Wong Fei-Hung And The Shifting Identity Of Hong Kong Audiences

Brace yourselves, this is a long one.  In February I was one of the speakers at a symposium on East Asian cinema at Coventry University. I think it was called Asian Exposure, which sounds like what happens when you’re confronted by a flasher on the Hong Kong subway. Anyhoo, I put everyone to sleep with the following load of waffle, now yours to savour. Someone suggested that I shouldn’t post this on my blog as someone might pinch it and try to pass it off as their own work for a college course.  Seriously? Who would want to pinch this? Some of this material was covered in my book, Chasing Dragons: An Introduction To The Martial Arts Film, which you should buy. For everyone you’ve ever met.

Wong Fei-Hung And The Shifting Identity Of Hong Kong Audiences

This paper sets out to show how the Cantonese-language martial arts films of Hong Kong evolved from an attempt to connect the displaced citizens of Canton with their native land into a cinema that reflected the separate and distinct identity of Hong Kong itself. To track this shift, I will look at the changing representation of the figure of Wong Fei-Hung, arguably the most recognizable and enduring figure in Cantonese popular cinema.

A large part of what makes Wong Fei-Hung such a useful barometer of change and at the same time such an accessible figure for Cantonese filmmakers is that virtually nothing is known about the real man himself. He was born in Canton in 1847, the son of Wong Kar-Ying, a highly respected martial artist who was a master of the Hung Kuen kung fu system and who passed his knowledge on to Fei-Hung. As an adult Wong Fei-Hung took over the running of his father’s school and medicine clinic, Po Chi Lam, and supplemented his income by serving as martial arts instructor to the 5th Regiment of the Canton Army and the Civilian Militia. He died in 1924. That is largely all that can be said about Wong Fei-Hung with any certainty but through the huge number of films about the figure, Wong Fei-Hung has become mythologized in Cantonese folklore.

Early Chinese cinema had its own heroes, including the Shaolin anti-Ch’ing fighter Fong Sai-Yuk and the fictional character Wu Song from The Water Margin. The earliest known film about Fong Sai-Yuk is Ren Pengnian’s 1928 movie Fong Sai-Yuk’s Battle In The Boxing Ring, made in Shanghai. Wong Fei-Hung did not come to the screen until 1949. At the time a novel called The True Story Of Wong Fei-Hung was running in serialised form in the Kung Shueng Daily News. Despite the title, it was a work of fiction but it inspired filmmaker Hu Peng to bring the character to the screen with Kwan Tak-Hing in the title role. Hu Peng was born in Shanghai in 1910 and moved to Hong Kong in 1936. He directed over 190 films in his career.

Winner of Best Supporting Eyebrows In A Drama Or Kung Fu Movie, 1956.

Kwan Tak-Hing was born in Canton in 1906 and started his career in Cantonese opera. He was ideally suited to bring Wong Fei-Hung to life, with his background on the stage and a fluency in Chinese martial arts, particularly the Hung Kuen style and White Crane boxing. The success of The True Story Of Wong Fei-Hung led to Kwan Tak-Hing playing the character from 1949 up until 1981. The original series with Hu Peng was so popular with Hong Kong audiences that [according to the filmography in A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film] no less than twenty-five films about the character were released in 1956 alone.

In the absence of any historical information about the figure, Kwan Tak-Hing effectively became Wong Fei-Hung, with the fictional portrayal of the character on screen filling the vacuum created by the lack of any official record. Despite being produced, shot and distributed in Hong Kong, the Wong Fei-Hung films were deeply rooted in Cantonese culture. The films showcased traditional Southern Chinese martial arts, lion dances, traditional Cantonese music and songs to the extent that the series served as an archive of Cantonese culture for the people uprooted from South-Eastern China. How Wong Fei-Hung pitted 7 Lions Against the Dragon features a lengthy sequence of lion dancing, dragon and even centipede dancing that would sorely test of the patience of any modern audience. Unlike the Hong Kong movies of the 1980s, which were shot silently and then dubbed into numerous languages to enable them to be as widely distributed throughout Asia as possible, the Wong Fei-Hung films were shot with synchronous sound in the highly distinctive dialect of Cantonese.

