No Regrets, the exceptional TVB Hong Kong drama series
First premiered in November 2010, No Regrets (巾帼枭雄之义海豪情) is an epic TVB series taking place in the late 1930s of Guangzhou, China, with the timeline arching over eight years of the Second Sino-Japanese War to the beginning of the Chinese civil war. Centering around the conflicts, relationships and encounters of the locals and the powerful Cheng family, the main themes of the series include loyalty, brotherhood and righteousness in an era of corruption and political turmoil.
Over the years, TVB productions such as I Love Hong Kong 2010 (我爱HK开心万岁) and Come On, Cousin! (老表, 你好hea!) paid homage to the series through albeit comedic but also nostalgic re-enactments of memorable scenes. Combined with high audience ratings, critical acclaim as well as sweeping the majority of awards at TVB Anniversary Awards 2010, No Regrets proved to be a lasting favourite of the people, establishing itself as one of the classic TVB series produced in the last two decades.
The element that has since received greatest acclaim is the relationship between the two main leads, Tung Tai triad leader Cheng Kau-Mui (郑九妹) and local policeman Lau Sing (刘醒), played by actors Sheren Tang (邓萃雯) and Wayne Lai (黎耀祥) respectively. From distrust and suspicion to mutual respect, Cheng and Lau became sworn friends who shared a platonic love akin to kinship but which eventually evolved to include a quiet, tacit romance.
Viewers of the drama would remember the raw emotions of Tang and Lai’s characters: an isolated, pressured and half-crazed Cheng who struggled to kick her opium addiction; Lau succumbing to extreme emotion when his only chance at fortune wreaked by the accidental incompetence of a colleague; a starved and ill-stricken Cheng held in the Japanese army’s concentration camp; a broken and helpless Lau faced with the terminal heart condition of his only younger sister.
But through their vulnerabilities and ordeals, there would also be triumph: on a dark, misty dawn, the pair leads more than a hundred children to the train station, where they would journey to the safety of Hong Kong; at the execution ground, Cheng and the guerrillas move through heaps of earth and rock to finally reach an unconscious Lau, buried alive in the mass grave; as the resistance bombs down the Japanese concentration camp, Lau and his team infiltrates it and rescues the tortured prisoners, including a severely weakened Cheng.
The brilliant, skilful performances delivered by the actors brought all these characters very much to life. So compelling and heartfelt was the story and interactions between Cheng and Lau that Lai confessed, for several years, he did not re-watch the drama because he felt “what happened in the entire series was actually real.” His sentiment was shared by many fans of the series. Indeed, Tang and Lai’s characters may be fictional, their lives ending in a neat package of thirty-two episodes, but their underlying feelings, personal struggles, trials and tribulations resonated with audiences, carrying echoes of a far-gone memory or past experience of the individual who came to witness Cheng and Lau’s lives on the small screen.
This post humbly seeks to explore the intricate relationship of these two characters. Beyond spoken words and the conventional romance of lovers, it is a relationship which has sustained through so much and of course, touched so many over the last ten years.
Brief flashbacks during the opening scenes give a glimpse into the inner thoughts of an elderly Cheng as she reminisces about Lau Sing to her adoptive granddaughter. She is a controversial figure: gunning down men in cold-blood yet sending hundreds of orphans across the borders to safety during the Japanese occupation.
Soon time winds back forty years to the bustling streets and murky underbelly of Guangzhou city in 1936. The audience faces a young, powerful, manipulative and unabashedly cunning Cheng Kau-Mui, eldest daughter of the wealthy “Lord of Opium”, commanding an empire of drugs, prostitution, night clubs and gambling dens. Cheng’s character as a female lead further contributes to an image of ruthlessness. In an era where sons remain favored over daughters, not only does she defy matrimony expectations and socially conservative values prevalent in the 1930s, she establishes herself as the intelligent, trusted and capable right-hand of her father, outsmarting rival siblings and elders in family feuds to obtain the position of authority in the triad.
On the other hand, Lau Sing is the commoner in society. As a local policeman, he deals with petty thieves and criminals, works hard to pay the bills and support his wife as well as his younger sister’s education and ongoing treatment of septal defect. Lau stands in stark contrast to Cheng, who is highly influential and a bigger hand at play in Guangzhou. His woes centres around the lack of money, a failing marriage and work difficulties from his demeaning chief, Leung Fei-Fan. Even though he has an impulsive temper, he is a leader, a caretaker, placing great emphasis on friendship, brotherhood and family, looking after the landlady and fellow lodgers at Ju Long Le (猪笼里). Despite being constantly financially tight, he will nevertheless lend the limited money he has to those who genuinely needs his help, much to the disagreement of his concerned wife.
