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The Beginner's Mind Meeting Award-winning Playwright and Alumna Candace Chong Mui-ngam

Candace Chong Mui-ngam

3 Jul 2019

Candace Chong Mui-ngam, a five-time winner of the Hong Kong Drama Award for Best Script, has seen some of her plays adapted into movies and television dramas. However, the alumna of the School of Drama of the Academy rejoices more in the sheer joy of creation than in such accomplishments.


Back in her high school years, Candace showed a flair for playwriting. She said she was a mediocre student who first tasted success when she was given the opportunity to write and direct a play for class performance. “Finally, I found something I was good at!” she joked.


She started to think seriously about playwriting as a career when she was doing a psychology degree at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Halfway through the programme, I knew that The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts would be my next destination. As an observer and analyser, I reckoned creative work suited me best, because it allowed me to express my emotions.” And so in 1999, she started to pursue an Advanced Diploma in Playwriting at the Academy, a decision that she regarded as the most fitting to develop her career.


As she recalled those two wonderful years at the Academy, Candace still rejoiced at the memory of discussing numerous plays with her classmates, who came from varied backgrounds. “We came from all walks of life and had different perspectives when we looked at the same thing. Therefore, our work had very distinctive content and styles.” With her psychology background, Candace’s scripts are known for her precise portraits of human nature. “Psychology, like drama, helps you understand life and your true self. It gives a lot of weight to communication; which is helpful as I create the characters.”


The interview took place at the rehearsal room of the School of Drama – the cradle of every stage production, as well as her most unforgettable campus memories. There she and her classmates shared comments on one another’s work in addition to analyzing classical plays. Those days taught her to be humble. “We spent our youth and rode an emotional rollercoaster together in this room. We rehearsed here for every show. If the props were not ready, we would fabricate them using our imagination. Those days were so simple and innocent. After every show, we assembled here for critiques; that is how our pursuit of professionalism was built.”


When asked to recall one particularly emotional moment, she recalls the time a teacher bluntly told her that her script was rubbish. “I was miserable the whole afternoon! To a creator, nothing is worse than the brutal fact that other people think you are doing poorly while you think you are great. It made my heart sink like a stone.” But when she calmed down, she contemplated the teacher’s well-meaning criticism. “Our teachers cared a lot about us. Blunt as their words might seem, they genuinely wanted to see us grow.”


As she cooled off, Candace looked at her work again and found the problems the teacher had pointed out – she realised her script failed to connect with the audience. When she wrote the next one (her graduation play Love in the Red Chamber), she was “a lot calmer”. Her piece was so well received that her mentor Lee Ming-sum chose to direct her work. In Issue 15 of Dramatic Arts published by the School of Drama in 2001, Lee wrote, “This script fascinated me and her classmates with a vivid theme, lively characters, engaging storylines, unique structure and rich colours; and most importantly the language of the play – it was true to life, contemporary and hilarious at the same time… I believe this astonishing work stands a chance of winning the Best Script Award at the Hong Kong Drama Awards.”


17 years after her graduation, Candace has gained new insights into being an artist. “As an artist, you must have a strong mentality. On the one hand, you need to be open to comments and criticism from your audience. On the other hand, you have to be loyal to the original intentions and purposes of your work. You have to find a happy medium.” In the field of art, Candace admitted, effort and reward do not always coincide. She attributed her success partially to constant self-criticism. “I require myself to be very clear about my goals and constantly reflect on myself. If I haven’t met my standards, I redo everything. When I was a student, I could depend on my teachers’ feedback for improvement. Now, though, I have to set the standards for myself. Sometimes this results in unnecessary stress, which has been one of the greatest challenges throughout my career.”


Despite all the difficulties, Candace is still passionate about playwriting for its creative freedom and for the opportunities for teamwork it offers. “Playwriting is a solitary activity. I write stories any time I want and have a high level of freedom,” she said. “I find the self-ownership and the solitude of this craft quite enjoyable. But when a play gets into a rehearsal room, it becomes a collective work.” Like an actor, she immerses herself in the world of her characters. “Every play is a new world. I often feel that I have lived in those worlds. I may never become the characters I have written, but once I immerse myself in their worlds, I feel that I have made an interesting journey.”

And she has had “journeys” galore - from the world of Médecins Sans Frontières in Alive in the Mortuary to the academic world in The Professor, from the glitzy nightclub in Tonnochy to the marriage dilemmas in My Very Short Marriage. Every story is enriched by her acute observations about human nature and society. “Curiosity is crucial to a playwright, but it only gives you inspiration. Empathy will drive you to dig deeper into the inner worlds of different characters. It enables you to create vivid characters and adds depth to your stories.” 


Different playwrights’ styles may vary, but Candace is determined to be a playwright who relates to her audience. “Every story I write engages my feelings. The tales relate to me on an emotional level and inspire me to contemplate.” This explains why her plays are not only well received but have also brought her five Best Script Awards. In 2010, she received the Award for Best Artist (Drama) from the Hong Kong Arts Development Awards. Dr Chung King-fai (affectionately known as King Sir), Founding Dean of the Academy’s School of Drama, specifically commended her in his feature interview with Academy News in April this year. 

As Candace said, effort and reward do not always coincide, and a favourable environment is crucial for artists to thrive. “I grew up at a very open time when all kinds of plays could flourish; it encouraged people to try writing something about anything.” As she looked back at her playwriting career, Candace said it has not been easy – especially the first two years after graduation. Candace encourages the Academy’s aspiring playwrights to keep the mindset of a novice, stretch themselves and enjoy each creative journey. “As long as your name will be seen on the play, you must do your best regardless of how much monetary reward you get out of it. Every word you write contributes to your reputation.” King Sir mentioned in his feature interview about his desire that more local playwrights be produced, and Candace shares his wish. She hopes that better remuneration and a more creative environment can help the local playwriting scene to thrive.


(The article was published in the Jul 2019 issue of Academy News. Click here to read the original story.)

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