The opening title music in the series was Under The General’s Orders and the theme became synonymous with the character. In his article The Prodigious Cinema of Wong Fei-Hung: An Introduction, Yu Mo-Wan notes that, “Quite apart from their subject matter, this strong regional flavour, including of course the lively and vivid Cantonese dialect, clearly distinguishes these films from productions from mainland China or Taiwan. Few Hong Kong productions have succeeded in embodying or reflecting this regional sensibility to the degree accomplished by the Wong Fei-Hung series.”

I have come to drink tea and kick ass. I'm all out of tea.

The cinematic figure of Wong Fei-Hung as played by Kwan Tak-Hing was the very embodiment of tradition, a living concatenation to the past with no relation to the reality of life in Hong Kong in the second half of the Twentieth Century. Wong Fei-Hung is shown as the stern Confucian patriarch and a shining example of the notion of wu de, or martial virtue. This is an idea drawn from the four Confucian principals – the Way (tao), ritual and propriety (li), humaneness and compassion (ren) and virtue (de). Confucianism is concerned with the cultivation of a moral and righteous spirit and is reflected in the traditional Chinese approach to martial arts, with an emphasis on improving the practitioner as a human being who only uses his kung fu as a last resort in self-defence. Throughout the series, Wong Fei-Hung personifies this spirit and he triumphs over his opponents not only because he is the superior martial artist, but simultaneously the superior human being.

He is a mediator, a source of knowledge and prone to giving long lectures at social gatherings in which he extols the benefits of self-cultivation, eating your greens and being an upstanding citizen. Kwan Tak-Hing’s vigorous health and longevity off screen seemed to speak to the truth of his onscreen alter ego’s words. The line between the film and real worlds became increasingly blurry. Kwan Tak-Hing opened his own medicine clinic and martial arts school in North Point, Hong Kong. When the actor was in his mid-Seventies, he played Wong Fei-Hung again for Yuen Wo Ping in The Magnificent Butcher. The opening sequence establishes the legitimacy of Kwan as Wong Fei-Hung as he performs a series of exercises to prove his continued potency, including press ups on his finger tips. The sequence states loud and clear – this is the real Wong Fei-Hung. Accept no substitutes.

However Hong Kong had begun to develop its own popular culture in the 1970s that broke with the traditions brought over from Canton and began to speak directly to the experience of life in Hong Kong. The three main players in this process were the Hui Brothers, Michael, Sam and Ricky. All three were stars on TV and in the cinema, while Sam was vital in the birth of Cantopop, a form of pop music sung in Cantonese but using modern Western-style instrumentation and arrangements. The 1974 film, Games Gamblers Play, was set in contemporary Hong Kong, not Republican China. The Hui Brothers films were comedies, not martial arts films, but their impact on Hong Kong popular culture was enormous. They made great use of the Cantonese language’s capacity for wordplay, setting a precedent that Stephen Chow would follow in the 1990s. The characters the brothers played were ordinary men struggling to get ahead. They were cynical, street wise and totally lacking in the four Confucian precepts. By contrast, Kwan Tak-Hing as Wong Fei-Hung looked nostalgic at best and out of touch with the times at worst. Kwan made a handful of outings as his legendary alter-ego in the 1970s and early 80s, in The Skyhawk, Dreadnaught and The Magnificent Butcher. Lau Kar-Leung explored the relationship between the young Wong Fei-Hung, his father Wong Kar-Ying and their sifu Luk Ah-Choi in Challenge Of The Masters, from 1976. Lau Gar Fei took the role of Fei-Hung but the film retained the spirit of the Kwan Tak-Hing movies, with a strong emphasis on martial virtue and respect for your elders.

