Ask the Author: Candace Chong Mui Ngam

Candace Chong Mui Ngam is an award winning playwright and writer-in-residence in the UI International Writing Program. Ngam spoke with The Daily Iowan on transitioning from Hong Kong to Iowa City, and the inspiration behind her work.


Gabby Drees

Candace Chong Mui Ngam poses for a portrait near the Iowa Memorial Union at the University of Iowa on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. (Gabby Drees/The Daily Iowan)

Cassandra Parsons, Arts Reporter

Candace Chong Mui Ngam is an award-winning playwright from Hong Kong, China, and a current writer-in-residence in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. Her works include Wild Boar, The French Kiss, May 35, and Alive in the Mortuary. She was selected by the South China Morning Post as one of Hong Kong’s 25 most influential women. Ngam is also a six-time winner of the Hong Kong Drama Awards and recipient of the Best Artist Award by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council.

(This interview has been revised for length and clarity).

DI: What inspired you to start writing? 

Ngam: We had school performances in our high school. It was the first time I wrote a play, for my classmates. My high school was quite a famous school in Hong Kong, but my academic results were not so good. I’ve always been not so confident, except for my Chinese writing, in the conversation. At that time, the experience of writing a script for my classmates to perform was really the first time I felt there was something that I was talented in. It was the first time that I believed I could be a playwright. Theater education is not as prevalent in the United States — in our society, jobs range from lawyer, banker, businessman, ranking them higher than writers or artists. In Chinese society, it’s more prevalent. 

DI: What drew you to the University of Iowa?

Ngam: I was invited three years ago. I think someone nominated me for the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation — that’s the foundation that supports me to come to Iowa. I think someone nominated me to come to this Iowa writing program, and the foundation really supported me. However, this trip was postponed for three years. The situation was quite serious last year at this time, so I’m very happy because I can finally be here. And that is very important for a writer like me for two reasons. One, I’m a working mother. So, when I was in Hong Kong, I was very occupied with my work and career. For writing, you really need to take time. You need to think, you need to accumulate and express your feelings. And the second reason — we had experienced a very bad year of social movement, very serious. And it ended up with a lot of people who fought for the freedom of speech, freedom of press, the idea of holding one country with two systems. There was a lot of pressure on Hong Kong’s press industry, education, as well as the creative industry. A lot of people leave the city disappointed by the government, they don’t hold any hope towards the future. I’m grateful that I have this period to look into my own feelings, and to find something that I can work on, and write something about Iowa City.

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DI: How has your time at the university been so far?

Ngam: I’m happy here, you have a very good campus — spacious. Just this morning we were having a zoom meeting with the people who really support this program. She mentioned something about freedom of expression. She mentioned something about the idea of having our own writing program, because they hold onto the importance of freedom of expression, they hold onto the importance of having independence, creative voice. And it touched me, because that is exactly what we have been fighting for in the last two years. And it’s very obvious that we’re losing. And we used to have it. To listen to this again, it just struck me. It’s heartbreaking because we lost it. It’s like we are going through a war, which the world doesn’t know about, because it’s physically less obvious. But actually, they’re killing our values, they’re killing our system. 

DI: Do you have a favorite play or piece that you’ve written?

Ngam: There are two plays that I really like. One is called, The French Kiss. It’s about a pastor who French kissed his secretary and he lost everything because he was sued. It was based on a real case in Hong Kong. Another play, which caused me some troubles, is, The 35th of May. You know, the 35th of May doesn’t happen, it means June 4th, which was a massacre in Beijing in Tiananmen Square. So it was a story about an incident that happened in 1989, when in Beijing there was a huge social students movement. It ended up with a tank going into the square, with armies going to the square, and it killed a lot of students. Before now, every year, a lot of people will go to the park and light candles, and we have to remember the lessons from the history. We had so many students killed by the government. We want to emphasize that this is important, that government should not be like a dictatorship. We have to listen to people, we have to remember who died in this incident, and we shouldn’t let it happen.