Tell, Don’t Show

Wong Chun Ying reflects on truth, connection, and love, drawing from experiences in film, journalism, restaurants, and art.



She was holding the umbrella, although I was taller. She strained a little to match my height, the vein in her wrist popping a ghostly shade of green. She was walking in strides too big, her shoulders too squared. I tried not to touch the water droplets trapped in the faded part of her hair, tried not to startle her out of the person she was constantly trying to be.

We were streets away from the cinema, from the Q&A where I offered answers I should have, instead, shown in the film. I had nothing but words; nothing but shortcuts to things I couldn’t demonstrate in life. A few months back, in a carpark that smelled like piss, a similar sweet failure: I told her I liked her, without having previously behaved in any way she could have leaned on for clues. There’s no tracing from the periphery to its centre; the feeling was intensely, wholly centre.

And everything was most calm at the centre. She never told me she liked me back, or that she didn’t. She told me, instead, a handful of things about herself I’d never known before. Where she used to be, how she came home, what my sudden disclosure of feelings meant to her, as if they were relevant at all. It was confession in exchange for confession, on each of our own terms. Maybe something can feel transactional and real at the same time. Since then, for as long as it lasted, we were inseparable. The companionship felt so insured by what we exchanged, I started thinking maybe something only feels real when it is, to an extent, transactional.

Later, before we never spoke again, she would remind me that she wanted to see me keep making things. A way of saying I can trust her to always be in the audience, even if I can’t spot her immediately; even if I will always only catch the side of her face just turning away, being slowly consumed by the shade of some heavy door at the exit.

“I’ll try,” was all I said in response. She simply rolled her eyes. She’s so beautiful when she looks like she can’t stand me.

I wish telling a story was as easy as when I tell her things.


*   *   *


S was lecturing us on how young filmmakers nowadays wanted to avoid clichés and melodrama more than they wanted to tell a story.

He was making us watch When a Woman Ascends the Stairs on the computer in his study. A few minutes in, he paused at an insert that showed, as chatter roared through the window of the building, a delivery man stopping to look up. It seemed to be just another transition before we were introduced to the main characters. But S probed—why a delivery man? Why the look of surprise?

It looked like a random decision to us. Finally, S pointed to the opening line of the film for answers: “bars in the daytime are like women without makeup.” The delivery man looked up because the bar should have been quiet during the day when he worked. He was surprised because the hostesses shouldn’t be here, yet they were. S told us that every scene in the film mattered, even if it’s not always made known. He said it as if he was warning us.

My friends looked amused when they heard that S handpicked me and another guy for the screenwriting course. S had a controversial reputation in the industry, for his sometimes rather assertive, occasionally archaic, opinions, and lowkey propensity for manipulating young directors into making films by his maxims.

A month into the course, the other guy stopped showing up to class. S talked too much about films, too little about film-writing. But I stayed on. After one whole year, I was still obsessed with the disastrous nature of my short film. I wanted to know how to close that gap between my feelings and the success in emoting them; I wanted to know why, when people described my film as “non-narrative,” “experimental,” or “unconventional,” it felt like I had cheated.

I wanted to stop breaking into a cold sweat whenever clips from the film suddenly start playing in my head.

Other than Mikio Naruse, I was made to watch Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs and Harold Pinter’s Accident, despite their disturbing portrayals of certain female characters. I was made familiar with a style characterised by elliptical dialogue writing, understated performances, and slow-burn but eventually eruptive strife. In such stories, violence is fate, and everything is set in the motion of it. You watch knowing that no one will come out of it unscathed, yet everything is so calm before the storm; so calm it’s ostensibly boring. The off-kilter-ness is so intricately embedded in the normal order of events, you feel delusional for having been able to pick up on it.

But you are not insane for having spotted the insanity.

Every difference, contradiction that arises in mundane settings will be pruned into fuel for deadly motives. Every bit speaks to the whole. Not one line is digression. No breaking from the story to offer a slice of sudden insight into life. Everything is relevant to the ultimate demise.

S thought certain younger filmmakers had reduced melodrama into the writing of car crashes, sudden tragedies, shocking secrets revealed—or formulaic uses of deus ex machina. To course-correct, quickly, they make films in which “not much happens.” To avoid the overtly sentimental, they opt for muted conflicts and inflated self-reflection. Some of the more familiar antitheses include quiet, Manchester by the Sea-esque, self-healing journeys, or the artistic, quippy vignettes in Me and You and Everyone We Know.

To S, these only seem like the clumsy matting of snippets. He saw some of us as too engaged with finding beauty in the debris, or, sometimes, with becoming the debris. S revered melodrama as the visibly fervent effort to build, not only a world of feelings, but the access to it.

