Finding Home in Ah Ying: A Special View of 1980s Hong Kong

Reencountering Allen Fong's special 1983 film, with its powerfully realist style and generational portrait of women and filmmaking culture.
Koel Chu

Ah Ying (Allen Fong, 1983).

On a recent flight back home to Hong Kong, I was browsing a playlist of “Hong Kong Classics” on the inflight entertainment. Expecting the same old Jackie Chan martial arts films or neon-drenched melancholia by Wong Kar-wai, I was surprised to see Ah Ying (1983) on the list; after all, it is not a popular film internationally, even though it did garner critical attention in Hong Kong for taking home the 1984 Hong Kong Film Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Editing. Unlike the regular commercially successful hot-blooded action films or postmodern and nostalgic arthouse films, Ah Ying is at the other end of the spectrum of Hong Kong cinema, quietly documenting facets of histories we very often omit to make space for more memorable, grand narratives of Hong Kong.

Ah Ying revolves around the real-life story of its lead actress, Hui So-ying (playing Ah Ying), who divides her time between helping out in her parents’ fish stall in a wet market and taking acting classes at Hong Kong’s Film Culture Centre. The opening scene shows a woman at the stall picking out a fish to buy, after which she immediately cleans her fingers with ice and a towel, as if disgusted by Ah Ying’s occupation. The camera then cuts to Ah Ying, who is chopping fish with a look of disdain for both the woman and perhaps her own job. As a third-born child, Ah Ying is responsible for most household chores, and has no choice but to help her parents run the fish stall as her siblings are all reluctant to work in what they call the “dirty and stinky” market. Ah Ying shares a cramped room in a public housing estate with five other siblings, with her only personal space a lower bunk. Despite a love for music, Ah Ying can only listen to it in her brother’s apartment next door, the only place with enough space to accommodate a turntable.

The young woman’s experience is encapsulated in the film’s Chinese title, “半邊人,” which loosely translates to “half-person,” echoing how Ah Ying indulges in passion for the arts and aspirations of being an actress, yet is constantly reminded of the harsh reality of living in Hong Kong in the early '80s. The evocation is relatable, even beyond the time the film was made; my own mother was born in the 1950s, long before free, compulsory primary education was introduced in Hong Kong. She had often told me stories about being forced to drop out of school in order to get a job at a factory and provide for her younger siblings. My mother hated her parents for pulling her out of school; she hated her older brothers for taking away her chances to study because sons were favored over girls; and therefore hated the whole world in general. She labels this period of her life as a rebellious time, since the only way to cope with the burden of reality was to be a cynic. Like Ah Ying, my mother signed up for different evening classes (then known as night schools) when she was older to compensate for the missing opportunities to pursue her own passion. Many women baby boomers in Hong Kong’s manufacturing boom years shared similar experiences. Ah Ying’s story is not singular; it speaks to the many generations before and after her.

Because Hong Kong was short of formal arts education programs at the time, the Film Culture Centre, where Ah Ying takes her acting classes, was once a starting point for many directors, including Fruit Chan, Lam Kee-To, and Clifton Ko. The Centre was founded in 1978 by a group of directors and film critics for the cause of promoting film culture and cultivating local talent, making it the first of its kind in Hong Kong. Most people knew of the Centre by the series of diploma courses they offered, covering directing, screenwriting, acting, and cinematography, and which were taught by prominent filmmakers at the time, such as Tsui Hark, Yim Ho, and none other than Ah Ying’s film director, Allen Fong. Unfortunately, the courses were suspended after only two years due to a lack of resources, but the Centre continued introducing films to the public through screening programs, talks, and newsletter publications.

The establishment of the Centre was part of the wave of rising interests in filmmaking in the 1970s and 80s commonly referred to as a “golden age” of Hong Kong cinema. At the time, home video technologies like VHS were barely available, so physical screenings and magazines were practically the only channels for audiences to access international and independent films. A number of film organizations and publications sprang up around that time, including the Hong Kong International Film Festival (1977), Phoenix Cine Club (1973), Safeguarding Film Society (1972), City Entertainment Magazine (1979), and Close Up (1975). As a whole, these new entities made a lasting impact on the city’s film scene. Critic Joyce Yang wrote in 2017, “All the filmmakers who are active in Hong Kong’s film industry today have—whether directly or not—benefited from the organizations and publications back then.” In writer John Chan Koon-chung’s words, they formed a “complete gene pool for film culture” in Hong Kong.

Ah Ying, seen within such contexts, provides a valuable snapshot of what the once flourishing film scene in Hong Kong was like, as the Film Centre exemplifies the bottom-up, communal support system for nurturing film talents in a non-academic environment organically. With much of the film shot at the historical location of the Centre at Mong Kok’s Portland Street, renowned Hong Kong writer Yasi wrote that he enjoyed Ah Ying specifically because of the unique placement of the community-led Film Centre between coffin shops, grocery stores, herbal medicine stores, and secondhand book shops, representing the city as “true to life.”


