Under their jackboots

Chris Lau

Two Hong Kong artists want you to rethink your life by pondering war

Chris Lau |

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(From left) Actors Michele Chung, Anthony Wong Wai-keung and Janet Tam during a rehearsal for WWII.
A woman wearing a military uniform shouts: "Don't treat them so nice. They are just captives!"

This is not in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria. Rather, it's a mirror-lined studio on the eighth floor of Shek Kip Mei's Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre. And it's a rehearsal of WWII, a play directed by Michele Chung Lai-kwan and Janet Tam Mei-hing, two actors and founders of theatre group La La Team.

Their play revisits the war from women's perspectives. It features four interlinking short stories with different settings - from the Sino-Japanese conflict to a Nazi concentration camp.

WWII is no ordinary play. It seeks to recreate the tragedy and emotional drama of the conflict.

The idea is to hold the audience captive - literally. They will be escorted to their seats by "soldiers" in uniform and asked to remove their shoes.

"We want our audience to get involved," Chung says.

Chung is an American-born Chinese whose views on peace were reshaped by the 9/11 terror attacks.

Tam, in turn, was born on July 7, the anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, which sparked the Sino-Japanese war of 1937. "[The second world war] isn't that far away from us," Tam says. "But many people are indifferent to both history and what goes on in the world today."

Women are usually the victims of war, but most of us don't know about their suffering.

Chung and Tam think that is precisely why their story needs to be told.

Chung's grandmother lived through the second world war, and she used to tell Chung about her experiences. That made Chung realise the lasting influence of war on women.

"My grandma told me that if she'd known the war was going to end soon, she would have thought more about marrying my grandfather," she says.

During the war, Chung says, women tried to get married as early as possible for safety and protection. In wartime, she adds, women are seen as the producers of future soldiers. "War means death, but women signify birth," Chung says.

While doing research for their show, Chung and Tam visited Auschwitz, the former Nazi death camp in Poland. "We saw a closet with chunks of hair," Chung recalls. "Some of the hair had been woven into garments."

The hair had been trimmed off Jewish women in the camp. That closet full of hair became a centrepiece of one of the four stories in their show.

The two actors see the play as a chance to rethink the definition of war.

"Everyone thinks we live in a relatively safe era," Chung says. But she doesn't think it's true.

"We may not go around shooting people with guns," she says.

"But many people are fighting their own little wars."

The show was at first meant to be about world peace. But halfway into the preparation process, the duo realised that peace can't exist without some sort of war.

Although they don't have a definite answer, they hope the audience will walk out of the theatre with a new question.

"Just one question," Chung stresses. "Any question that will make them ponder their lives."

WWII will be performed in English on April 19 at Black Box Theatre, Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre. The show starts at 7.45pm. Visit lalateamhk.weebly.com for more information