A question of, how often do you prioritise a story over mere moments?

It’s like learning to do water colours all over again—we are so afraid to use the darker, bolder shades, unable to trust that the later process will need their ferocity. We let our feelings stay sheen, all translucent and pretty.


*   *   *


I met Leung outside of Sai Ying Pun MTR station. He was in his final year at the same university I went to, and was the youngest district counsellor ever elected. I looked at the big canvas bag and the huge backpack he was carrying; he could have been moving out of his dormitory, but he was going to give out masks and sanitizers to the residents in one of his estates. I asked if he was catching up on his schoolwork okay. He only smiled timidly. Later, when the security guard and residents greeted him warmly, addressing him as “Mr. Leung,” I realised he was trying hard not to be the person I sometimes bumped into at the Students’ Union Building, at least for the day. I regretted asking the schoolwork question immediately.

I partnered up with a lean, tall girl, a news photographer who also just joined the company. She was impossibly swift with her camera. I could imagine her moving like a small stream between bigger photographer uncles and their monstrous lenses, securing a good spot outside the court without making noise. When we were on the way to the next estate, I asked what she did before this, and she said she used to work for a fashion magazine. I asked why she left. She smiled as if I should have known the answer.

“This feels more important,” she said.

I had always been embarrassed that I became a journalist for myself. After two years in art, I wanted to feel important again. I wanted to stop having to think about my purpose every day. I wanted what I wrote to immediately matter. I wanted to stop worrying about being self-indulgent—I wanted my words to be in the service of others, by default. I wanted to leave that world full of stories, where showing is always deemed trickier than telling. I planted myself in the world filled with truth, in bouts of bundles of wallops of them, where things were different: trying to tell things rightly can be a hell on its own. Here, rather than recreating reality, we restore it. What you do is no longer just good or bad; what you do can be verified.

I was horrible at writing news. I could not write clear leads. The rule says important information goes to the first paragraph, and the most important information opens the first paragraph. I stuck to doing long scene-setting in the features instead, rounding up trivia, hoping something bore through. Instead of retelling what people told me, I was obsessed with writing about the manner in which they told me things. The pregnant pause before giving an answer, the overenthusiasm, the false confidence. Let me just show it to you, what these people really meant. I remained too present in everything I wrote. 

The company was shut down in a sudden police raid years after I left. Its social media was offline, as if it never existed. I used to go back to look at the photos of seasonal trees on their profile often—the golden trumpet, the red cotton, the flame trees—and be reminded of the girl, the small stream that ran noiselessly between them. She had continued to take pictures of plants: polaroids of potted plants that journalists took with them when evacuating from the headquarters of another news agency facing closure. In the double exposures, people and their plants overlap to become something like a new kind of dusk.

I once read this piece about a Japanese architect working his garden for hours under the sun, only to hear the guests say, afterwards, “It’s as if nothing has been done.” The architect smiled, thinking that was the highest compliment he could get. Sometimes it takes so much work just to maintain the status quo, so much work just to make it seem like nothing has been done.

I remember all of you, who disappear into what you do. I wish I could be more like you.


*   *   *


On the imitative fallacy: The tendency to express disintegration or uncertainty through language that itself exhibits those qualities….The “conscious author” and the pursuit of “formal perfection” emerged as desirable alternatives to “the fragmentary and unguided thought of the character, as he walks down the street, or sits in a bar, or dreams at night.”1


*   *   *


I picked up Stoner, a novel written in the 1960s, aware of its status as a “perfect novel.” But no paragraph from Stoner, standing on its own, will impress you.

Stoner differs greatly from its contemporary counterparts in both style and intention. Genre-bending campus novels these days, with Real Life and Bunny as cases in point, are, mostly, immediately satisfying to read. They are quick to comment on the unjust power dynamics that permeate academia, or rally streams of surrealism to join an outcry over the absurdity of centring our lives on knowledge, or simply deflect—at the end of all attempts at compensation awaits a complete downward-spiral into self, a journey of owning the weakness.

There was a time when I would have felt entirely validated by these stories. These vividly dark tales of succeeding at the expense of true engagement with the world. Nothing else is as self-indulgent; nothing else exudes as much desire to overcompensate.

The novel followed the journey of Stoner, a farm boy who set out to study agriculture in university, but instead fell in love with literature, after having overcome great difficulties in passing a mandatory Beginner English course. He altered the trajectory of his life, setting out to become a professor—a career seemingly too sophisticated for someone so single-minded, but appallingly diligent in that regard, for his own good. His life, as traced in the book, was mundane. The protagonist, rather than struggling with whether to leave, struggled to stay within the institution.