Most films try to reflect reality to some extent, but another reason why Ah Ying found itself amid a lot of attention from critics at the time of its release seemed to be in no small part due to how true to life it was. Juxtaposing Ah Ying against experimental films from the same period of time, such as Patrick Tam's Love Massacre (1981) and Kirk Wong's Health Warning (1983), film critic Li Cheuk-to commented that these two films attempted an experimentation too radical and can only be evaluated based on their deviation from traditional storytelling, rather than of any constructive significance to Hong Kong cinema. He contrasted these films that prioritized style and form over narrative with Ah Ying, whose innovation came from the determination of its form by its subject matter. What’s remarkable about the film’s realism is that most of the people who appeared onscreen, including the staff of the Film Centre and Ah Ying’s family members, were actual people in Hui's life, even her ex-boyfriend. Back in 1980s Hong Kong, it was uncommon for films to include amateur actors in the cast. The scene in which Ah Ying’s acting teacher Cheung Chung-pak (Peter Wang Zheng-fang) interviews Ah Ying and her ex-boyfriend about the reasons they broke up as research for his upcoming film is painfully real and full of tension. Because their answers are incoherent and vague, as they nervously steal glances at one another, it becomes obvious that their conversation was unscripted and impromptu and feels all the more authentic. In other words, not only did Ah Ying achieve a breakthrough in its docufiction form, it was also progressive in having a narrative that prizes authenticity over drama, not solely for the purpose of experimenting with forms and styles, but to reinforce a humanist concern for the livelihood of the grassroots.

People often call the group of young Hong Kong directors who rose to prominence in the late 1970s with their fresh cinematic language and social commentary as the “Hong Kong New Wave.” Since many of these directors began their careers by producing television programs about social issues, there exists an abundance of writing connecting their earlier television representation of the local experience to their later critical, social realist approaches in humanistic filmmaking. Among them is Ah Ying’s Allen Fong, who was best recognized for his contribution of dramatic episodes to RTHK’s TV series Below the Lion Rock, which began in the 1970s to depict real-life struggles of the average working-class Hong Konger. Rather than indicating a moment of complete rupture, the concept of a new wave represents a common interest among young directors to forge new paths in filmmaking. One of the central markers that set apart the new Hong Kong New Wave cinema from the old was a commitment to realism, a desire to create authentic representations of reality that document history and define distinctive Hong Kong experiences.

In 1995, Yasi wrote the seminal essay “The Hong Kong Story: Why is it so difficult to tell.” Using Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild (1990) as an example, Yasi attempted to elucidate how the film “disappointed” many critics at the time for its insipidity, referring to how the film downplayed storytelling and alternatively transformed a linear narrative into scattered lyricism to depict “a special feeling of Hong Kong in the 1960s,” as Wong once described it. This lack of a straightforward narrative and destabilization of the meanings of signifiers would, however, find its place (and its exportability) in the global film circuit later. Seven years after Yasi published his essay, cultural critic Rey Chow published another essay drawing on Wong’s films, arguing that the nostalgic sentimentalism generated by Wong’s romantic accounts of the past created a past elusive enough to achieve universal relevance and acquire global currency. Rather than offering a realistic account of the 1960s in Hong Kong, Wong’s approach to cinema deploys everyday details to conjure a pervasive mood of melancholy (Wong’s “special feeling”). Chow attributed the rapid circulation of such image-proliferating nostalgia to the postmodern, globalized cinematic context where viewers prioritized aestheticized spectacles over their historical referents.

This is not to establish a dichotomy between realism and artificiality, to suggest that the former is good and the latter is bad. Ah Ying is a romanticization of some sort as well, because after all, it does feature an art-loving youngster with ideals that many back in old Hong Kong couldn’t afford to have. The significance of Ah Ying lies in its embodiment of a type of realism that is marginalized in the international understanding of Hong Kong cinema, which is a very different manner of romanticization than foreign audiences are used to.

One of my favorite sequences from Ah Ying is when Cheung’s car breaks down in the middle of the Tsing Fung Street Flyover: in an attempt to find help, Ah Ying and Cheung call out to the resident living by the road just at arm’s length, who simply passes over their telephone to the pair. I can’t help but juxtapose this scene with a similar one in Wong’s Chungking Express (1994), when Faye Wong, holding a bowl of noodles, squats down and peers into Cop 663’s apartment adjacent to the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator. Both scenes are set against Hong Kong’s urban environment and are remarkable in how they utilize the city’s density and overcrowded-ness to construct a memorable setting, but to different ends. In Chungking Express, Faye Wong looks at the apartments beside the escalator with curiosity and fascination. These scenes are always imbued with Wong’s signature blue-green palette and illuminated by flashing neon, not only evoking sentiments of urban alienation, melancholy, and nostalgia, but also limiting the audience’s perception of it as a space that perpetuates these moods. Later in the film, Faye Wong sneaks into Cop 663’s apartment and tries to avoid being seen by him from the escalator, as if the escalator constitutes a threshold of what’s invisible and what can be seen.

