愛,媽媽 (Love, Mum)

Performing Arts Centre, St. Hilda’s Collegiate School, Dunedin

24/03/2023 - 25/03/2023

Dunedin Fringe Festival 2023

Production Details

Cynthia Lam: Writer & Performer
Kanta Kochhar-Lindgren: Director & Dramaturg

Hong Kong born writer and performer Cynthia Lam takes audiences on a universal journey that intimately connects and honours three generations of her female ancestors with the Dunedin premiere of her first play 愛,媽媽 (Love, Mum). After winning the Dunedin Fringe Tour Ready Award at the Auckland Fringe Festival last year, Cynthia now brings her play to audiences in Dunedin. Directed by Kanta Kochhar-Lindgren, this brave and deeply moving autobiographical solo performance plays for two shows only at the Performing Arts Centre at St. Hilda’s Collegiate School from 24 to 25 March. Cynthia will also facilitate a complimentary writing workshop for a limited number of participants.

愛,媽媽 (Love, Mum) interweaves the tales of Cynthia, her mother, and her two grandmothers, (Ah Mah and Por Por) as they traverse through life, moments of survival, change and self-dignity. Their stories span across WWII, Hong Kong’s post-war colonial-capital society, and the migratory flow of the 1980s/ 1990s.

Embracing storytelling, multimedia, Chinese martial arts and song, we follow Cynthia’s journey as she navigates mental health, relationships, self-discovery and finding one’s vocation against a legacy of ancestral trauma and cultural conditioning. “Our family follows a patrilineal system of documenting descendants in our ‘clan family book’ (like a family tree). Therefore, to share the stories of me and my foremothers, is a way for me to reclaim something, and to honour the female line,” says Lam.

Fearful of what would happen when Hong Kong transitioned from British colonial rule back to communist China, Lam and her family emigrated to NZ when she was 5-years-old. She returned to Hong Kong a few years later and eventually built a successful career which culminated in a well-paid job as a Business Development Manager for a regional financial publication. Throwing it all in to become a writer and researcher, Lam returned to NZ two decades later to complete her Phd in Creative Writing, with the goal of platforming female voices and building community.

Lam says, “Returning to NZ was one of the best decisions I ever made. This was my chance to reinvent, reorient and rebuild. I could live my life as I saw fit, without feeling the societal and cultural pressures that weighed heavily on me in Hong Kong.”

After four years of learning the craft of writing and studying the works of many others she felt the time was right to begin writing. But the process was not without challenges.

Writing this play has not been easy. I felt vulnerable and exposed in the process. I write about depression, as well as my divorce and abusive relationship. I write about the tensions between me and my mother, but I realised as I was writing, that this is really, a love story. A love story that honours the lives of my mother and two grandmothers, “says Lam.

The development of this work included a live script reading in 2021, which was well received by the invited audience. The play’s debut at the Herald Theatre in Auckland 2022 also received favourable reviews, passionate audience feedback and an award for the play to tour to Dunedin:

“A heartfelt and deeply moving, impressionistic play” –– Stuart Hoar, playwright.

“Any woman over the age of twenty who has pondered their mother, grandmothers or maternal figures…your play would resonate with every woman regardless of cultural background” – Audience member.

“Lam is a fantastic performer and playwright, her words and movement deliver feelings and stories and reassure us that our dreams are valid, possible, and ever so human” – Dr. Stephanie Han, author.

“Uplifting and bold, Lam’s matrilineal memoir evokes reflection, authenticity and warmth” – RAT World review https://www.ratworldmag.com/read/theatre-review-love-mum

Looking forward, Lam hopes to adapt her script into an extended memoir format, together with her research. In addition she has just set up Love Mum Creatives which intends to run writing workshops for women.

愛,媽媽 (Love, Mum) asks audiences to consider What is a ‘good’ Chinese woman? How does a woman live an authentic life in a patriarchal, capitalist and colonial society?

愛,媽媽 (Love, Mum) plays as part of Dunedin Fringe:

Performing Arts Centre, St. Hilda’s Collegiate School Friday 24 March, 7pm
Saturday 25 March, 2pm
Writing workshop – Saturday 25 March, 4pm Suitable for 16 years and above

Content warning: Themes of depression and mental health.
Tickets: $20 (concession) to $30 plus booking fees
Book at Dunedin Fringe website from Feb 16 onwards: www.dunedinfringe.nz

Promo Trailer: https://youtu.be/cAL-P7iaRPc

Performed by Cynthia Hiu Ying Lam

Theatre ,

70 minutes

Unforgettable visual imagery

Review by Terry MacTavish 27th Mar 2023

It may be because like Cynthia Hiu Ying Lam’s mother I, though of Scottish extraction, was also begun in China but born in Taiwan, from parents fleeing the Communist advance, that Chinese culture has exercised such a hold on my imagination – the delicacy of poetry and calligraphy and exquisitely embroidered silks – the sheer romance of its extraordinary history. I learnt by heart Ezra Pound’s translation of Li Po… “I desired my dust to be mingled with yours, Forever and forever, and forever…”

Thankfully before they were dust, Lam made a decision – to prise their life-stories from her ‘mum’ and her two grandmothers, and make from them a hauntingly beautiful play, a “matrilineal memoir”. We hear gripping stories of political danger in old China, one grandmother fleeing the Communists, the other the Japanese, while Lam’s mother must face the threat of the handover of Hong Kong. Their domestic lives too are beyond their control, marriages arranged against their will, “Your grandfather had to tie me to the bed”.

