Columbia's International Play Reading Festival Hosts Final Reading with 'May 35th'

BY Angeline Dimambro, October 26, 2020

The Columbia University School of the Arts hosted the third listening party of its 2020 International Play Reading Festival series with May 35th, written by Candace Chong Mui Ngam. Ngam was awarded the Best Artist Award in Drama by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council in 2010. She was selected as one of Hong Kong’s most “inspirational and influential women” by the South China Morning Post, and she is the winner of six Hong Kong Drama Awards for Best Script. Her latest works include Mila, for which she worked as the librettist (Asia Society Hong Kong Center) and Dr. Sun Yat-sen, also as the librettist (Santa Fe Opera House). Ngam has also worked as translator, notably in the Broadway production of Chinglish, the play written by festival co-founder and Associate Professor David Henry Hwang.


This version of May 35th was translated from the Cantonese by an anonymous translator and directed by Adjunct Assistant professor Leigh Silverman. Silverman also previously collaborated with Ngam and Hwang as the director of Chinglish, and she directed Hwang’s play Yellow Face before that. Silverman has directed numerous plays on Broadway, including Violet, which earned her a Tony nomination for Best Direction of a Musical. She also received the 2011 and 2019 Obie Awards for Sustained Excellence.


Ngam offered the following words to those at the listening party: “After you’ve listened to May 35th, please remember the story still hasn’t ended. Families of the Tiananmen Square victims still remain under government surveillance...I would even say that history repeats itself with only small variations. Since 2019, Hong Kong has experienced a level of social unrest that the city had never seen before. The Chinese government suppresses freedom of speech, politics authorize the rule of law, many sincere young people have been beaten and imprisoned. Some have even resorted to living in exile. I hope this will draw attention to the threats to human rights and the suppression of free speech, no matter whether the subject is China three decades ago, Hong Kong today, or any country or city in the world.”


Hwang also gave listeners additional insight into the play’s title: “The play derives its title from the covert slang used by Chinese ‘netizens,’ or citizens on the internet. The Chinese government banned all references to the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre from social media and search engines. Because of this, individuals took to using the term ‘May 35th’ to dodge censorial government algorithms, but now, even the slang term is censored.”


The play takes place thirty years later after the Tiananmen Square massacre, its remains still censored and repressed. Sui Lum and Ah Dai grapple with a date so volatile that the government won’t let them say it aloud. May 35th explores the indelible human aspiration for freedom alongside the complexities of personal and political history.


Listen to the podcast here and see the complete festival schedule here for future events. Ngam will discuss May 35th in the festival’s Playwright Panel Discussion linked here.