John Williams, the author, didn’t always intend to write about the regular life of a withdrawn individual. His first novel, Nothing but the Night, was mostly a passionate, meandering stream of consciousness. Later, he vehemently rejected it, deeming it plagued by the problem of self-absorption—attempts to undo it would be apparent in his later work. While in search of a better vessel for stories, he became devoted to Yvor Winters’ school of thought, which burdened itself with the mission to eradicate the so-called vice of modern American fiction: “the imitative fallacy.”

To re-establish himself as something of a “formalist,” he began his second experiment: Butcher’s Crossings. In an arduous journey of self-discovery in vast, harsh land, Andrews, the protagonist, became a beast of burden, constantly in motion. Any rumination on life would be conveyed through vivid man-versus-wild portrayals, such as the brutal handling of buffalos, blood-freezing coldness and stalled wagons, or a companion suddenly being killed off by a falling log.

Self-indulgent digression was visibly constrained; in its place were relentless, elaborate descriptions of the journey. The character, as well as the author, rarely disclosed his state of mind—telling us what he thought, in extended detail, would risk digression, or a bursting, seemingly laughable urge to prove one’s literary genius at the expense of consistency. Showing, on the other hand, is care, patience, and trust in the process.

Telling your story is a self-centred act. Showing others your story is to communicate.

Stoner’s “dullness” was a result of all this: a milestone in John Williams’ search for perfect storytelling. He toned down what was done too extremely in Butcher’s Crossing; he let himself come through more, but still less than in the first novel. A balance was attained. He found a way to stay true to his craft and, more importantly, to himself.

I would have dismissed the book as something it wasn’t, had I given up halfway. But slowly, even the terse description of Stoner’s impersonal relationship with colleagues, his tedious marriage with the emotionally dysfunctional Edith, as well as moments of preparing coursework behind a snow-lit window proved to be deeply moving. The prose here is no longer the kind in Butcher’s Crossings where Williams kept all of himself out, neither is it an excess of so-called narcissistic rumination on life as shown in his first novel. In Stoner, not only did Williams find structure, he also found the perfect way to digress from it; which is to say, he found the perfect way to let himself come through in the story.


*   *   *


Someone asked if I wanted to publish a compilation of the interviews I did. I was bewildered. Who was going to read it? What and who would this be for?

For showing who I was, what I’m capable of, but by way of others.

“If we could find the right archive, the right stash of materials that was sexy enough to sell ourselves, we could be spared the depression, the anxiety attacks, the pre-mid-life crises that would come when, one by one, we realised we were not going to be chosen.”2


*   *   *


“Have you gotten what you need?”

It was a sentimental scene. At the dinner table, local artist Wong Yan-kwai was confronted, gently but directly, about the mother of his estranged daughter. He told his daughter, over wine and cigarettes, that although they had not spent much time together, what he had with her mother was not a one-night stand—“there was a lot of love.” After a brief moment of silence, as the words sank in, Wong turned to Angie Chan, director of the documentary as well as longtime acquaintance, and asked, sharply, if she had gotten what she needed. He was referring to the moving confession; he was asking if this was the material Chan was looking for in achieving the “realness” she needed. He asked as if she played a part in staging it.

In a flicker of light, Chan was visibly flustered, angry, and devastated.

Throughout the duration of I’ve Got the Blues, Wong ceaselessly challenged Chan’s approach to documenting his life. He was highly aware of Chan’s motives in capturing certain moments, or in setting up certain scenes for eliciting “real emotions.” He would like to remind the audience that this was a recreation of his life by someone else. In this manner, his telling would have been more truthful to her showing.

Then, he continued to tear down her sculpture in time.


*   *   *


“If you need a consent form to proceed, it’s probably a sign that you shouldn’t.” A young documentarian was commenting on a recent controversy at a rooftop gathering. We nodded, our mouths all dry from the alcohol.

The controversy surrounded a veteran director’s messy first attempt at a documentary, which followed the lives of five school girls over the course of ten years. It was found out, as one of the girls later protested, that the project proceeded against her will. She revealed that the local filmmaker’s only attempt to obtain consent from the subjects was a notice slip their parents signed on behalf of the girls, when they were only twelve.

The young documentarian was saying: If you need a paper to know that people are okay with you filming them, then it’s probably not okay. The right to tell other people’s stories is always, and will forever be, rooted in trust. And trust is something you just know. The consent form, the formal terms, the signing under “yes, I do,” are all, counter-intuitively, indicators that you have not obtained the closeness necessary for documenting a person.

Before the controversy even broke out, the unclosed distance was already glaring to us. The funny thing is, what you do off camera usually shows on camera.