Understandably, Lam’s coolly distant mother aims to control her own destiny, becoming one of the first women to hold a high place in Hong Kong’s business world alongside the men, setting impossibly high standards for her own daughter, who aspires to be head of a multi-national company while in her twenties. Yet, describing herself as a high-functioning depressive, Lam is not happy, either in her lucrative career as Business Development Manager or in her marriage to a man who is diagnosed bi-polar, but attempts to gaslight his wife into believing she is the problem.

How to be a good Chinese woman in a world so changed from that of her ancestors? Little Lam plays with her blonde and bosomy Barbie dolls, and puzzles over the expression “banana” for ethnic Chinese who are “yellow on the outside, white inside”.  Older Lam at first attempts to suppress her feelings, then tries American self-affirmation therapies, about which she is subtly but amusingly cynical.

When we learn of Lam’s struggle to find her identity, her courageous change of career from high-powered capitalist to PhD student in Creative Writing in New Zealand, we may wonder why this memoir has not simply been left to stand as a written work. Lam’s secret dream, after all, is to be a writer, running freely on a wind-swept beach, not treading the boards. 

Hence I am grateful to dramaturg and director Kanta Kochhar-Lindgren, and all who encouraged Lam to take the step of turning Love, Mum into theatre, for this is an experience I would not have missed. Kochhar-Lindgren is credited with the set design, but Lam is supported by a most proficient team that includes her aunt as calligrapher, her brother as video operator.

Although she does not see herself as an actor, Lam’s stagecraft is quietly exemplary, with clear voice and lovely movement. Various well-chosen devices make for unforgettable visual imagery, whether it is her graceful tai chi movements, the whirling shao lin staff used in martial arts, or the swift donning of a jacket from the onstage rail to become one of the older women. Meanwhile cloudy shapes in symbolic colours swirl behind her, hinting at the emotional turmoil the performer controls.

This is not in-your-face, confrontational theatre – Lam has a sensitive restraint, keeping a silk veil between us if you like, and though she shares, she does not intrude, nor ever seek to ingratiate herself with us – no winning smiles, just simple, unapologetic authenticity. Courage is needed, as she admits to her struggles, for we need to know what life is like for the immigrant child, afraid even to confess her family eats rice, not potatoes. The shame of being foreign, of feeling different and ugly.  She delivers her own script with a touching mix of dignity, vulnerability and grace, and like her we wish we could comfort her five-year-old self.

The set, against the black curtains of one of Dunedin’s most pleasant stages (St Hilda’s Performing Arts Space) is attractive: elegant hanging scrolls painted with Chinese calligraphy; a projection screen shredded into fluttering ribbons; red, white and black garments on a rail; a music-stand for the script that is only occasionally referred to; and the little Buddhist drum known as a wooden fish. This Lam strikes before she speaks, and it sets the tone for the blend of ritualised formality with casual conversational style.

The passages spoken in Chinese by grandmothers Por Por and Ah Mah are given translation on the shredded screen, and this is the only aspect of the production that is less than perfect, as the shadows, that lend artistry and mystery to the screen, cut the letters and much is illegible. However, the production team, realising this, has printed the translated words of each of the grandmothers, and included them with the programme. The lovely singing of Cantonese opera by Lam’s own mother needs no translation.

I am ravished by the fastidious crafting of Lam’s prose, right from the bold beginning with a co-ordinating conjunction, as if we are already in the middle of a conversation with an intimate friend: “So, I have been meaning to talk about my mother”. Her language soars from deliberately down-to-earth to evocatively lyrical, like her luscious description of being fed nectar from a flower; poetical (“abundance at the break of dawn”) to unexpectedly colloquial. (“Fuck you, and hello to me!”) Whether illuminating the China of Lam’s forbears, or the modern world she finds herself in, the writing is always appropriate, and the passages in Chinese, still romantic to my ears, provide a delightful contrast.

I regret that, with nine other Fringe shows to attend today, I will not be able to join Lam’s workshop on autobiographical writing, for she is as gracious off-stage as on, sweetly assuring me that my own sadly unimaginative Chinese name, “English child born in China”, or Jung Ying, is really pretty. *

But the memory I take away is of a stylish literary endeavour that surprisingly has become a true theatrical experience. I hold the poignant image of a small child hysterically running after the mother departing to her high-powered job, of Lam’s yearning for the relationship she might have had with her mother, “if I hadn’t been so angry and sad”. And her heart-breaking conclusion: “I realised today that I am still crying out for my mother”. I want Cynthia Lam and her mother to become each what the other needs, I want to possess the script, and I want to see that play again. 

  • Love, Mum was presented at the Dunedin Fringe Festival with the help of a touring award from the Auckland Fringe, and was a finalist in several categories at the Dunedin Fringe Awards, including the City of Literature “Beyond Words” award.


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