Arts & Culture

Tammy Cheung: Exploring Hong Kong through film

With 20 years of film experience, Cheung examines the Hong Kong identity in documentaries

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, February 21, 2014

Filmmaker Tammy Cheung has used film to explore questions of identity in Hong Kong.

The work of filmmaker Tammy Cheung often revolves around questions of identity in her native Hong Kong. Prior to the screening of her documentaries “Speaking Up” and “Village Middle School” this week in the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, organized by the Department of East Asian Studies, Cheung sat down with The Herald to talk about her experience working as an independent director in Hong Kong and her creative process.


The Herald: Would you tell us a bit more about your background and how you became a documentary director? 

Cheung: I was born in Shanghai and grew up in Hong Kong. My mother and I moved to Hong Kong when I was about three years old. I lived in Canada for 10 years. I studied film and worked in film festivals. When I moved back to Hong Kong, I worked in the film industry for about a year. My impression was that people are not serious about film (there). I was disappointed, so I stopped working in the industry.

Then I worked as a translator, a film teacher, and I wrote for magazines. In 1999, I got the chance to make a short film, “Invisible Women,” with support from a government grant. The film focuses on the lives of three Indian women in Hong Kong. That was my first documentary film. I fell in love with documentary films because I enjoyed learning about other people’s lives. I had no formal documentary film training, so I kind of learned it by doing it.


What are some of the difficulties you encountered in the processes of making documentaries in Hong Kong?

I felt like the Hong Kong industry is kind of backward. At least back then, when I was in the industry, and that is 20 years ago now. People cannot become full-time filmmakers because there are difficulties in getting funding and getting (films) to release. I kind of started making documentaries without a plan. Over the years, I would say I struggled most of the time. I have become financially more stable only in the past two years.


How do you choose your subject matter?

We are really not well planned. We are almost spontaneous. For instance, for “Speaking Up,” we were originally asked to make a film about a concert advocating for democracy. We interviewed people involved in the concert. Eventually, the concert fell through, but we still have the interviews. So, we expanded it into a film.


It seems like your films are focused on Hong Kong-related matters. Also, some of your films, such as “July,” involve politically sensitive topics. Do you find it difficult to present the topic to audiences with little previous knowledge about Hong Kong? And how do you approach controversial, sensitive issues such as the identity of people from Hong Kong?

I would say I assume the audience has some basic knowledge of Hong Kong. Actually, my films appeal to audiences in mainland China and Taiwan. When I show (films) here at Brown, I will explain a bit before the film starts, because most of the audience has no prior knowledge of Hong Kong.

In fact, after (the handover in) 1997, international audiences do not pay attention to Hong Kong. They may be interested in China but not in Hong Kong. People in the West do not have knowledge about China or Chinese history. So, the situation of Hong Kong is complex for them to comprehend.

I do not want to compromise and reduce the depth of my films. Probably, directors have to make a choice. I have chosen to cater for a smaller audience — people who have knowledge or an understanding of Hong Kong.


You were working in Canada before you began making documentaries. What made you decide to move back to Hong Kong, and how was the transition?

Hong Kong is very suitable for filming. There are so many stories everywhere. It’s like a sea full of fish. Eventually, although there are difficulties living in Hong Kong, I tried to solve the problems.

Filming makes me happy, and I am very interested in Chinese people, including those in Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan, even the populace in Chinatown. I am making a film about the population in Chinatown in New York City.

I would say making documentaries have changed me in ways that I often have not noticed.


This interview has been edited for quality and length, and a portion was translated from Cantonese.

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