*   *   *


I got a gig in the kitchen of a second-rate, overpriced American chain restaurant that sold microwaved pasta and overly cheesed broccoli. I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do yet, but I knew I wanted to make sure I could still make a living if, one day, I could no longer work in the arts or culture. At least seven of my friends have already settled or are settling in another country. Sometimes people can’t move their jobs with them; an ex-civil servant is now sitting in a small clinic in Coventry, an ex-cultural journalist is driving a forklift at a Costco somewhere. I wanted to know I could survive if I was completely uprooted and replanted somewhere, someday.

The guy that always helped me watch over my garlic bread told me he had worked in the kitchen since he was a kid, and working here was a springboard for him. He’d be off to a high-end Italian restaurant in Wan Chai soon; they already made him try a day at their kitchen, where, unlike here, they always kept the fish soup and shrimp soup separated. He asked me if I wanted to follow him, told me that he couldn’t guarantee a good position since I was so inexperienced, but I could always start from the bottom. I ducked and pretended to be busy finding the other half of the lobster in the lowboy. Every day, for four months, I lived an episode of Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal, only I was working with actual people instead of actors to rehearse a version of life I might escape to.

The hotel management boy who’s going to work on a ranch in Canada next year was manning the grill station. I could see his sweat beading under the hair net when he joked about paying me to write his paper. “Aren’t you from HKU?” he said. I waved it off. I was too occupied with cutting the quesadilla and shaping a story in my mind. I based the character on Cheung Gor and had already made a few notes on my phone. Cheung Gor was the veteran who could handle two stations at once, a man in his fifties that still called me “girl” because he couldn’t remember my name, though he had taught me how to hold a knife once. He was often berated by the chef, sometimes by the sous chef who’s even younger than me, but I had never seen him sulk. No one could figure out whether he was docile or simply happy. He aspired to be “flexible, like Gundam.”

I was clearing the sewage. I kept my station clean. I offered the waitress two cigs during the smoking break. I was trying to enjoy the fact that I was simply being good at my job. I tried not to observe and write about everyone in the kitchen. More accurately, I tried not to write about myself through everyone in the kitchen.


*   *   *


“He must assimilate into the new life in another country.”3 The man on the podcast started talking about Bei Dao. “But he must also remain deeply sensual about the situation of his home country, as well as preserve a high command of, and sophisticated sensitivities for, his mother tongue. In other words, he must strive to adjust and, at the same time, resist the adjustment.”

People are leaving, friends are leaving. Diaspora, blah, blah, blah. Imagine writing about this place, but from afar. What it would be like if you weren’t shown the city anymore, just constantly told and telling about it, in the manner of remembrance, over and over, drawing up an inaccurate map in your head leading nowhere. Imagine we were past the discourse on diaspora, and stuck at the part where we have a high command of, and sophisticated sensitivities for, blah, blah, blah.


*   *   *


I was looking at the hair and the nails and the blood suspended in the pendants. They felt like something I shouldn’t be allowed to see. Bernadette and I were still holding the incense sticks that the artist had invited us to light at the entrance of the exhibition. The idea was to walk with the incense in our hands between flesh-coloured veils until satisfied, then let go.

But we held on, moving to other parts of the exhibition, catching scattered words on shredded paper and a picture of a ghostly woman unsuccessfully buried by salt in a small drawer. We stared at a copper-cast bellybutton hung over a small dune of salt, without wondering where the rest of the body was.

Eventually Bernadette flinched; the incense was reaching its end. It burnt her fingers.

“On a city-level, there is an undercurrent of loss everywhere,”4 Michele Chu told The New York Times about her latest exhibition, you, trickling. It was a space for people to grieve, to mourn, to let go, to feel however they want, and to meet in the undercurrent when they want the same thing (back). The pain was acute, but it remained obscure how we should enter it, or if we should at all.  

We were, definitely, in some ways, afraid of looking at it “wrongly.” That might be why we stopped looking, sat on the massage bed, and talked for an hour instead. I couldn’t recall what we talked about. But I did remember the water trickling in the background as we took turns listening to each other.

The exhibition had no audience in mind, just as a grieving person has none. The personal pain just happened to have become an occasion to communicate our own. It’s okay to talk to yourself and let everyone else see. We will assert ourselves when you pause to breathe.


*   *   *


I was trying very hard to conjure up an audience.

I was in university, drafting a statement for our student magazine after our editor-in-chief was arrested. To write a statement is to say: the world needs to know what we think. Which part of the world? I tried to find someone to write this for. I needed to imagine that someone would need this. I needed to inflate myself to be bigger than my tears. I needed to be selective about the truth. But harder: be selective about the truth of our emotions. Hide the part where we were scared and tell people we would be brave.

