“Miss Julie”: Amy Ng Brings a “Problem Play” to Hong Kong

Amy Ng has a problem. The Hong Kong-raised, London-based playwright is holed up in a Causeway Bay coffee shop in early January, working on her script for a new production of August Strindberg’s play Miss Julie. What’s brought her here is not an issue with the original text, though that would be understandable; shot through with Strindberg’s odious misogyny, Miss Julie is one of the more prickly “problem plays” that challenged social institutions and mores in 19th century Europe. Nor does it come from writer’s block or opening jitters: Ng’s adaptation, set in 1940s Hong Kong, premiered in London in 2019 and was produced by Singapore Repertory Theatre in 2022, a co-production with Hong Kong Arts Festival that never made it here due to pandemic restrictions. 

What’s got Ng staring into her laptop through jet lag and some low-grade desperation is in some ways the curse of the exile’s homecoming: big concepts that shine from afar turn out to be bristly and tangled up close. Strindberg’s play lays out an unambiguous case for the liberating potential of class struggle by setting up a violent battle of lust and ambition between a count’s valet and the daughter of his rich and powerful employer. Ng rewrote that powder keg for London audiences as a tale about race and empire, set on the Peak during Chinese New Year and using a white Miss Julie and her Chinese driver to make the case. For her first commission from HKAF, Ng is now trying to tease out a story about the city she left some 30 years ago but that will feel relevant to Honkongers today. In the show’s opening scene, for example, a shantytown burns in the distance: a clear symbol of social strife to any audience but with far-reaching implications in Hong Kong. 

“We decided that British colonialism is history and what is most interesting about now is identity politics,” she says bluntly of this new direction, speaking for herself, HKAF Programme Director So Kwok-wan and the production’s director, Tony Wong.

To answer the question she feels must be asked — “Who does Hong Kong really belong to?” — the team has cast Chinese-British actress Mei Mei Macleod as a mixed-race taipan’s daughter. Leung Chung-hang will play her subaltern John as a recently arrived Chinese immigrant with big dreams and the prowling sexual energy he brought to Candace Chong’s We Are Gay in 2022 – and which Ng translated into English. Ng is also beefing up the role of Christine (played by Birdy Wong), a one-dimensional plot tool in Strindberg’s text but who gets fuller consideration here as a hardworking, god-fearing local girl who carries everyone else’s water, literally and figuratively, as Julie’s cook and John’s fiancée.

“We just thought that it would be so much more keen if Miss Julie was mixed race,” Ng continues. “In some ways, the city is a product of colonialism. Hong Kong wouldn’t exist without the Opium Wars and all the contradictions that entails, and we just thought if the central figure embodied that contradiction within herself, that would be quite resonant with what people are feeling now.”

She admits however that she is “struggling a bit” to make sense of it all. For starters, she resists using identity politics herself as a way to get noticed in the UK, a choice that writers of colour understandably make but that she describes as “really tiring and a real constraint, personally and creatively.” 

On the production side, there have also been any number of unforeseen hiccups that are changing the power dynamics in her play. These include the last-minute replacement of a Hong Kong-born and bred actress in the role of Miss Julie, director Tony Wong’s decision to add choreographed sections for three dancers, and Leung’s impromptu dare, in a read-through days earlier, to deliver John’s lines to Julie in Cantonese rather than in English, as written in the script and despite the fact that Macleod does not speak it. Ng reels these off with the simultaneously surprised, worried and resigned air of someone realising, mid-flight, that her plane has just been rerouted for technical reasons.

On the positive side, she says that Leung’s impulse has added a “really electrifying” jolt to her text that she wants to consider, even if it will require rewriting some dialogue. At the moment, it has her seeking to balance the “high-flown, consciously erudite” English that she intended for Julie and John with a “really down-to-earth Cantonese” that John will speak to Julie and with Christine. She is determined not to replicate the high/low dissonance between English and Cantonese that she says she felt growing up in Hong Kong in the 1980s and that would “create a really weird message” in her play, one she hopes will be received as “a story about Hong Kong today.”

Wearing an ankle-length, patched denim skirt, worn purple trainers and a nondescript white hoodie, Ng blends so easily into Causeway Bay’s afternoon hustle that passersby slide her quizzical glances during a photo shoot outside Hysan Place. But while she describes herself as an ordinary Hong Kong overachiever, her drive has admitted her to the most exclusive ivory towers of academia, Yale and Oxford, where she pursued a PhD on nationalism in the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a Rhodes Scholar. But it was also at Oxford that she discovered a “cheerful amateurism” that allowed her to give herself “permission” to become a writer, something she always dreamed for herself after hearing Salman Rushdie speak when she was a pre-teen at Diocesan Girls School, but didn’t have the courage to pursue against her parents’ opposition. 

