On a blazing Sunday morning, young theatre actors Joanna Ko Siu-man and Mak Pui-tung are warming up for a rehearsal at the Chung Ying Theatre headquarters on Borrett Road.

The pair are rising stars of the leading theatre company, established in 1979 by the British Council.

Mak Pui-Tung (left) and Joanna Ko Siu-man (right) at Chung Ying Theatre.
Mak Pui-Tung (left) and Joanna Ko Siu-man (right) at Chung Ying Theatre headquarters.

While Ko and Mak have only been part of Chung Ying for less than five years, they will perform alongside theatre veterans Chu Pak-him and Wu Lai-ying in the upcoming re-run production of The Big Big Day. As far as they could recall, their first calling to the performing arts scene was when they performed in student musicals.

First calling to the stage

“I played one of Cinderella’s evil sisters in a drama contest in Form 1,” said Mak Pui-tung, now 26. He continued: “We would rehearse until 9pm. At that time, we did not intend to educate the audience, but only thought it was fun.”

Feeling the need to develop his interests, Mak joined his institute’s drama society while studying for his associate degree, before applying for a drama degree at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA).

Mak Pui-tung during a rehearsal for The Big Big Day.
Mak Pui-tung during a rehearsal for The Big Big Day.

Mak only succeeded in attaining a place at HKAPA the third time he applied. “During the first time, I thought it didn’t matter. When I didn’t get accepted the second time, I started to question the reason behind it. By the third, I was accepted,” he said.

Now in her third year at Chung Ying, Joanna Ko Siu-man first performed in a children’s musical at her headmaster’s encouragement—but her journey to becoming a full-time actress was no easy feat.

During her teenage years, Ko spent three years studying musical dance at the HKAPA junior dance school. She said: “The more I danced, the more I felt that I expressed myself best by performing. In Form 4, I told my family that I wanted to enter HKAPA in Form 6 to study dance.”

Ko Siu-man in a production at the Hong Kong City Hall.
Ko Siu-man in a production at the Hong Kong City Hall.

“Even my brother who studies Fine Arts at the Chinese University of Hong Kong disagreed with my decision. My parents questioned why I didn’t enter a proper university,” she said.

In the end, she completed a degree at the theatre and dance department of Colby College in the US before obtaining a Masters in Drama at HKAPA.

“In my parents’ eyes, I have completed a university degree and fulfilled their requirements,” she said.

Ko always planned to develop her career in Hong Kong. She said: “The development of theatre was quite slow in Hong Kong—the first productions only came in the 1960s.” She thought she would try to bring what she learned abroad back home.

Same career path, different modes of living

After completing their degrees, both actors were faced with choosing between a freelance and full-time career. Mak applied for a full-time position at Chung Ying. While freelancers have more opportunities to work with different artists, full-timers enjoy more stability.

“Even if you fail to put on a good show, you could still perform in the next production,” said Mak. “When Chung Ying took me on as a full-timer, I didn’t hesitate. I could learn from fellow actors in a collaborative manner.”

Mak Pui-tung at a previous production of The Big Big Day.
Mak Pui-tung at a previous production of The Big Big Day.

Ko, on the other hand, was not as decisive when she considered her career path.

There were concerns about the scope of performances. “Chung Ying has its own style and boundaries. As an actor, you may sometimes be greedy and want to put on performances at Cattle Depot,” she said. Cattle Depot Theatre, located in To Kwa Wan, is renowned for its avant-garde performances.

Ko started her career as a freelancer before joining the theatre company in 2012. “I graduated in June 2011 and joined Chung Ying in April 2012. In between, I performed in five or six productions as a freelancer,” she said.

Ko Siu-man at a rehearsal.
Ko Siu-man at a rehearsal.

“However, it wasn’t enough to pay my bills—I had to teach on the side. During the busiest period, I taught up to 20 classes a week,” Ko said. She said that she only managed to rehearse in between several classes a day.

“I didn’t have the strength to delve into the performance texts when I was doing so much on the side,” Ko said. She said that fortunately, Chung Ying took her on as a full-timer.

Working with the veterans

The two actors will perform in a production of Farmer Lung Man-hong’s wedding comedy The Big Big Day. Both have acted in other productions of the play before.

Ko Siu-man (right) with veteran Chu Pak-him (right).
Ko Siu-man (right) with veteran Chu Pak-him (right).

While Mak will reprise his role, he feels different about the upcoming performance in August. “The last time I performed this play, it was two months after I graduated from HKAPA,” he said. Mak thinks that working with theatre veterans such as Chu Pak-him and Yeung Wai-lun makes him feel like he’s “back in school.”

“They are really great people. I learn a lot from their interpretation of the text,” said Mak.

What’s next?

While fulfilling her dreams of acting, Ko says, “Sometimes, I’d think: I want to be a choreographer, or a director.”

Ko Siu-man (left) and Mak Pui-tung (right).
Ko Siu-man (left) and Mak Pui-tung (right).

Apart from hoping to build a firm foundation for his acting skills, Mak also hopes to express himself through playwriting. Recently, he took part in renowned dramatist Paul Poon Wai-sum’s playwriting scheme. “Apart from acting, I also have a goal of expressing my thoughts through writing,” he said.

The Big Big Day runs from August 21 to 30 at the Hong Kong City Hall Theatre.

Paul Benedict Lee is an undergraduate law student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Paul has previously contributed to HK Magazine and Radio Television Hong Kong, covering issues ranging from local heritage conservation to arts features. He has also worked as a legal intern at local human rights firm Daly & Associates.