Years later, I would find out I am terrible at both truth and fabrication.


*   *   *


On a meadow in Mai Po Lung, next to a farm and a murky lake, artists were improvising with various materials. Ladder, silicone cones, voile. A long strip of tinfoil became a slide. It’s been a while since I’ve gone to see art. I kept telling myself that, whatever this performance has to say, it’s very far from my life.

Milla Lee was walking around in a black swimsuit, her body completely dry. She carried around a plank, which she handed to every two strangers sitting next to each other, gestured for them to each hold one end of it, and charged towards the newly made platform. Each time, she failed to dive into the ground, hung over the plank, flailing, curling. Until we could no longer hold her weight, until we found a way to drop her on the ground, gently.

My arms were growing sore, but the person on the other end didn’t seem to want to let go yet. I crouched a little, placing the plank on my knee. Then the plank started to vibrate, lightly; the person’s arms were trembling. We were ready. Without uttering a word, we lowered the plank at the same time. Milla Lee was still curled around the plank like a foetus. I could see hair beginning to moss over the sides of her face, as if she was growing into the ground.

On the other side of the grass, Florence Lam was vomiting cottons. She chewed them out from under her tank top without using her hands. She strained her neck so much it could break. Then, when she had the cottons in her mouth, she tried to spit them out, again, without the aid of her hands. Everything was so tiring.

The girl who sat next to me started inching towards Florence. She went to kneel before her. She gently cupped the saliva-drenched pulps in her hands, as if helping to deliver a baby. Florence was stunned at first, but then kneeled, too. She began to cry. They held each other’s hands. The cottons were limp under her chest.

“In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love.”5

I felt the grass under my knees, too. Everything was so clear; I couldn’t believe I thought meaning would just come to me. I couldn’t believe I never tried to read. They were telling me everything I needed to know.


*   *   *


There came a night she told me why she cried at my film when seeing it for the first time. Not because it’s particularly well-made, but that she felt a strong presence of me throughout. By then, it had been a while since she rejected my silly confession. Maybe it’s guilt, maybe it’s a slow realisation, maybe it’s not too far from love. Whatever it was, she had to get out of the cinema to breathe.

I miswrote the message, but she gets it in her own way—what control do we ever have over things we create?

It doesn’t speak the words we’d like it to speak; it connects to people in its own way, leaves its own impression. Maybe we could only try to get as closely to our feelings as possible, and the remaining gap is always for someone else to close. We make things for ourselves, for the people we love, out of the people we love. Anyone else who understands it is purely accidental.

I last spoke to her at Terrible Baby. I offered her my scarf because it was so windy in the lounge area. But she dared me to put it on for her. I did, clumsily. And when her fingers tremble to gather the fabric, I realised, for the first time, that she was clumsy, too.

“You’ve been so honest with me,” she said. “People tell me so little, most of the time.”

I knew that night in the carpark would run through every fibre of our relationship and would outrun it. None of us will be better than what we were that night. It’s one of the few times I wasn’t precious about how much to tell or how much to show. Because, in a rare manner, I wasn’t thinking about how I wanted to be seen. I wasn’t thinking about how much I wanted to be loved or admired.

I was just thinking: Man, I really, really, needed her to know. Just everything out. Nothing has to come back to me.

Maybe that’s what’s wrong with the film—maybe I didn’t try to do it for myself enough. If I did, I’d see that the innermost part of us is always someone else. You just have to trust that you love people enough to find them there. At that point, to indulge is always to communicate.



Wong Chun Ying is a bilingual writer from Hong Kong. Her Chinese writings appear in local publications such as p-articles, SAMPLE, and fleurs des lettres. She also writes a column for the Taiwanese cultural magazine Fountain. Her English writings have been published in Redivider and Cicada. Her short film, Overflow (2020) won Special Mention at the 15th Fresh Wave International Short Film Festival. She currently works in the film festival industry and is writing her first Chinese short story collection.




1. Leo Robson, “John Williams and the Canon That Might Have Been,” The New Yorker, March 11, 2019,

2. Julietta Singh, No Archive Will Restore You (Santa Barbara, CA: Punctum Books, 2018).

3. Party of Love and Liberty (podcast), S1E11, January 5, 2022,

4. Tiffany May, “In Hong Kong, a New Exhibit Creates a ‘Space for People to Feel,’” The New York Times, March 22, 2023, sec. Arts,

5. Frank O’Hara, “To the Film Industry in Crisis,” in Meditations in an Emergency: Poems (New York: Grove Press, 1967).



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