Loyalty and Trust
The lives of Cheng and Lau first intersected through local skirmishes: the Weng Yip bank incident, the near-fatal gunfight at Tung Tai’s Pakapoo lottery headquarters. Interactions between the pair were also strictly favour-based: Cheng pays a commission for opium confiscated by the police force to maintain the drug supply in her family’s opium dens; Lau helps to smuggle Cheng’s goddaughter out of prison in return for money to pay for his sister’s costly treatment and revenge on Fei-Fan, who seduced Lau’s unhappy wife into an affair.
Beneath a cold and calculative demeanour, Cheng is later revealed to be thoughtful, patient and kind when Lau eventually learns of her ulterior motive to take down her father’s drug empire from the inside. Over subsequent dealings, which included boldly assisting Cheng in covering up the evidence when she burns down the family’s opium warehouse, Lau comes to respect and admire Cheng’s fearlessness and values behind her actions. Slowly, they grow to become firm friends and mutual confidantes who often understood each other’s thoughts without any exchange of words. Later during the war, when Lau faced certain death as a Chinese guerilla suspect, he would place his life fully in Cheng’s hands, coordinating with her unspoken plan to shoot him personally in place of the Japanese executioners for the slimmest chance to survive. This complete trust and loyalty through the calamities of war formed the foundation of the pair’s lifelong friendship.
The co-dependence and mutual reliance between Lau and Cheng would lead to their personal growth as an individual. It is a mistake to think of Lau as an unaffectionate husband who miraculously transformed into the mature man at Cheng’s side. Like those who remain peer-pressured into a union today, Lau was simply one of many who followed the “normal” progress in life: courted a girl at eighteen, signed up for marriage at twenty-two. With his meagre income, Lau cared for Tung-Nei in his own way. For instance, when he had extra earnings, he bought a radio for her to enjoy novel programmes. Tung-Nei, too, was a sweet woman at heart, as evident by how the story informed us that she took in Fei-Fan’s orphaned son after his demise. Marriage, however, did not bring out the best of Lau and Tung-Nei. Tied together by mere existential, day-to-day living, both became frustrated and unfulfilled with their routine lives.
Meanwhile, Cheng’s sordid underworld of drugs and prostitution meant that there was no safety or normalcy, yet it was a life she willingly and consciously chose as a young woman. Stepping up to establish superiority in her father’s business, she harbours a vision of a better future for the people suffering from their trade. Most importantly, she swears to uphold her promise to her sworn sister, who had fell victim to opium addiction to save Cheng when the latter was a child.
Since a tender age, Cheng was, as herself put it, “used to taking risks” even with her own life at stake – an interesting reflection of Lau’s behaviour when he nearly lost his own to protect timid comrade Pai Gwat, once falsely accused by the triad for the murder of Cheng’s brother. Resolutely true to brotherhood, though Lau was humiliated by Fei-Fan’s intentional affair with his wife, he refused outright for an indebted Pai Gwat to take his place in exacting revenge on their chief, as the crime would certainly mean death or a lifetime of jail by law. Cheng’s life purpose originated from a simple promise and she was similarly committed to her unfortunate sister.
Cheng’s ideals, then, was not unlike Lau’s core of being. Curiously sharing these same persistent principles of loyalty, righteousness and courage against the tide, both were pleasantly surprised to meet a kindred spirit amidst unlikely times. Gradually, the audience sees a passive Lau, once easily frustrated, impatient and quick to anger, finding purpose and meaning and empowered as he comes to share the burden a fiercely independent Cheng used to solely carry on her shoulder. As his worldview expands, the growing awareness of the “greater self” builds upon his natural sense for justice. From burning down opium warehouses to helping an entire orphanage of children – despite how the acts of righteousness, the daring acts of good and kindness which Lau assisted Cheng to carry out felt maddening to his long-established, day-in-day-out habits, it has led to a form of self-actualization and fulfilment in his life.
Yet Lau is not a mere follower. The intimidation Cheng inspires as the domineering head of Tung Tai inevitably isolated her. As viewers pointed out, “While Lau Sing had family and trusted comrades to rely on back at Ju Long Le … Kau-Mui had no one by her side.” Even her aides in the triad would betray her if they knew how she despised the trade.
What Lau brought to Cheng was not only a person to fall back on but also genuine friendship since the loss of the sister she was fond of. Through Lau, Cheng learned to trust. His fellow lodgers at Ju Long Le further gave her the warmth and uncomplicated family togetherness she never had. And for someone who has not and could not afford to love since her youth, Lau would be the only man she fell in love with and became solely devoted to in her lifetime.
