Many years ago, as a child, Stephen Au Kam-tong encountered a woman called Old Mary. On a recent afternoon in his studio in Ngau Tau Kok, Kowloon, the actor, writer and director describes their subsequent relationship. A few polystyrene rocks are scattered on the floor in front of us; he has been rehearsing his forthcoming production, The Ten Commandments , in which he will play Moses. It is a suitable backdrop for the genesis of another righteous story. “You know, more than four decades ago, I had the most terrifying experience for all children,” he begins. “I went to ... the dentist.” While he was waiting, he picked up the March 1973 Chinese edition of Reader’s Digest . In it was a feature by Christopher Lucas about Old Mary, described in the first paragraph as “the best-loved woman between Singapore and Yokohama”. Born in 1963, Au says he was always a fast reader. By the time he was called for “the torture” at the dental clinic, he had read the whole story. The headline in the original English edition, printed two months earlier, was “A modern-day morality tale from Hong Kong”. As that version puts it, “She may have been only a half-starved hawker but deep inside she felt that honesty paid.” It tells how Wong Po-lan, born in 1870 in Kityang (now Jieyang, part of Guangdong’s Chaoshan region), marries a gambler, has three sons, becomes skilled in embroidery and sells her wares locally until she hears about “the wondrous British colony called Hong Kong”. Relocating there in 1902, she begins to frequent Hong Kong’s ships, “another faceless hawker in a seething seaport of 700,000 people”. One morning in 1921, on board the US freighter SS Diana Dollar while she is surrounded by laughing sailors, a voice booms forth from on high. It belongs to “a big man with a thick white beard”. This is Robert Dollar, owner of the Dollar Line shipping company, standing on the bridge. He summons her. He takes a shine. He suggests she call herself Mary. She agrees. Just as she is leaving the ship, Mary spots a lady’s handbag, filled with jewellery. For a second, she hesitates. “Then she resisted the impossible dream,” writes Lucas. “It was not right, she told herself. She must return the jewels.” Not only that, she even refuses the HK$500 reward. Old Man Dollar asks her what she wants. Mary says she would like a pass to board his ships. Dollar is touched: “I’ll not only give you a pass – I’ll give you a pass for life!” As a result, Mary comes to know hundreds of American seamen. She begins to sell on credit. The article says that word gets out in Asia’s ports that Mary will help any sailor in trouble. “Yet Mary was no patsy.” She does not charge interest but she knows that grateful sailors like to add a little bonus. Her savings increase. On December 7, 1941, Hawaii’s Pearl Harbour is bombed by Japan and war ensues. Mary loses her money. She flees back to her village with a pile of IOUs. Starvation looms. Her youngest son is sent to Hong Kong to hawk some merchandise. In the street, he bumps into Jingles, a United States Navy petty officer. Lucas writes that “he’d been interned in a civilians’ camp by mistake and was sometimes allowed out for a stroll”. Jingles, hearing about the IOUs, offers a solution: “She must write to America!” The generation of foundlings seeking answers in Hong Kong With the help of the US Flying Tigers, based in China’s wartime capital of Chungking, Mary’s letter makes it to San Francisco. “It was a miracle, yet there was more to come.” Money floods in, sometimes with scribbled notes – “Hang on, Old Mary” – attached. Tentatively, even before the war ends, she begins to buy property “in what was then the ghost-town of Hong Kong”. A new generation of sailors comes to rely on Old Mary. Eventually, she builds a furniture factory in Lai Chi Kok and buys shops and office blocks in Kowloon. “I found it encouraging,” says Au of the story. For years, the tale of Old Mary lingered in Au’s head, next to Bruce Lee, who had been an influence since Au had seen his first Lee film, aged eight. Au’s film What Are You Gonna Do Now, Sai Fung? imagines Bruce Lee’s life in 1959 Hong Kong just before he moved to the US; while that film was released in 1997 (in 1999 internationally), it took him a little longer to conjure up Old Mary’s creative homage. He aired the possibility of doing a short film about her to the Hong Kong Arts Centre in the 1990s, but admits this was “just seed planting”. He also mentioned her to Deanie Ip Tak-han, who won best actress at the Venice film festival for her role in A Simple Life (2011). “She didn’t know about Old Mary,” says Au. “Nobody knows about Old Mary in Hong Kong, except Chiu Chow people.” Meanwhile, in 2010, having worked at both ATV and TVB, Hong Kong’s then terrestrial broadcasters, Au set up Theatre Dojo