Mogul of Movies: The Early Stage

The title is an allusion to a Wong Jing movie titled God of Gamblers: The Early Stage. What you’re reading is my English translation of the first chapter from his memoir (the original book would be really short if you removed all of the pictures). I decided to remove the first chapter because it’s inconsistent in the grander scheme of things. From a marketing point of view, this makes it so much easier because people won’t be expecting a certain amount of domestic anecdotes. It’s the only chapter that was personal in terms of describing what was going on with his family. In some ways, Jing’s autobio’ is even less personal than Jackie Chan’s first autobiography (the latter spends more time on lost loves than Jing does on the one who didn’t get away). With the inclusion of the chapter, people would’ve strongly criticized the inconsistency of the book to the extent that the book may as well be titled The Films of Wong Jing as opposed to The Life of Wong Jing. The exclusion of the chapter allows me to solidly advertise my book with this excerpt:

1955 – 1973: Upbringing

Wong Tin-Lam (王天林), my father, had a rough exterior but a caring interior. He went through too much suffering as a child. He was forced to drop out of a Shanghai school because of World War II. His parents were protective, so they moved to Hong Kong. As a teenager, he had a lot of grievances for reasons which he was too ashamed to admit. As an adult, he had to bear the burden of lives which ended up being more wasted (instead of wasteful) than his. He was haunted by the memories of dead people who lived better lives than he did. When I was a kid, he was not always at home because he was an extremely prolific film-maker like Jesús Franco. Under those circumstances, my mother was selfless enough to not indulge in her gambling habit. Instead, she would teach me how to play cards. Looking back, that was the metaphysical nicotine patch. She was a simple-minded woman. She enjoyed the benefits of being a film director’s wife. It made her look more cultured.

With the exception of prostitution and prison, she was about as working-class as you could get. When my father was present at home, she would go out every day to play Mahjong. She preferred gambling in Macau because it was the closest thing to Las Vegas. It’s because of her that I wanted to make the 1992 Casino Tycoon duology. They were unofficial biopics based on a businessman named Stanley Ho Hung-Sun. To avoid being sued, I changed his name to Benny Ho Hsin. I chose Benny because Andy Lau had acted in a Benny Chan movie that was co-produced by myself – A Moment of Romance (1990). Back to my mother, she once told me a bedtime story about how Stanley became the king of gambling. The more that I studied gambling, the more that I realized that she was an inept gambler because she had a pathological obsession. I refuse to say addiction because that’s a word which belongs to more carnal vices such as cigarettes, sex, drugs and alcohol.

With that said, she spent as much money on gambling as addicts do on drugs. When I first learned how to walk, my father’s bedroom was more impressive than it really was. It was like a temple in comparison to my bedroom. There were enough books to open a book store. There were several candles, which he would use to keep the electric bills at a minimum. It also made him look more romantic. My childhood was immensely introverted. I spent most of my time reading books when there was nothing worth watching on TV. At the age of 9, I had read Water Margin. It is the Chinese equivalent to War and PeaceWhen I was 10, I had read Journey to the West. It was only when I was 20 that I would have a chance to see an adaptation worthy of it. Chang Cheh’s The Fantastic Magic Baby (1975) has an innocence that isn’t present in Stephen Chow’s 1995 movie (I see it as one film in the same way that Quentin Tarantino sees Kill Bill as one film). Not exactly a twentieth anniversary.

I personally believe that A Chinese Odyssey was an unfortunate attempt to prove that H.K. audiences could sit through a long H.K. movie (it was unfortunate because it was divided into two movies titled Pandora’s Box and Cinderella). When I was 11, I began reading novels by Ni Kuang (the Wisely novels were the ones which mostly got my attention) and Jin Yong (the pen name of Louis Cha). Ni was the most prominent screenwriter of Kung Fu movies. I wanted to impress my father, so I would purchase a newspaper every three days. I liked making him proud in front of his friends. I impressed everyone when I recited the names of the 108 outlaws (I realize that I sound like Brick in the Super Sunday episode of the The Middle). When I was 12, the sixties were in full-swing. My mother fell into a gambling scam. There was an unspecified amount of money that was low, hence my father forgave her. Eventually, she accumulated a debt of H.K.$ 100,000. Because her husband had managed to pay the debt, she couldn’t see how life became more arduous.