Addressing the Other
Throughout the series, Lau addresses Cheng as “Miss Kau (九姑娘)”. Ironically, excluding Cheng’s direct family members whom she generally has no affection for, no other character in the series was shown to address Cheng by her given name “Kau-Mui”.
Before becoming aware of Cheng’s secrets, Lau frequently describes Cheng as a “she-devil” to his fellow comrades and lodgers at Ju Long Le. Out of temper, Lau blurts out the insult at several points to Cheng. Fortunately, she takes it in her stride after Lau helped her out of a few tight spots. When they became close friends, it became a term Lau would use in self-deprecating jokes; he had not thought that he would willingly help the “devil” herself. “Miss Kau” would be the name Lau calls Cheng by even after the lapse of thirty years.
Early in the series, Cheng occasionally calls Lau “Brother Sing (醒哥)” to flatter or tempt him into accepting her offers, but in most situations, addresses Lau by his full name, Lau Sing.
When Cheng fell into a destructive cycle of opium addiction due to a frame-up by her unscrupulous aunt, Lau’s unwavering emotional support and the understanding that he came to her aid, even after she gave up on herself, moved her immensely. Braving through many unbearable nights at the church with Lau’s companionship, she returns his small smile in the morning. This indicated a shift in their relationship as the audience sees a softer, gentler and more feminine side of Cheng and her personal admiration towards Lau. In later episodes, she would slowly call him “Ah Sing (阿醒)”, a merely shortened but more intimate name of Lau’s.
By this point, Cheng also begins opening up a lighter, happier and more dependent side to him. Where Lau is usually more passive in their conversations while Cheng is decisive and almost reckless at times, she looks for his opinion even in their common encounters. When a group of Japanese soldiers instructs them to cheer for their winning army, Cheng quietly whispers to her side, “叫唔叫啊?” (Should we do as they say?) to which he replies, “梗系叫了. (We have to.)” But he takes advantage of the soldiers’ poor command of Cantonese and cheers for the army to lose instead. Cheng playfully follows suit in his words.
In terms of their relationship, Cheng and Lau would never come to openly express their attachment to one another. In conversations, they consistently refer to the other as a “good old friend”. On the brink of death at the concentration camp, Cheng signs her farewell letter to Lau with the words “生死之交” – the Chinese term has no direct English translation, but its meaning can be inferred as “a sworn friend through life and death.” A signature gesture later shared and understood by the pair would be a salute; half-formal, half-humorous, they would refer to each other’s title and salute as a sign of respect, recognition and admiration.
The development in Lau and Cheng’s relationship is majorly shown through shots of subtle changes in exchanged glances and eye expression. The absence of physical intimacy between the pair brilliantly breaks the expectations of audiences accustomed to stereotypical and somewhat stale portrayals of love, which otherwise focuses on youth, passion and verbal declarations of affection.
Without any doubt, this final result contributed significantly to the emotional depth of the series, garnering praise from nearly all who has watched it at least once. Yet understandably, it became a source of love-hate frustration for fans longing for Lau and Cheng to be together. Moments of physical contact between the pair were either out of necessity (Cheng and Lau pretending to be lovers so Cheng could visit him when he was captured) or natural circumstance (Cheng putting her hand into Lau’s to climb up a steep slope easier). The one and only incident close to an emotional “hug” took place in Episode 19: Lau forcefully restrained Cheng from succumbing to her opium addiction by wrapping both arms around her; a mentally tortured and pained Cheng was shown to hold him tightly back as she wept.
Spending many nights conversing in the seclusion of the church, it is unlikely that Lau and Cheng were particularly affected by societal norms. Yet neither of them reached out to hold the hand of the other, nor embraced as an expression of innocuous, familial affection. The most probable reason is the clear gap between Lau and Cheng’s social classes. Even though Cheng always saw him as an equal, some asserted that Lau, who was still the “little guy” in society, lacked the confidence to approach her in that manner. Cheng, on the other hand, with her endless family feuds and risky acquaintances, often held herself back as a closer relationship would mean uncertainty, and perhaps danger to Lau from her side, due to the lives they led individually.
Nevertheless, to the observant and patient viewer willing to enjoy No Regrets more than once, the reward will be noticing very small but tenderly intimate physical contact between the pair unhighlighted by camera shots. First-time viewers are less likely to spot these exchanges as there are often more dramatic actions taking place. As an example, in the church where Lau accompanies Cheng to overcome her opium addiction, he had his hand pressed fully on hers for a moment before offering her opium-infused wine to soothe her withdrawal symptoms. Another instance was when the body of an unconscious Lau was dug out from the mass grave. The highly charged scene focused on the collective strength of the oppressed Chinese citizens working as one, risking their lives for a fellow countryman. An anxious, frantic Cheng moved her hand to Lau’s face as the group collectively held their breath to affirm if he still showed signs of life. The story moves on with hope; even though barely alive, Lau is revealed to be breathing faintly. In this context, the hands of a concerned brother or friend, such as the guerrillas, were on his shoulder and upper arms. The hand on Lau’s face was of a feminine touch; only a family member or significant other would touch a person’s face in this intimate manner.