However, with the rise of the Hui Brothers and the development of youth-oriented Cantopop, the kung fu movie had to move with the flow. The result was a proliferation of kung fu comedies, a blend of slapstick, word play and kung fu with no relation to the Confucianism of the 1950s cinema. In late 1976 director and producer Ng See Yuen founded his own production company Seasonal Films, where a young action choreographer called Yuen Wo Ping was given his first chance to direct a feature – Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow, starring Jackie Chan, who had previously been toiling away unsuccessfully in formulaic kung fu movies for Lo Wei’s production company. The movie cast Chan as a hard-luck orphan who learns kung fu from an old beggar, enabling him to defeat an evil Eagle Claw kung fu assassin, played by Korean Taekwondo master Hwang Jang-Lee. The box office success of Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow led to star, director and producer reuniting on Drunken Master, in which they tackled the most revered figure in Cantonese cinema – Wong Fei-Hung.

The young Wong Fei-Hung bears the burden of looking after the elderly. In our aging society, such situations will soon be commonplace.

As is all too often the case in Yuen Wo-Ping’s work, Drunken Master lacks a cohesive plot and is really just a collection of set pieces linked together by the central protagonist, in this case the young Wong Fei-Hung played by Jackie Chan. This presentation of the hero is a far cry from that of Kwan Tak-Hing. As an independent producer, Ng See Yuen did not have access to the large period sets of the big studios like Shaw Brothers and there is only a passing attempt to approximate a period mise-en-scene. In particular, Chan as Wong Fei-Hung is clearly taking fashion cues from Sam Hui, with his long pop star hair that is totally anachronistic for the story’s late Ch’ing Dynasty setting. In Yuen’s film, Wong Fei-Hung is no longer the stern, severe patriarch. He is the spirit of modern Hong Kong, youthful, vital and irrepressible.

The Confucian notion of self-cultivation through the pursuit of martial virtue is noticeable only by its total absence. This Wong Fei-Hung chases after pretty girls, clowns around during kung fu lessons and even tries to cheat when practicing horse stance, the very foundation of the Hung Kuen style. It is out of the desperate desire to curb his son’s impetuosity that Wong Kar-Ying puts Fei-Hung into the hands of Beggar Su, the titular Drunken Master played by the director’s father Yuen Siu-Tien.

Drunken Master was not the first film to feature Wong Fei-Hung performing drunken boxing. The 1968 movie Wong Fei-Hung: The Eight Bandits, directed by Wang Feng, saw Kwan Tak-Hing’s Fei-Hung employ drunken kung fu in a duel with a villain using Monkey style, played by Yuen Siu-Tien. Ten years later, Yuen Wo-Ping’s film took drunken boxing to its illogical conclusion, as the more Fei-Hung drinks, the better he fights. This is the opposite of the Confucian notion of martial virtue and using martial arts to cultivate the self. Fei-Hung, played by Chan, is a belligerent drunk who goes looking for the King of Sticks specifically to get revenge and humiliate him for the earlier assault on Beggar Su. Rather than being improved through kung fu, Fei-Hung is a wine-guzzling brawler.

Moreover, where the original series served as a catalogue of authentic Southern Chinese martial arts, the

Kids today, with their long hair and kung fu. Hanging's too good for 'em.

choreography in Drunken Master drew heavily upon the acrobatics of the Northern style martial arts seen in Peking Opera. In the final showdown with the villain of the story, played again by Hwang Jang-Lee, Fei-Hung performs Beggar Su’s Eight Drunken Gods style, which includes Fei-Hung pretending to be an inebriated woman, Fairy Ho, and performing techniques with names like “Old Lady Sits On The Toilet”. It is very funny and, at the same time, mildly iconoclastic for an audience raised on Kwan Tak-Hing’s majestic countenance to see the revered figure of Wong Fei-Hung transformed into a blundering rascal and grotesque drunkard. Yuen Wo-Ping’s film makes no attempt to act as a record of Cantonese tradition and rather than looking back to an idealised vision of the past, the film reflects the youthfulness of its intended audience and the blossoming self-awareness in Hong Kong pop culture that it needed a new identity.