with his wife, actress Phyllis Man. Since then, they have performed plays featuring such diverse characters as Japanese samurai, Joan of Arc and Frankenstein. Au, who is Christian, likes to focus on a character’s struggle to find truth and goodness. In 2017, when he presented his three-year plan to the Sheung Wan Civic Centre – Theatre Dojo’s venue partner – he included a project about Old Mary. And he knew it had to be a musical. It is true that the combination of a character called Jingles and a benevolent father figure named Dollar – an echo, surely, of Annie’s Daddy Warbucks – suggests song and dance. But Au offers different reasons. “Very simple,” he says. “I love musicals. And secondly, nobody knows about this old lady but when you read the full story, the structure is kind of a hero’s journey. She failed, she got dumped and bullied, but because of her decent character she got help and success. So to me it’s similar to The Wizard of Oz . It’s the same path.” The plan was approved. The Sheung Wan Civic Centre put up a large outdoor banner announcing its forthcoming attractions. Hong Kong Old Mary would take to the stage in February 2020. Au began to write the plot and lyrics. Did he do much research? “That. Is. The. Problem,” he states slowly. (Au’s taste for the theatrical extends to drama about the drama.) “It’s been more than four decades and I forgot all the details. I didn’t even remember when Old Mary came to Hong Kong. Whenever I typed ‘Old Mary’ and googled it, I got nothing – nothing! Even when I type ‘Reader’s Digest’ – nothing.” The musical would have to be an imaginative feat. And then, one memorable day in 2019, he received a phone call. Someone, having seen the banner, had told Old Mary’s family that their relative’s life was about to be turned into a musical. Naturally, they were curious. When she died in the Hong Kong Sanatorium, in 1972 – aged 101, according to the Reader’s Digest , 102 according to the South China Morning Post and 105 according to some of the Chinese newspapers – Old Mary left 26 grandchildren, 30 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandson (according to the Reader’s Digest ); or 25 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren (according to the Post ). The family is not sure what the exact figures are, but on a wet June morning, three of Old Mary’s great-grandchildren have gathered in Mary Building, on Peking Road, in the heart of Tsim Sha Tsui. Those otherwise familiar with the area have probably passed it without noticing the name. (Delaney’s Irish pub is located in the basement; given that Ireland is a country filled with Marys and Marian shrines, this seems appropriate.) The office of Sing Shun, the family company that grew from the seeds Old Mary planted in her hawker days, is on the 10th floor. “ Sing shun ” means “genuine” or “honest”. Steven and Thomas Tse – who are twins and directors of Sing Shun – along with their first cousin, Vivian Leung, sit round a rosewood table made in their great-grandmother’s Lai Chi Kok factory. The trio share a grandfather: Old Mary’s youngest son, Jimmy Tse Sek-fui, the one who had bumped into Jingles during the war. They point to the Chinese characters of his name on the prolific family tree that accompanied Old Mary’s death announcement in Hong Kong newspaper Wah Kiu Yat Po , or Overseas Chinese Daily News , which “was very well known but went out of business, like Apple Daily ”, remarks Steven. (We happen to meet on the day Apple Daily ceases operations. Wah Kiu Yat Po closed in 1995.) It was Jimmy who cultivated the family’s post-war fortunes and became a prominent businessman. A portrait of him with his mother, artist unknown, hangs on the wall. On another wall is the name plaque – also made in the Lai Chi Kok factory – that was hung at the entrance when Mary Building opened, in 1964. The twins were brought up on the 9th floor of the building. Its namesake occasionally stayed when she was not at her bungalow in the New Territories but the two were five years old when she died so their memories are dim: a woman in a wheelchair who, as Steven says, “would yell our name and we would run to her and just have little conversations with her”. Leung, whose mother, Patsy, is Jimmy’s daughter, was born the year after Old Mary’s death. After they had heard the surprising news of Au’s proposed musical, however, it was as if Old Mary had suddenly been resurrected. The Tse brothers arranged a get-together with Au. “We started going through the articles, calling relatives, looking for photos,” says Steven Tse. On the rosewood table, there’s a copy of the January 1973 Reader’s Digest . This is the Bible of Mary’s backstory. Is there a written family history? “No, no,” Steven says. “Every time we go back to the Reader’s Digest .” Also