Although many indicative elements of romance is hinted to a knowing audience, however it surfaced verbally and most transparently between the pair on the sailboat after Lau rescues Cheng. He gives one bogus grenade to her for self-defense and remarks that he had none of the two left. Now, how could two minus one equal nothing? Cheng becomes apprehensive and asks for the whereabouts of the first grenade. It was only after a purposeful pause that Lau gently teases her that it was his sister, Lau Ching, who received the other. Realizing how she misunderstood, she glances away and gives a small, bashful smile. It is these momentary, seemingly unintentional touches and rare playful banter that further revealed the deep, underlying bond between them.
The Final Years
What ultimately made No Regrets most memorable also made it most tragic. After surviving through eight years of the Japanese occupation, around the beginning of the ensuing civil war, Lau and Cheng became separated for thirty years.
Cheng was forty-five whilst Lau was forty-nine when they lost contact. Where their plans have so often succeeded in the past, even against all odds with their lives at stake, their simple hope of a shared future, with Lau joining Cheng as she engages in the legal banking trade, would never materialize.
Following the Chinese civil war, the closure of China’s borders meant that Cheng, who was forced to leave for Honolulu to escape the government’s kill list, could not return. Over the next three decades, life continued to be bitter for the civilians. Devastated from the recent Japanese invasion, the civil war would further collapse the economy through hyperinflation and corruption. During this period, Lau was recruited for the Korean war and upon surviving the battlefield, he would attempt to cross the Chinese border illegally multiple times. Caught by officials during each attempt, he spent more than ten years in prison and was exiled to rural Shaanxi during the Cultural Revolution. At Honolulu, Cheng tries to locate the whereabouts of Lau and the lodgers of Ju Long Le through letters and by publishing adverts in the newspaper. Unbeknownst to Cheng, the lodgers had all split up and left for various rural villages to escape the worst of the civil war. Her letters to the mainland were all returned, acquaintances in Hong Kong and Taiwan have not heard of them, there were no responses to the adverts. She was once again the lone protagonist beating against the tide, now as a Chinese emigrant in a foreign land. With each passing of the tenth year, as intertwining strands of silver and white grow through her hair, Cheng would never marry.
It was only until 1978 that the Chinese economic reform started and the country re-opened. Much of the world, including Guangzhou, had changed. Finally reunited at Ju Long Le in 1979, the young Cheng and Lau were completely no longer; both were now grey-haired, elderly seniors, their worn faces lined with old age. Yet with a smile and a familiar salute, it was a reminder that they were still the same people, that they were still alive, and each waited for the other all those years.
After journeying through a turbulent and emotionally exhausting lifetime, Lau and Cheng were finally able to find solace in each other’s company without the burden of the past. They spent four years together, at the end of which Lau passed away peacefully at Cheng’s side. Another ten years later, an aged Cheng cradles the grenade – the only physical item Lau gifted her, and which she promised decades ago, would accompany her until the very end – tenderly in her hands before she, too, gently departs this life.
Long erased by time but unforgotten by the pair, the final scene gives a bittersweet flashback to a conversation between a young Cheng and Lau: “I wonder who would be waiting for me up there when I die. (唔知将来我走既时候，有边果系个天度等我呢?)” Cheng spoke thoughtfully at that time; no one would miss her, the public would only remember her as a Chinese traitor and a power-hungry heiress to the opium trade. In response, Lau answered lightly that if he were to leave first, he would be there waiting for her. It was the steady, unconditional presence of Lau, -“the absence of passionate declarations or forceful emotions”, as actress Tang described – that made Cheng felt how it was to be loved completely, entirely. This was how what they shared would last through this life and the next. Like those three decades, death was but another temporary separation.
Although No Regrets is a series produced for the small screen, where it may have paled in comparison to big-budget historical films, it makes up for its classic, exceptional storytelling – showcasing the depth of human emotion, the moving compassion and honest, authentic connection of people beyond blood family. As Lai once expressed how he would cherish his character for life, likewise the story of Cheng and Lau would undoubtedly continue to be discovered and appreciated by audiences as an unforgettable and heartwarming story told of love and friendship.
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