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Mo Lai Yan-chi’s unconventional upbringing inspires stage success

By Silvia Li

Under the spotlight and against a black backdrop, a hunch-backed old lady dressed in a red traditional Chinese jacket slowly recounts the moments she spent with her husband. In her quivering hands, she holds a pair of slippers that she wishes she could hand to her partner who has passed away. It is a moment of tender yearning. Then, she unties her hair from her tightly wound bun and straightens her back. In a blink, the old lady is replaced by a woman in her 30s.

The audience rises as applause echoes around the theatre of Hong Kong Cultural Centre where Mo Lai Yan-chi has just performed her one-woman show Woman in Red. The performance has been emotionally draining for the president and leading actress of the drama group FM Theatre Power and she cannot help but shed tears.

Lai has dedicated her life to theatre for over 15 years. Her efforts were recognised when she was named as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Persons last year. To Lai, the theatre is a rehearsal for life. And as lives go, Lai’s has played to a pretty dramatic script.

She was born in Hong Kong but her parents did not want to raise her themselves, so they sent her to live with distant relatives in a village in Guangdong when she was just one month old. After that, an elderly female relative took care of her.

The rural life shone led in those early years has had a huge impact on her. “My life was farming,” says Lai, “When I was hungry I would grab a tomato from the fields, rinse it in the river and eat it … I would climb trees, catch fish, run up the mountains with the dogs. That was how I spent my days.”

Such a childhood might seem dull to youngsters brought up on video games and electronic toys, but Lai thinks otherwise. Her worldview, values and personality were formed during this time. “I learnt that life is a cycle, you will get up after downs,” says Lai. “The simple life also taught me to not desire material things.”

‘‘When the other kids were going to kindergartens, nature was my classroom,’’ she adds.

Her parents’ abandonment of the young Lai made her question her self-worth. “I literally thought I was lower even than excrement,” says Lai. Her caretaker told her excrement was useful as fertilizer for crops. She reassured her that if excrement had value, so did she.

The rural idyll lasted for six years. Her parents found a retired Christian couple who agreed to take care of her and be her guardians. The peasant girl moved back toHong Kong.

“I was crying for my life. It took four people to drag me into the car,” she recalls.

It was hard adapting to life in the city. “I could scarcely believe it was the same sky. The sky inHong Kongseemed lower to me, uglier.” For a year, she refused to take the elevator and walked the 19 floors up to her new home.

It was also hard adapting to her new home life. Lai’s guardians, who she referred to as Gung Gung (grandpa) and Por Por (grandma), instituted a disciplined routine. They were well-educated people who wanted to nurture her intellectually. So she was only allowed watch to news programmes and listen to the BBC news. She had a rigid daily schedule of studying, reading and playing chess from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. ‘‘My home was even more disciplined than school,’’ she recalls.

Lai first encountered drama at secondary school. She had managed to get into a Band One school but was seen as a bit of a problem student with unusual ideas. One of her teachers assigned her to write a play to express all her special ideas. “I think the teacher intended to make it a punishment on top of all the homework,” laughs Lai.  “After that first time, I couldn’t stop doing it.”

Drama was a godsend for Lai and she made her best friends through drama. However, her guardians did not like her participating in extra-curricular activities. Under pressure, she quit volleyball and choir, but she could not give up drama. “I quit and came back,” says Lai.

As she respected her guardians very much, she tried to pursue her dream in secret. “Sometimes I wrote the scripts in the toilet or under the blankets after they had fallen asleep,” says Lai. The teachers even lied to them and told them that there were extra classes after school so Lai could attend rehearsals and shows.

The reason for her Gung Gung and Por Por’s objections was simple. They were already in their 60s when they started to take care of Lai. They knew they would not be able to take care of her for long. So they wanted to make sure she could be financially independent. Acting and the theatre was not a good choice to achieve that aim. Their well-intentioned advice made Lai feel guilty about her rebellion. “These two saved my life,” says Lai, “They are my closest relatives, my parents.”

