You need to watch ‘The Veiled Willow’ if you don’t like period films that are stuffy and preachy about the glory of the good old days or nauseating nostalgia. Celebrating Cantonese cuisine, heritage, and set within a rich universe and complex backstories, Eva Tang’s short film is a story we can all love – food, not just what it does for the gut, but also what it does for the heart.
Formerly a journalist, Eva Tang is an accomplished director whose feature documentary ‘The Songs We Sang’ has now spun off books in the same name, documenting the xinyao movement in Singapore.
Former journalist turned filmmaker Eva Tang of The Veiled Willow
‘The Veiled Willow’ was shot in Singapore and was part of a commission by the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre in 2017. It was, for Eva, a “license” to direct a dialect short film, as dialects have been banned in the media for over three decades now.
“I want it to feel genuine to make up for the long-lost mother tongue. The idea of doing a period drama came,” she shares.
The Veiled Willow – directors of photography Tim Chen and Amelia Su
Celebrating Cantonese cuisine with a feast for the senses
Eva herself is half-Cantonese, but that was only part of the challenge. As authenticity was what she was going for, she researched and reached out to her network for resources.
First, to write the dialogue in Cantonese, she worked with Dr Soon Ai Ling for material. Eva adapted the character of “Chef Tam” from one of Ai Ling’s short stories and tracked down the last few surviving traditional Cantonese restaurants in Singapore for further research.
Eva also met Majie (amahs) in Chinatown.
“I got to know about the surviving Majie living there. I read that some of the better-off Majie would hold a feast after they took their vows of celibacy. I soon had a story idea which is a poignant one.
“I wonder what kind of love stories would they have? Or did they have one? I talked to people who were brought up by Majie. One of the interviewees shared that when he was a boy he vaguely remembered an incident: an electrician came to their house, saw their Majie, and later asked for her hand. But she expressed no interest.
Songbird Yudi Yap takes on the role of Second Grandma and also belts out a mournful tune in The Veiled Willow
“She has been loyal to the family and is treated like family. When the interviewee’s father had passed away, his mum was so lonely and sad that the Majie had to keep her company every night in her bedroom.
“Fast forward to present-day Singapore, the surviving Majie is in her nineties, and the boy is now a retiree who will regularly and faithfully pick up his Majie from Chinatown to go for medical checkups.
Singapore Chinese families have shrunk in size and relationships have become more distanced, the loyalty that the Majie embody seem like a rare virtue. I also can’t help wondering where have their youth gone to, or given to?”
Is this Majie, Sister Lau, a feminist?
The true stars of this story isn’t just the food. It’s the relationships and strong and individual personalities. Sister Lau (Melissa Leung), so much that defined her as an individual, in an age where women were just trained to be wives. To some extent, she took control of her own destiny and lived on her own terms.
“To put it in contemporary terms, how would one describe Majie? Single, independent, women who prioritise their career.
“That sounds like a modern woman. But, it is not easy for a Chinese woman at that time to choose to be single, independent, and become the breadwinner of her family. Despite most of the Majie are uneducated, I feel that they are quite feminist in their own way.
The Veiled Willow – with Melissa Leung Hiu Tuen as Lau, who’s taking a vow of celibacy in this scene
“What interests me is the seemingly contradicting values co-existing in these working-class women, on one hand they were ahead of their time, on the other hand they were also very traditional.
“Some of them were afraid to become wandering and lonesome spirits with no children to pray for them, they would buy fake marriages so that their tombstones could stay in their villages. Hence I feel that they are women who live with no choice but made a choice for themselves.
“My salute for Majie can only describe in one Cantonese word “骨气”, meaning one’s backbone or strength of character, I can’t find other word to replace it, it is precisely this unyielding, dignified spirit that I find so beautifully being Cantonese. ”
The origins of the Yam Basket is a true love story
Eva rallied and collaborated with researchers who consulted her on set design.
Help with costume design came from Laichan; Eva worked with an art team to get the vintage look and feel right, including art director Junior Foong, set dresser Apple Lew, and props master Apple Ong.
Chef Chris Hooi of Dragon Phoenix restaurant was the food consultant.
The Veiled Willow – with Tay Kong Hui as Chef Tam
“(Chris)’s father Hooi Kok Wai is one of the famous Cantonese four chefs in the 60s. It was his father who created the yam basket to impress the nuns that brought up his girlfriend who is an orphan (the story retold in this film).
“I remember Chris telling me if there’s no yam basket, he will not be born. It is a real dish with a real love story. The original yam basket is a vegetarian dish, whereas the modern versions have added chicken dices and shrimps.”
The film title 柳影袈裟 (The Veiled Willow) is the name of a vegetarian dish that has disappeared in today’s menu, Eva explains. It’s one of the many local dishes that have disappeared from our collective memory and tastebuds.
The proof is in the yam basket
We’ve written way too many words for a film whose logline simply reads ‘a sumptuous meal for an unspoken love’.
That’s what it just aims to be, but we say proof, my friends, is in the viewing.. or, yam basket. (So, watch it.)