JMSC’s Nancy Tong’s New Film Documents Trail-Blazing Nuns


Trailblazers in Habits is the name of a historical documentary currently in production by JMSC Visiting Associate Professor, Nancy Tong, and fellow academic, Vivien Ng.

The film looks at the history behind, and the social impact of Hong Kong’s social pioneering nuns, the Maryknoll Sisters, a group of American, Roman Catholic nuns who came to Hong Kong in the 1920s in order to start a mission.

Over the following 90 years they established kindergartens, girls schools and a hospital. They were also instrumental in providing care for the mainland refugees that flooded into Hong Kong after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Tong and Ng both attended Maryknoll Sisters’ schools in Hong Kong and were approached by the religious organisation to make the documentary.

Initially unsure about the idea, early research into the subject revealed a wealth of material and they soon decided to take on the job.

Tong is a well known documentary maker and Ng is Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and Associate Dean of Education at the University of Albany in the USA.

At a talk given at the Hong Kong Museum of History, Ng explained some of the history of the mission. Six Maryknoll Sisters arrived in Hong Kong in 1921, when the colony’s population was a mere 625,000, with only 2.5% non-Chinese.

Nancy Tong and Vivien Ng talk at the Hong Kong Museum of History

They found themselves on the fringe of society and were refused permission to work as nurses at Kowloon Hospital. Not to be defeated, the nuns became educators instead, setting up kindergartens.

They really came into their own in the 1950s, when the Hong Kong government refused to acknowledge that refugee overcrowding was a problem. As fires broke out in the refugee shanty towns, the Maryknoll Sisters stepped in to help rebuild houses and provide care.

“The conscience of the colony was aroused,” said Ng, who went on to explain that the title of their film is reflected in a quote from the famous American essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once said, ” Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and blaze a trail.”

In 1961, the Maryknoll Sisters opened Our Lady of Maryknoll Hospital in the Wong Tai Sin District of Kowloon to help treat refugees. The hospital still exists today and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Nancy Tong showed a seven minute trailer of their documentary and talked about the difficulties of treating old film to make it fit for broadcast. Together, Tong and Ng have raised 90% of the funds needed to complete the documentary at 60 minutes, but, due to the volume of good material they have collected, are considering making a longer version at 90 minutes.