on the table is the equivalent of an early scroll: a copy of American magazine The Saturday Evening Post from November 18, 1944. It reports on the arrival of the letter Old Mary sent from China to the Pacific Coast Marine Firemen, Oilers, Watertenders and Wipers Association (now the Marine Firemen’s Union), in San Francisco, asking if some of the pre-war credit she had extended could be repaid. The story’s subheading reads: “Merchant seamen, ahoy! The best-loved woman from Shanghai to Singapore is flying signals of distress.” In the article, some of these merchant seamen testify, anonymously, to her good character. “I guess you might say Hong Kong Mary was the best friend American seamen had in the Orient. If you got fouled up with the police, she’d be down to pull you out every time [...] Suppose you missed your boat, she’d take you right into her house that was all awash with children and grandchildren, with the smell of joss sticks and rice cooking over charcoal [...] Anything you set your mind on – a piece of jade or a canary or a Chinese chow – she’d either sell or changee-for-changee – you know, swap a camphor chest, say, for a groan box with American records.” The Saturday Evening Post reprints her letter for its readers. Although the original apparently “bears the earmarks of composition by the village scribe”, it is written in English. Whoever composed it in Mary’s name knew enough about 1940s America to include a helpful suggestion for return correspondence: “I am giving you my address in Chinese and I am sure that either your laundry man or chop-suey house owner will address the envelope for you.” The magazine publishes an undated, pre-war photo of Old Mary on the SS Kentucky , carrying what appears to be an armful of shirts. Alongside the skinny sailors, she looks unexpectedly solid – an upright, commanding woman. She really was remarkable. Dad was hardworking, he was a self-made person. They taught us to respect people, whatever they do Sophie Tse, Old Mary’s granddaughter The family’s photo album is testimony to how America’s merchant seamen paid back their debts. There are post-war black-and-white photos of Old Mary Sing Shun stores on Nathan Road, in Chungking Mansions and on Peking Road, and of an advertisement from 1963 for the Hong Kong Old Mary store in the new Sea Terminal Concourse (later Ocean Terminal) where the Dollar Line ships used to come in. Newspaper clippings show Mary having tea with colonial governor Sir Robert Black when he paid an official visit to the Lai Chi Kok factory in August 1958. (The late Prince Philip – who was, after all, a sailor and had been in Hong Kong in 1945 – is said to have inquired after Old Mary on his subsequent visit in 1959. He was met at Queen’s Pier by Black so the governor would have been able to give his personal assurance that, six months earlier, her business was flourishing.) In March 1966, when Old Mary is introduced to Princess Margaret – Queen Elizabeth’s sister (and Prince Philip’s sister-in-law) – on a visit to the Crown Colony, the headline in the South China Morning Post describes her as the “Grand Old Lady” of retailing. Still, you feel the slippery nature of history, how facts and figures and dates shift. Going through the photos, the cousins hesitate over even recent members. (“That’s not him – that’s Uncle Tony!”) After Old Mary’s death, Old Mary Sing Shun was renamed Sing Shun; the shops and the factory became part of a property portfolio. As time advances, the details of Wong Po-lan’s life recede. A single story emerges. “I think my grandfather could have answered your questions,” says Thomas Tse. “But for our generation it’s too long ago.” The oldest living member of the third generation is Sophie Tse Shui-fung – Jimmy’s eldest daughter – who was born in Hong Kong but has lived in San Francisco for most of her life. (During the 1970s, Sing Shun had property interests in that city.) “Grandma treated boys and girls equally,” she says, a sweet voice at the end of a phone, many time zones away. “She really was remarkable. Dad was hardworking, he was a self-made person. They taught us to respect people, whatever they do.” Did they ever talk about their early lives? “No, no, they never mentioned the hardship. I guess that’s the Chinese way ...” At the end, she says, “The family is so close, it’s a blessing. It helps, really it does, especially when you’re far away from home. Stay happy.” After Stephen Au had his meeting with the brothers, he remembers feeling “full of power”. He now had all the information he needed. He was most astonished, he says, to learn – or be reminded – that Mary had been born during the Qing dynasty. A month later, he sent the family the script. Because it is difficult having too many child actors on stage (“and it’s not easy to find