’s driver. Then she had a number of miscarriages. And when she finally became a mother (at 40), she discovered her husband was cheating on her and had another child in Macau. And as if that was not bad enough, she had cancer. After intermission, this 2.5-hour play very quickly descended into one melodramatic tearjerker.
Lan’s grown-up daughter Kimmy (played by Shirley Tsoi Wan-wah) also needs to be fleshed out properly. With her drifting in and out of the story like a lost ghost, her character seems more like an afterthought than the story’s narrator, which she is supposed to be.
Theatre, Hong Kong City Hall. Until March 15