Wong Fei-Hung defeats the villain in Drunken Master not because he is morally superior or the product of self-cultivation. He triumphs through a combination of athleticism and raw vigour. He is not the model of Confucianism, but represents the irrepressibility of youth. The characters Jackie Chan played in Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow, Drunken Master and subsequent films The Young Master and Dragon Lord, saw him merely providing variations on the same screen persona. Such models of youthful rebellion were crafted to appeal to a contemporary audience whose first point of reference was no longer Canton, but Hong Kong itself.

Shih Kien in Millionaire's Express, one of Cantonese cinema's great screen villains.

The 1980s saw the decline of the traditional kung fu movie. It was replaced by modern day action thrillers or comedy-action vehicles like the Lucky Stars series. Wong Fei-Hung largely disappeared from cinema screens, although he would pop up in unexpected places, as the character makes a cameo appearance in Sammo Hung’s Millionaires’ Express from 1986. Wang Yu plays Wong Kar-Ying, taking his young son on a train journey on which they share a train carriage with a rival master, played by Shih Kien, the perennial villain of the Kwan Tak-Hing series. If nothing else, the skit shows that Hong Kong filmmakers and audiences had not forgotten the Kwan Tak-Hing series after its demise.

The film that brought Wong Fei-Hung back to the forefront was Tsui Hark’s Once Upon A Time In China. Tsui’s earlier films,  The Butterfly Murders, Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain and Swordsman (which he produced and co-directed), drew more heavily on the Mandarin language cinema of King Hu and the swordplay genre than from anything in Cantonese cinema. Peking Opera Blues showed Tsui had his finger on the pulse of Hong Kong, with a thinly veiled critique of the lack of democracy set in Republican China. However with Once Upon A Time In China, Tsui reinvented Cantonese cinema’s most important figure for a new generation and revitalised the stalled career of his star Jet Li at the same time.

Released in 1991, Tsui’s film was not an irreverent take on the character, like Drunken Master. It was a pure martial

Didn't I used to have hair?

arts movie, not a kung fu comedy, but it offered a very contemporary spin on Wong Fei-Hung. Tsui establishes that his film belongs to the traditional canon right from the get go, opening with the theme Under The General’s Orders and a display of martial arts leading in to a lion dance. However, the choreography in Once Upon A Time In China moves even further away from Southern martial arts than Drunken Master. Jet Li’s background is in the gymnastic form of Wu Shu and the action scenes in the film draw upon Li’s acrobatic ability married to a great deal of wirework and special effects to create gravity defying scenes of combat more in keeping with the flights of fantasy found in Hong Kong swordplay films than any pure kung fu movie.

As Wong Fei-Hung, Li brings a youthful charm to the role even as the film cast Fei-Hung as the keeper of the flame for traditional Chinese values in the face of the encroaching influence of the West. This is demonstrated throughout the film by Wong Fei-Hung’s relationship with Aunt Yee, who has travelled abroad and adopted Western fashion and manners. Once Upon A Time In China is not about reconnecting the citizens of Hong Kong with Canton, it is an allegory for Hong Kong caught between the competing and contrasting influences of China and the West on the cusp of the city’s return to Chinese control in 1997.

This is expressed elegantly in an exchange between Fei-Hung and Aunt Yee when she tries to convince him to wear a Western suit:

“Chinese shouldn’t wear suits. Chinese are Chinese,” says Fei-Hung, to which Aunt Yee replies, “Soon with railways, telephones, everything will change. China will change with the world.”

Fei-Hung responds, “You’re right. Western guns and ships have arrived. Everything is changing. What will we become?”