In Ah Ying, however, we can hardly hear what the characters are saying, because the synchronized sound recording captures all the traffic noise that overpowers the actors’s voices even though they are already shouting at one another. Cars keep speeding outside the apartment, and Cheung almost gets run over by a car on camera. After watching this scene, the audience is left feeling disoriented and overwhelmed by the chaos and commotion. Through Wong’s lens, the overcrowded city becomes not only a labyrinth for the characters to brush past each other, as if playing hide-and-seek, but also an appealing spectacle, which explains why the escalator has become a prime tourist attraction after the film’s release, later contributing to the gentrification of its surrounding area in Central. It is difficult for me to see the population density and proximity of Hong Kong with a sentimental lens that perpetuates feelings of loneliness and alienation. Up to this day, every time my bus passes by the Tsing Fung Street Flyover, I still see these flats as a living reminder that Ah Ying was real, as are the cramped flats and housing shortage that have persisted from the time of the film.

In a 1983 advertisement for Ah Ying, the tagline described it as “the most realistic, bold, and innovative Hong Kong film in the 1980s,” while international audiences such as The New York Times criticized the film for showing no effort to engage the characters in a compelling drama and “merely transposing real experience to the screen.” The “real experience” here was perhaps referring to how the script incorporated details from Ah Ying’s life to a great degree, owing to Fong’s extensive research into Ah Ying’s family history and love life, which included befriending her parents and even lending a hand at her family’s fish shop. The film’s verisimilitude is credited to Fong’s scrupulous research process, which Ah Ying amusingly described in an interview with City Entertainment Magazine as “so painful I wanted to puke.”

Though both Ah Ying and Chungking Express strive to preserve or revive the reality, their effectiveness is largely dependent on how the audience translates documentation or imagination into their own engagement with history. One may easily take the story of Ah Ying as an archetypal quest for identity and individuation, but it is only with the understanding of poverty and patriarchal power relations in the Chinese family beneath the surface of Hong Kong’s rapid industrialization in the 1980s that one can relate to Ah Ying and be emotionally invested in her story. For Ah Ying, passion does not exist in a vacuum; any time spent instead of working is an investment to ensure financial viability in the future. Her acting aspirations were not simply a matter of “chasing one’s dream”; as she says in the film, signing up for the acting classes is also a pragmatic attempt at acquiring more skills for “potential opportunities in the future.”

While Ah Ying can be seen as a time capsule of sorts, I find it difficult to connect with Wong Kar-wai’s films beyond an aesthetic level. Being in proximity to his aesthetic signifiers—photogenic fragments of a cosmopolitan metropolis and an urbanscape devoid of emotions—I am only able to see his films as an amalgamation of metaphors that translate features of the city into visual flair; or as a series of events that constitute generalizable human drama with a pervading sense of loneliness and alienation that is universally relevant.


I can still recall the first time I saw Ah Ying. I was struck by how real its heroine seemed—flesh and blood and recognizable. How had I longed to see someone like me on screen, a face covered with acne, with eyes too defiant to be liked. Ah Ying was not Faye Wong. She listens to Brian Eno, instead of The Cranberries; she works as a fishmonger at a sweaty wet market reeks of fish odor, not as a cashier girl at a late-night snack bar in Lan Kwai Fong, a district packed with fancy bars and restaurants; and she often sports a bitter expression with greasy hair, rather than donning a pair of tinted sunglasses that keeps sliding down her nose to reveal a quirky but innocent gaze. Where most would find Faye Wong’s character lovable and endearing, it is not easy to like Ah Ying.

This is precisely why Ah Ying is still very dear to my heart. What the film represents is a Hong Kong that is not all glamorous drama and fiction. The Hong Kong in Ah Ying does not have an identity that is readily available (e.g. “Hollywood East”), or a projection of romanticism that people within and beyond the city can habitually latch on to. As director Allen Fong stated in 1983: “The better I got to know Ah Ying, the more it struck me that her life reflected a great deal of contemporary Hong Kong: its quality, its tensions, and its contradictions.” And so I return to Ah Ying again and again—every time I excavate ambiguities about myself, my mother, and my city, I recognize the possibility to imagine a Hong Kong that is not just a backdrop to any film, but a home.

In the film, Cheung Chung-pak tells Ah Ying: “We must make a movie that reflects our time, otherwise, after we are gone, others will not know that we existed.” Except the film does not only reflect their time. Forty years later, as I watched Ah Ying’s contempt on the pocket-sized screen in my economy-class airplane seat, far away from home and suspended in the atmosphere, I imagined my mother in her defiant youth. I imagined many other mothers in their defiant youth, and their daughters imagining their mothers once with similarly resentful eyes—ones very much like their own.

Ah Ying

Ah Ying (Allen Fong, 1983).

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