“I never felt like I belonged in Hong Kong,” she concludes after recounting how as a girl growing up in Yau Ma Tei, she hated clothes shopping, much to the disbelief of her peers. “I think what I found really difficult is that Hong Kong is such a materialistic society and the measure of someone’s worth is so much measured by what they earn. I feel like it was so instilled in us that we owed our parents so many things because they sacrificed so much for us.” 

Today, she is an established playwright in the UK, an alumna of the Almeida Theatre’s Big Plays incubator programme whose work has been commissioned and produced by regional theatres, the Royal Shakespeare Company and BBC Radio. She returns to Hong Kong only once a year now to visit family. When she’s back, she indulges a compulsion to haunt paper offering stores to gauge the city’s zeitgeist – an admission she immediately regrets as “not very auspicious.” She counters with an anecdote about her two Londoner children who see her hometown as a shiny Disneyland of gleaming malls and fancy Chinese restaurants.

Her playwriting reflects this intersection of cultures. She has written about minority applicant college admissions (Acceptance), Western tourism in Tibet (Shangri-La), and Asian female gambling addicts in London (Tiger Girls). But she has also been chided by British critics for somewhat heavy-handedly box-ticking diversity questions, with The Guardian noting her play Acceptance “tries to compress a few too many big issues.” Now the BBC is preparing to produce her latest work, a kind of ghost story set during the 2019 protests, which deals with Margaret Thatcher’s reluctance to cede Hong Kong to China. The work is a commission from the National Theatre Studio. Ng declined to say more about it. 

The idea of transposing Miss Julie to Hong Kong was initially pitched to Ng also as a story about the city’s political situation in 2019, but she refused to take up the question then, preferring to place Strindberg’s characters in the post-WWII period, a time when the historian in her sees British rule in the colony threatened for the first time following the humiliations of the Japanese occupation. Miss Julie and her parents are scarred by their experiences as POWs at Stanley Prison, and John has come to see all the British as “filthy” colonial oppressors. Her original text, produced by Chester Storyhouse, offered a clearly delineated racial and social conflict. HKAF’s decision to cast a mixed-race Julie is meant to shift the emphasis from race to class, though it’s not clear how successfully it will do so, as Julie’s privilege remains rooted in her whiteness. Reached for comment, So Kwok-wan expressed only his belief that “Cantonese/English switching” in the dialogue “can better capture the colour and tone of the characters.”

Ng vividly recalls the “snobbery” of her Mandarin teacher at DGS who made her feel “apologetic” for her pronunciation compared to her instructor’s “pure” Beijing accent. Yet she remembers Hong Kong as a racially tolerant society and is amazed at the contrast with its current ideological divide. She admits to feeling uncomfortable even today with the impression that she is “not Chinese enough” on the mainland and an “ex-colonial” in Britain. Her desire to be happy as a “hybrid” is informed by her doctoral research into nationalism. “My thesis was that identity politics destroy political liberty because there has to be some recognition of common ground with other people to have a civic [sic] society,” she says. 

She finds that common ground in universal values. “The first time I heard people use the phrase in Hong Kong was about 10 years ago and I was just really struck because it sounded so weird and oddly Buddhist,” she says. But she recognized how it could offer her “a way out” of the old ways of thinking about herself. “I deeply believe in some things like creative autonomy and I don’t necessarily think that this is a Western value,” she continues. “This is just a universal value, and we don’t have to apologise for that.”

“I think the choice to stay in Hong Kong and be an artist is a very brave one and a very exciting one potentially,” she continues, while careful to acknowledge the difficulties local artists face in the current political situation. She shares that the life of a Hong Kong playwright in London is getting harder too: artists are “struggling with relevance” as “the themes that most concern them, no one cares about in London,” she says, and recounts how she has repeatedly been priced out of a London flat purchase by Hong Kong immigrants who pay cash. 

What she is working on mostly in the café is a new version of the character Christine, who, in her current draft, believes in the goodness of all people and that hard work will be divinely rewarded. Ng says she is still conflicted over this self-sacrificing sor hei (so1 hei2 梳起, a traditional female domestic servant in Hong Kong who foreswore marriage for greater personal and economic freedom) but says she takes hope from the younger generations, who “just feel like this is their lives” and they can’t live them for their parents. 

“The generation below me, they’re very different; they’re into sustainability, they reject consumerism, they are seeking a more alternative path and want to develop their own potential,” she says with more wonder about the changes she is seeing here. “I’m thinking maybe I have something to learn from them.” 

Miss Julie runs from March 1 to 17, 2024 at City Hall.

Rehearsal photography for this article was shot by Hangmade Photography.

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