Eighty years-old and still going strong, Lily Leung Seun-yin never tires of acting
By Hilda Lee
Immaculately dressed in a trouser suit, accessorised with a gold tulip brooch and matching earrings, Lily Leung Suen-yin greets Varsity with a friendly smile and perfect poise. Looking at her radiant face, nobody would guess that she had worked until 4 a.m. that morning.
The 80-year-old veteran actress has been in show business since 1957. Her career-defining role as a wealthy and haughty woman known as the “Upper Class Person” in the hit 1990s TV sitcom, A Kindred Spirit, is deeply etched into people’s memories. Even now, she still catches the attention of most passers-by in the street.
But the role is just one of the great achievements in Leung’s 56-year career. Leung has been on TV for almost as long as TV has been in Hong Kong. In that time, she has marked many major milestones.
She was named “the first lady of television in Hong Kong” because she was a voice actress in the first TV programme, Puppet Family, a children’s programme. She was one of the first actresses to act in a TV drama, one of the first news anchors, a host of the first variety show, and a host of the first television programme aimed at women viewers (teaching them about make-up and deportment).
Leung never set out to be an actress. She came from a respectable middle-class family, whose fortunes changed when her father’s business failed after World War II. She gave up her studies after high school and went to work selling perfume in the Sincere Department Store to support her siblings’ tuition fees. After working in the perfume department for two to three years, people gave her the title of “Princess of Perfume” owing to her beauty.
But the beauty never regarded herself as a “princess”. She just wanted to be an ordinary woman who could earn money to support her home and her own family.
It was a chance suggestion from her husband that set her on her extraordinary path.
Leung’s husband read an advertisement in the newspaper saying that Rediffusion was recruiting announcers and encouraged his wife to apply. Rediffusion, Hong Kong’s first television station was established in May 1957 as a subscription cable service.
Then aged 24, Leung had already given birth to three children. To this day, she expresses her heartfelt gratitude to her late husband for his constant support and encouragement.
When Leung went to the interview, she discovered the three announcer posts were already taken. She was disappointed and thought she would just have to give up. But a director gave her a script and asked her to read for three roles. She jumped in, and was offered a job as a voice actress.
In August of the same year, her dream came true when one of the announcers was absent. Leung stepped up and finally became a news anchor. Along with Pong Bik-wan and Lai Yuen-ling, Leung became known as one of the “Three Blossoms of Rediffusion”.
Being an anchor was not an easy job. In those days, there was no autocue and the presenters would get most of their news from the Government Information Service around an hour before they were due on air. Preparations were always hurried.
Leung’s scariest moment as an anchor was the one time she had to report the English News. The English anchor was not feeling well that day and Leung’s boss asked her to substitute. She was extremely nervous though everything went smoothly in the end. “I really wanted to hide myself under the bed after reporting,” says Leung. “That was an accident!”
Leung first started acting in dramas when they were still broadcast live for Rediffusion in 1957. She joined TVB in 1968, working steadily until she hit her career peak with A Kindred Spirit. The show, which ran from 1995 to 1999 is the longest-running drama show in Hong Kong TV history.
Leung’s character was an elegant, rich, knowledgeable but arrogant woman who always looked down on people. The role was a challenge to Leung, who is humble and polite in real life. However, by observing how so-called upper-class people behaved, she managed to play the role vividly and won wide acclaim.
But while everything seemed to be going well for Leung, she encountered a personal crisis when she least expected it.
Her youngest son, Yuen Wai-hung underwent extreme weight loss and was diagnosed with anorexia. He developed complications from pneumonia and passed away on the New Year’s Eve in 1998. He was 44.
“I miss him every day,” Leung starts, then stops and struggles to find the words. “I appreciated his splendid personality. He seldom lost his temper; he showed filial obedience to parents; he bought me lots of things.”
Leung has kept everything that her son gave her, including the gold tulip brooch and earrings she is wearing.
At the time of the tragedy, A Kindred Spirit, was still being broadcast. Despite the death of her son, she insisted on carrying on and hid her sorrow in her humorous performances. “I do not think we should share our tears with others because this may affect others’ feelings and work. That’s why I can tolerate [the sorrow],” she says.
But even the strongest person still has to endure emotion. Leung is no exception. Although she did not let tears creep into her work, she collapsed every day after work. “I did cry. Every time I got on the bus after shooting, I could not endure [the pain] anymore,” she recalls.
Her husband provided the crutch that helped her to carry on. That support has now gone. Leung lost Yuen Lai-ming, her husband of 63 years, last spring.
“He treated me so well,” says Leung. “My only condition for the marriage was that all the money I earned had to be used for supporting my siblings’ study. Few people could accept this. He could.”
A year on, Leung still finds it hard to adjust to life without him. When she is alone, different scenes and memories of their shared days flood back. “Just like when you are having a meal, you realise that someone is missing,” says Leung, her eyes brimming with tears.
After these heartbreaks, Leung hopes she will not allow herself to be trapped in the past. She chooses to move on with even more confidence and enthusiasm; she cherishes every moment with her children and grandchildren. In her spare time, she enjoys Chinese literature, learns Putonghua, does voluntary work such as visiting elderly centres and participates in the eight-hour fast organised by World Vision. And of course, she keeps working.
In fact, she has never even thought of retiring. After 56 years, she has not tired of acting, “I don’t need to retire,” says Leung. She tells Varsity she is learning the Shunde dialect of Cantonese to better shape her character in an upcoming drama.
“The most crucial thing is to have your goal and perseverance,” says Leung. Perhaps what makes Leung work till dawn is her humble attitude, her quest for discovery and unwillingness to flinch from difficulties – qualities forged in a different age but which remain as important as ever today.
Edited by Vicki Yuen