Lai enrolled for a Bachelor of English degree at Baptist University as her guardians had wished. But while she loved English, she found the curriculum, with its emphasis on linguistic pronunciation, stifling. “During a class in the first week of year two, I literally ran out of the classroom,” says Lai.

While she was deciding whether to drop out of university, she saw theSchoolofCommunicationsbuilding and decided to give it a go. She begged the department head for a transfer to study film. Lai began to live on her own terms and even managed to found FM Theatre Power with her friends.

She did not manage to keep the secret under wraps for long. That same year, Lai’s Gung Gung was diagnosed with late-stage cancer. He had in fact always known she was pursuing drama, and told her, ‘‘If I can survive this, I am going to watch your performance.’’

Although he did not make it, in the end these last words lifted the guilt Lai had carried with her secret and became the motivation for her to further pursue her career in theatre. Her Por Por died a year after.

In her fourth one-actor play, Woman in Red, Lai tells the stories of different women, among them a young girl, a pseudo model, a career woman and a lesbian. She even shares her own story on the stage. The scene with the hunch-backed old lady who yearns for her lost partner is a portrayal of her guardian.

Lai believes drama is not something that should be confined to the theatre. She took scenes from the play into the crowded streets to share her stories with the community. Some onlookers stayed for the entire duration of her performance. Even though the street performances were exhausting and free, Lai treasures the interaction with the audience. ‘‘We believe social changes stem from the streets and drama should reflect society if it is to resonate,’’ says Lai.

Resonance is important for Lai. She believes that audiences can tell whether she is pretending on a superficial level or really interpreting a character. Every time she acts, she learns from the story of the characters she plays. When the material is autobiographical, it forces her to face her emotions unreservedly, such as when she was rehearsing the story of her guardians. “I could talk about them calmly during interviews,” says Lai, “but during rehearsals I totally broke down.”

Having lost two families, once through abandonment and then through death, Lai was completely alone once more on stage in her one-woman show. It makes her value her interaction with the audience. ‘‘I’m alone but not lonely,’’ she says.

But her art is not just a platform for Lai to express herself – she also sees it as a way to address social concerns.

Her acclaimed short film, 1+1, tells the story of how the Express Rail project affected the daily life of an elderly man and his granddaughter living in the now demolishedChoiYuenVillage.

Lai’s concern about social issues took root during her student days. When her class was asked to hand in a video assignment, many students chose to portray their family because it would be easy. She chose to make a video about prostitution.  Her teachers opposed her project and refused to lend her any equipment for the sake of her own safety and that of the gear. Undeterred, Lai borrowed a camera from a professor and shot the sex workers anyway. Her persistence paid off – the assignment was given high marks and was screened in two overseas film festivals.

On one occasion, Lai skipped lessons for two months during the school term and travelled toCubajust to do research for a video project and drama about the Legislative Councillor Leung Kwok-hung. “A professor even called to ask if I had dropped out from school because of my absence,” laughs Lai.

Her dedication and enthusiasm won her the title of one of the Ten Outstanding Young Persons in 2012. She was one of the few who were awarded as representatives from the drama field. Lai realised that most of the other awardees were pop stars and she decided to accept the award to help redefine what an outstanding young person could be.

At the prize-giving ceremony, Lai made the anti-national education cross sign and presented a Pinocchio doll to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. The Pinocchio doll implied that Leung was a liar. “Many said I was bold to make the [cross] sign. Incorrect. It wasn’t bold, it was the right thing to do,” says Lai.

As an artist and as an activist, Lai defines her stance this way: “I’ve been successful, I have failed. But I have never given up.” With film projects and exhibitions in the works, Lai admits she will have less time for the theatre. “I will never quit drama,” she stresses. ‘‘Theatre is my starting point, I would never forget it.’’

Lai might have encountered many losses in her life, but the theatre rewards her with friendships, with dreams and with a career.

“It’s my breath, my life,” says Lai.

Edited by Derek Li