THE LEADING FILM DIRECTOR, WHOSE PORTRAYALS OF HONG KONG LIFE HAVE WON HER NUMEROUS AWARDS, EXPLAINS HOW YOUTHFUL RESPONSIBILITY GAVE HER A HEAD START IN LIFE
Mabel Cheung’s father died when she was 14 and, as the oldest of five siblings, Cheung shouldered the burden of going out to work while her mother took care of the home. The family lived in one of the poorer areas of Guangdong and Cheung juggled a variety of jobs with her schoolwork. She was often forced to work late into the night to make ends meet.
“Please don’t feel sorry for me. I consider myself very lucky. From a young age, I realised that if I worked hard, I would survive, and that really shaped my character. I also met some wonderful people—one Englishwoman took pity on my situation and paid me to teach her Mandarin, but she ended up teaching me English, which was such a privilege. I was also given an unusual amount of freedom for a young girl. While my friends had to be home at a certain time, I was free to stay out as late as I pleased, as I was the head of the household. And I had the joy of watching my siblings flourish thanks to my hard work; they all completed school, which made me very proud.”
To illustrate how happy her childhood memories are, Cheung picked toys and photographs from her school days as her prized mementoes. “I particularly love the teddy in the cheongsam, as it makes me smile to think that we were taught to behave like ladies, when all we wanted to do was play outside. I was sports-mad and was obsessed with baseball in particular. And I had to come first in everything, including swimming butterfly, which no other girls would participate in, so it was just me and the boys.”
Cheung, who went on to study at Bristol University and New York University, also chose a small painting of her Hong Kong University dormitory, which was torn down in 1998. She was distraught when she heard about the planned demolition and persuaded the school board to let her film a scene for City of Glass there, so that her happy memories could be immortalised.