Born and raised in Toronto, Jenn Lau is pursuing graduate studies in East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto. Hoping to understand more about the world of her family and Chinese diaspora, Jenn loves to travel (and especially to Asia). She is currently interested in rebuilding memories in relation to cinematic and textual spaces.
Through watching dramas produced in Hong Kong by the company Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB), I grew to embrace Hong Kong culture and Chinese history as a Chinese-Canadian born in post-Trudeau society. And so, my interests and passions led me to pursue East Asian Studies. Combining school as well as personal family history with the Japanese colonial rule in Hong Kong, “No Regrets” (2010) stood out from rest of the melodramas and comedies TVB produces each season.
The period drama “No Regrets” swept most of the awards at the 42nd TVB Anniversary Awards Ceremony. The outstanding cast, with Sheren Tang and Wayne Lai as female and male lead respectively, convinced audiences of the simple joys and deep fears the Chinese faced in Guangzhou during the 1930s and 1940s. The plot was carefully borrowed; closely tracing the historical events of the Japanese occupation in China, including Shanghai’s defeat and the seven-year occupation of Guangzhou.
Dramas are meaningful not only to those in Hong Kong, Guangzhou, but also to some of us – perhaps many of us – here in Toronto, and in general, overseas.
The experiences and emotions expressed in this particular drama echoed those my grandma told me as a young child. My maternal grandmother survived the war years in Hong Kong, when Hong Kong was under Japanese rule for 3 years and 8 months. Interestingly for Hong Kong locals like my uncle, the Japanese colonial era in Hong Kong is referred to without direct mention of “Japan.” Hong Kong historians call this short-lived period by its length “3 years and 8 months.”
Without a doubt Hong Kong and Guangzhou experienced drastically different waves of the Japanese colonial rule, yet this drama reverberates even those who did not live through the war like myself.
One particular scene helped me understand the trauma my grandma lived with for the rest of her life. Preparing for Japanese attack, bomb shelters are built. The Guangzhou Municipal Government calls for bomb shelter drills. The cast thus begins daily journeys to the underground bomb shelters. Their initial mocking of these drills soon turn sour as the first bomb hits Guangzhou which kills the wife of a friend and murders those who were still on the street such as an ice cream vendor. The reality check of the Japanese invasion crashes down on the characters and they begin to pray for China’s victory. In hindsight, I already knew that the drills would end in bloodshed. Even when sitting in my family room watching the characters pace back and forth between their homes and the bomb shelters on the screen, I cringed. I cringed imagining how unexpected the Japanese attack really was.
I cringed recalling how many nights my grandma would wake up to the same memory of almost being killed by the Japanese soldiers decades before.
Engulfed in the drama, I almost forgot that this 2010 production was a fictional representation of events decades before. Translating the experience 80 years or several generations later and half a world away, I wondered how many others in various generations watching this drama overseas felt. A resounding fear? Echoes of stories we were accustomed to hearing?
The fear that I anticipated for the characters perhaps mirrored how my grandma felt for me and my family. My mom, born after the war, used to complain about how much sugar we had in our basement. My grandma managed to hide butter, oil, salt, sugar, and other “necessities” in our basement and in our kitchen cabinets. I never really cared much about these things. I figured it was an “old-person” thing; that maybe my grandma worried she wouldn’t be able to go out and buy more when the snow came as it often did, forming mountains in our yard. But upon studying some world history, I realised there was a deeper psychological aspect in her actions. And watching the scene where the landlady of the male protagonist, who manages to escape from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, leaves behind two bags of rice for the rest of her tenants out of love and care reminded me to reconsider my grandma’s “old person” habits once again. Her staple purchases of butter, oil, salt, and sugar, whenever we were at a supermarket stemmed from love, care, and fear. The fruits of the Japanese war in Hong Kong in the 1940s bore a different kind of love for my family – an edible love.
I would love to hear from other Chinese diaspora about their experiences with cinematic period movies and dramas and how they have challenged our memories and consciousness of the stories we heard from our elders.