Shooting in her own home village, documentarian Jessey Tsang Tsui-shan spins a meandering tale of diaspora and dislocation in her 2014 documentary Flowing Stories (河上變村). Beginning in the small village of Ho Chung in which almost all of the residents have gone abroad to find work, the film charts the paths of migration along with the hardships discovered both at home and away while centring the village festival held every 10 years as a point of reunion as sons and daughters return in celebration of an idealised village life the modern world has denied them. 

Tsang begins her tale with Granny Lau, an elderly lady who lived next-door to her when she was a child whose relatives often brought her souvenirs from Europe. As Granny Lau explains, her life was always hard. She married Grandpa Lau at 19 in an arranged marriage but he left to find work abroad soon after, returning only a handful of times in 20 years during which they had several children Granny Lau had to raise alone. She describes her familial relationships as without affection, her husband a virtual stranger to her while she also had to work in the fields leaving her disconnected from her sons and daughters. Later, many of them traveled to Calais to work in the restaurant Grandpa Lau had set up with the intention of reuniting his family in France. 

The children who went also talk of hardship, being unable to speak the language and mixing only with other migrants from Hong Kong many from the same the village. Fourth daughter Mei Yong remarks that only the thought of the village festival kept her going when she came to Calais at 17 leaving all her friends behind and having nothing much to do other than work in the restaurant. Her sister-in-law says something similar, that when she arrived she was immediately put to washing dishes and only reprieved when the children were born but that wasn’t much better because the only source of entertainment available to them was to have dinner together. The second of the sisters Mei Lan moved to London with her husband and still doesn’t know the language, having regular mahjong parties with with her neighbours who are also from Hong Kong and many of them nearby villages. 

Most of the others say they don’t think they’ll ever move back, as Grandpa Lau eventually did, because they’ve spent more than half their lives abroad and have had sons and daughters who have grown up and made lives in other countries. But for Mei Lan it’s different because she has no children. She and her husband regret the decision to go abroad, suggesting they did so because their parents encouraged it thinking it would be easier for them to find work but really there were opportunities to be had in Hong Kong and they might have been happier living in a place where they spoke the language. 

But life is hard in every place, and equally for those who leave and those who are left behind. Some reflect on the changing nature of Ho Chung with its new settlement across the river dominated by detached houses which has, a daughter who moved to Edinburgh suggests, disrupted the sense of community. Where people once rarely closed their doors and neighbours wandered through each others homes helping each other out where needed, now everyone is scattered in disparate settlements. Then again, Granny Lau seems to think that sense of community is largely a myth explaining that in her day you had to do everything yourself, no one was going to feed your cow or plough your field if you couldn’t do yourself.

In her own way strangely cheerful in her stoicism, Granny Lau is a tough woman who asks why she would cry for a husband who was over 80 years old when he died, insisting that she had “nothing to be nostalgic about” and counting herself lucky as long as she has two meals a day. Now only around 900 people remain in the village, while it is said that the Shaolin Temple may be looking to build a new complex in the area as the natural vistas are disrupted once again by diggers further eroding the traditional qualities the village festival celebrates. The stories of migration flow in and out of Ho Chung taking pieces of the of the village with them as they go but equally leaving behind a melancholy sense of loss for a disappearing way of life.

Flowing Stories screened as part of this year’s Hong Kong Film Festival UK.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

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