Telling a story of generations: Cynthia Lam’s first play

If you start trying to unravel your family history, you never know where you’ll end up or what you’ll end up discovering.

Hong Kong-born playwright and PhD student Cynthia Lam knows this all too well – she spent much of her PhD in creative writing working on her first play, a solo female memoir titled 愛媽媽 (Love, mom), premiering at the Auckland Fringe on September 16.

愛媽媽 (Love, mom) tells the story of three generations of Lam’s family – from his two grandmothers (Ah Mah and Por Por) who lived in Hong Kong, to her mother and family’s trip to New Zealand in the 1990s, and finally to Lam, whose own journey took her between Hong Kong and back.

Hong Kong-born playwright and creative writing PhD student Cynthia Lam performs her autobiographical play on stage for Auckland Fringe. Picture: provided

The story behind the writing 愛媽媽 (Love, mom) started when she returned to New Zealand seven years ago and started writing. Since she was a child in the 1990s, she has traveled back and forth between New Zealand and Hong Kong, but this was her last stay in Hong Kong where she reached a turning point in her life.

She had a decent job and was married but she was not happy. She left her life and her husband and returned to New Zealand for what she considered her “second chance at life”.

“When I write it’s because I’m trying to understand things or make sense of things that happened like my personal experiences,” Lam says, “Why did I feel so unhappy Why did I feel depressed?

She pursued her passion for writing – first by taking writing and literature courses, before starting a PhD in creative writing at Massey University and throughout it all, she was always drawn through autobiographical writing. She started writing about herself, about her mother, her grandmothers.

This helped form the basis of his doctorate: hOur doctoral research focuses on matrilineal narratives and female autoethnography, where, through self-reflection and writing, “you place yourself in certain social and cultural frameworks”.

Lam wrote the piece in short, sharp bursts, building a collection of different vignettes. She took them and arranged them to create a non-linear piece that doesn’t conform to more traditional storytelling methods.

“In place [it] honors the process and the interweaving of memories, feelings and relationships and all the disparate pieces that make up our lives,” she says.

This story is told over 70 minutes and incorporates many different media – including 2D and 3D animations by artist Celine Chan – alongside tai chi and Chinese martial arts, and Cantonese songs.

Following the story of her mother and that of her two grandmothers, Lam weaves her family history, alongside her personal journey with depression and the cultural and societal pressures she felt while living in Hong Kong.

“As I was writing about the experiences of both my grandmothers and my mother, I realized that we are a product of our times and I think that’s what sometimes creates tension. Growing up, there were tensions between me and my mother, but writing the play helped me understand where it came from.

“What was interesting was [this play] brought me and my mother closer.

Her creative process also caught the attention of her extended family, as Lam attempted to uncover the truth behind various family tales and piece together her narrative: She spent time following the threads – ranging from her father to an aunt , to an uncle – to find someone who will recall how the events really happened.

Lam says the process of writing the play brought her closer to her family. Picture: provided

It didn’t stop there: His mother helped record a Cantonese pop song for his performance, while Lam’s aunt wrote Chinese calligraphy to use on set. Lam’s brother even came on board partly to help with marketing and partly to help build a board.

Ultimately, Lam wants people who see her perform to go on a journey similar to the one she’s been on – “I want the public [to] start thinking about their mother figures – their mothers, their grandmothers and their family history, and then it actually starts a dialogue between people.

愛媽媽 (Love, Mum), performed by Cynthia Lam and directed by Kanta Kochhar-Lindgren, will be presented at the Herald Theater in Auckland on September 16 and 17. The September 17 performance is also streaming online at

– Asia Media Center

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