That deceptively simple question was at the forefront of the minds of Hong Kong’s citizens ahead of the handover to China. Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, found the issue was so all consuming that he described the local press as “a one-issue media”. If Kwan Tak-Hing as Wong Fei-Hung was concerned with the propagation of tradition, then Jet Li as Wong Fei-Hung was concerned primarily with the quest for identity and self-realisation set against the clash between East and West. In the second film in Tsui Hark’s series, Fei-Hung fights against the rapidly anti-Western White Lotus Sect who want to drive all foreigners out of China. That the cinematic figure who personifies all that is good and great about Chinese culture should set himself in opposition to the White Lotus Sect’s xenophobia is testament to the changing nature of the character’s presentation.

Always stretch thoroughly before engaging in vigorous exercise, especially beating up gweilos.

In 1997 Jet Li made his final outing as Wong Fei-Hung in Once Upon A Time In China And America, produced by Tsui Hark and directed by Sammo Hung. By this point the market had been saturated with Wong Fei-Hung knockoffs and imitations and Hung’s film was less concerned with exploring what it meant to be Hong Kong Chinese than with playing with the cinematic legacy of the figure. The script was written and re-written during production and the result could politely be described as patchy, but there are a handful of standout sequences. After Wong Fei-Hung loses his memory following a bump on the head, his friend Clubfoot Seven tries to jolt his masters memory back in to place by re-enacting Fei-Hung’s battles with Iron Robe Yim and Lan Yuan-Shu, characters from the first and second of Tsui Hark’s films. Tellingly, Clubfoot Seven did not join the series until the third film, so how is his character able to re-construct battles that he did not witness much less participate in? The answer is simple – Clubfoot Seven, like the viewers themselves, has seen the movies he is referencing. As the battle heats up, the local Chinese grab musical instruments and start playing Under The General’s Orders. They too are obviously well versed in Wong Fei-Hung’s cinematic heritage.

Similarly, a recurring element in the Kwan Tak-Hing films was the moral of each story, in which Fei-Hung would expound at length about the Confucian precepts and the importance of hard work and clean living. Sammo Hung references this twice in Once Upon A Time In China and America. In an early scene, Fei-Hung is shown putting his audience to sleep with a long-winded speech about presenting a positive image of China to the Western world. Then, after the climactic battle, Fei-Hung addresses the crowd again and says just a few short words. When he is finished, no one dares move because no one believes Fei-Hung to be capable of such brevity. It is very funny but only in reference to Fei-Hung’s established screen persona as a virtuous windbag.

Despite the 1997 handover, Hong Kong filmmakers continue to produce films in Cantonese alongside Mandarin language cinema. Since Jet Li’s final outing, Wong Fei-Hung has been absent from Cantonese cinema [Sammo Hung played him in a cameo in Around The World in 80 Days, an English language production]. In a period of almost fifty years, Wong Fei-Hung has been transformed from a symbol of the past and the power of tradition, to a testament to the vigour of youth and the new individualistic spirit of Hong Kong in the 1970s. With Tsui Hark and Jet Li, he became the means to explore Hong Kong’s unique position as the meeting point between East and West before finally Sammo Hung used the character to explore Fei-Hung’s cinematic lineage. After that exercise in intertextuality and deconstruction, perhaps there was simply nowhere left for Wong Fei-Hung to go. Hopefully Cantonese cinema is not finished with its greatest hero and the character will be reborn for a new generation and used to express their unique situation with the same eloquence seen in the past.

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2 Responses to “Wong Fei-Hung And The Shifting Identity Of Hong Kong Audiences”

  1. dangerousmeredith Says:

    I HAVE bought and read your book, and I recognised some of the strains of thought reappearing in this interesting blog.

  2. Will Thomas Says:

    Thank you for this humorous and informative article. As a fifth generation student of Wong fei Hung, who has studied his impact upon Chinese culture, I still found facts I hadn’t heard before, and insights I had not considered. Very good.

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