good ones in Hong Kong”), he asked permission to dispense with one of Mary’s three sons. The family agreed. This meant that Old Mary – played by Phyllis Man – could strap a baby doll to her back, to represent young Jimmy, and only had to interact with one live child. The play was delayed by a year because of Covid-19. Eventually five performances, in Cantonese, took place in June. There was a prologue, set in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation. “People are hiding in a shelter, they’re arguing about their safety, their future, their struggle for life.” The narrator, played by Au, decides to tell them the uplifting story of Old Mary. As I did not have a chance to see the play, Au reads some of it out. While scrolling through his phone to find the script, he croons softly, “Where are you, Old Mary? Where are you?” – a good question. Tantalising scraps emerge, then vanish. Last autumn, a Captain Frederick Hoppe wrote to The Industrial History of Hong Kong website in response to its section on Sing Shun. He had met Old Mary when he was third mate on the SS Stella Lykes ; his captain had been a friend of hers from before World War II. She was “one of the most significant and wonderful people I’ve met in my life”. But he has not responded to emails. Anthony Poplawski, president of the Marine Firemen’s Union, sends a clipping from the Marine Firemen’s Reporter dated February 22, 1944. A letter, written on November 1, 1942, has finally arrived from China; Hong Kong Mary has also enclosed a photograph of hundreds of IOUs and, in case she has been forgotten, a small snap of herself. It would be a further nine months before The Saturday Evening Post ran its story, exactly two years after her letter was written, and changed her fortunes. You can imagine her in the village, waiting, waiting, waiting. Poplawski says he has no further information, “although I do know that many old-timers used to speak highly of her”. Perhaps the most personal depiction of Mary in her element is in My Pleasures and Palaces , a memoir written in 1968 by a Canadian architect called Harry Hussey. In January 1911, commissioned by the YMCA to assess building locations in Asia, he set sail from San Francisco for Japan, arriving in Hong Kong that July. (He would later design the YMCA building that still stands in Bridges Street, Central.) Although he had never heard of her before his arrival, Hussey was told that Mary, “the queen of Hong Kong harbour”, would meet him on arrival; and even though he was delayed by two days (China was seething with the revolution that would end the Qing dynasty a few months later), Mary was waiting for him. Hussey thought this might be evidence of the mysterious East at work until he learned she had been tipped off by a local pilot when his boat entered the harbour. “As I was the only first-class passenger who wasn’t an Old China Hand she claimed me for her own [...] a wave of her hand passed me through the local customs, another wave and I was in a rickshaw en route to the Hong Kong ferry.” Initially, Hussey rather resented the attention. Mary accompanied him to his hotel, met him at 8am the following morning, took him on board his boat for Manila, upgraded his room, arranged for him to sit at the captain’s table and would only take half the money he offered. By then, he was a convert. Later, he wrote of his “jealousy” when he saw another newcomer receive the same “elaborate” treatment. Earlier this year, the Hong Kong Museum of History, which is currently re-examining how it presents itself, approached Old Mary’s family. “They want personal stories about families in Hong Kong,” says Thomas Tse. “They don’t want to focus on the royal visit, stuff like that – it’s about how Old Mary was connected to Tsim Sha Tsui.” (The museum says that it has not yet finalised how it will present Old Mary’s story.) The family enjoyed the play, and Au believes the audience was deeply moved by its finale. “The narrator tells the people, ‘Mary will come back to Hong Kong because Hong Kong is her real home,’” he says. “We hear, a lot, the sound of tissue paper pulled from bags.” Perhaps the year’s delay in performance helped the mood. “You mean, it’s more appropriate in this period? Exactly!” When I ask him if Old Mary will live again on stage in the future, there’s a long pause. Au becomes emotional. Then he says, “I’m going to close down my theatre company this year. It’s not easy for me. That’s it.” His last play, Final Farewell To My Love , will be performed in September. It will not be a musical. Au plays Chinese revolutionary Lin Juemin, who wrote a famous letter to his wife before he was executed, in April 1911, just as Harry Hussey was making his way through China en route to Hong Kong and Old Mary. After that – it is history.