Ethnic casting in Chinese cinema

From the mid-70’s to the mid-90’s, a lot of the Hong Kong film thespians had looks which were not typically Chinese like those from Mainland China. Part of this is down to the complexion and the non-slant eyes but the other part is down to the acting.


Unlike Japanese or Korean films but like the majority of Taiwanese cinema, many H.K. thespians have facially and vocally expressive qualities which resonate with non-Chinese people regardless of whether there are bad subtitles or no subtitles. John Woo’s Bullet in the Head and Wong Jing’s City Hunter are the best examples of H.K. films which anyone could understand without any dubbing or subtitling whatsoever.


I’ve always been amazed by the number of Chinese thespians who weren’t the most conventional in looks. Many of them, such as Simon Yam, had the illusion of being half-Indian. Waise Lee, Tony Leung Kar-Fai, Simon, Alan Tam and Andy Lau have a slightly Indonesian aura about them.


What exemplifies this is that an Indonesian actor like Billy Chong proved that he could play a Chinese man in more than one occasion. Interestingly, the director of Men Behind the Sun cast Korean children because he felt that they looked more similar to ancient Chinese children than those of the present.


Even Malaysian actresses like Michelle Yeoh and Phyllis Quek can play Chinese women. Contrarily, a Chinese actress can play a Malaysian woman in Born to be King i.e. Shu Qi from The Transporter. A Chinese actor can play a Malaysian man e.g. Chapman To in Undercover Blues and Philip Kwok in The Big Heat (which Tsui Hark co-directed without receiving a credit).


The racial line is blurred furthermore with a hotly-pegged Chinese-Malaysian actress like Angie Cheung Wai-Yee. Similarly, there are H.K. thespians who are Eurasian e.g. Brandon Lee, Shannon Lee, Keith Kwan, Joyce Godenzi, Anthony Wong, Don Wong, Michael Wong and Maggie Q.


Because the golden-aged H.K. movies had actors with darker complexions and unusual faces, it made the movies more accessible to Western audiences and even Eastern ones such as the Thai and Indian markets. Since H.K. has a sizable Indian population, the latter market could always indulge in wishful thinking.

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