This would later inspire me to produce a movie titled The Underground Banker (1994). Of course, she didn’t suffer nowhere near as bad as Kitty (which is also the name of the protagonist in Naked Killer). I won’t reveal my mother’s name because it would be easy for my rival producers to create a caricature based on her. Not even I lampooned Jackie Chan’s mother in High Risk (1995). When I was 15, my father left the Cathay Pacific film studio. It didn’t make much sense to me. There was no way that he was fired. He had a dozen hitsMistaken Love (a 1966 comedy), Little Matchmaker (a 1967 comedy), Wife of a Romantic Scholar (a 1967 musical), Darling, Stay at Home (a 1968 dramedy), The Crimson Rose (a 1968 thriller), Travels with a Sword (a 1968 movie), Red Plum Pavilion (a 1968 Opera), Desperate Seven (a 1968 swordplay movie), The Royal Seal (a 1969 tragedy), Mad, Mad, Mad Swords (a 1969 parody), How Love is Tested (a 1969 comedy) and The Unknown Swordsman (a 1970 movie).

He left because he wanted an increase in salary. Soon after his departure, C.P. closed. The irony upon ironies is that he was their cash cow, but we never enjoyed the fruits of his labours. Life became more difficult. One day at home, I found out that my pocket money was only seven dollars. My younger sisters do not know, but I was vaguely aware that the older members of my family knew that my father could only support my family through loans. I can’t imagine how many people made sarcastic comments or looked down on him in general. By the time that I was 16 in 1971, my father was still having to pay my mother’s debt. As a high school student, I must have come off as a loner because I had to turn down many social invitations. The excuse was that my mother wanted me to study diligently. I used her as a scapegoat because I felt that she needed to have at least some dignity. I wanted her to be remembered as someone who worked hard.

Because of my father’s disgraceful salary and my mother’s need to have company so that she didn’t gamble, I never dared to go bowling. When my father joined the Golden Harvest film company, he made a martial arts epic titled The Chase. Under different circumstances, that movie would have been a milestone. Unfortunately for him, it was overshadowed by another G.H. classic – Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss (1971). I had classmates who practically insisted that I watch it. As a director, my father knew how awkward that it would be for people to get excited about a movie except for one person. Water cooler talk syndrome! Despite the humiliation, he let me see it. He saw it as an opportunity for me to spy for him. When I told him about Bruce’s superbly realistic acting and superlative agility, he knew that he had a better chance of standing out as a Taiwan-based film-maker. He made a string of Taiwanese movies that paid the bills but didn’t leave room for financial aspiration.

By the time that it was 1973, I was tired of living on modest means. A lot of the strain came from having additional family members in the form of my dearest grandmother, aunt and two servants. Imagine my father’s surprise when I told him that Bruce only had one. Coincidentally, my father appeared in the banquet scene of Enter the Dragon during the spring of 1973. You should bear in mind that I have four siblings – four sisters. To save money, my father would use them for the dubbing of his movies because H.K. movies were originally not shot in sync-sound (this changed in the late nineties with the exception of Stanley Tong’s Police Story III: Super Cop in 1992). Even though parents shouldn’t choose favourites, my youngest sister was my father’s apple. My relationship with her was strained because her fiancé was nice to me but not as nice to her. This was because she was a little bit mean to him.

I would later find out that her cruelty was due to an assumption that he only liked her under the premature presumption that our father was rich. Time would prove her wrong. Like my father, she is passionate. They talked more about love than he did with me or even his own wife. I find it ironic that my sister and her fiancé separated years later. As tempting as it would be to assume that they couldn’t afford to get married, it was more and most likely that they realized that you can never be in love with just one person. When you consider why people become attracted to each other, it’s easy to find replacements because a love interest will have generic qualities (this explains why my cinematic romances are cynical than most). My relationship with my wife is different in that we had shared university experiences, so it’s difficult to find someone who is my psychological peer.

The same thing can’t be said about my father. Apart from his marriage, his depression was made worse in the swinging sixties. He made a famous film titled The Wild, Wild Rose (1960). It starred Grace Chang. She has often been referred to as Hong Kong’s Marilyn Monroe (which was actually Betty Ting Pei because she was sexier) or Brigitte Bardot (who was actually Lily Ho). Grace was actually Hong Kong’s answer to Julie Andrews. My father’s film should have been the crowning achievement of his career. Some people told him that it was worthy of the Cannes Film Festival. Even though it won a Golden Horse award for Best Screenplay, it didn’t win anything at the 1961 H.K. film ceremony because the composer was Japanese (the G.H. awarding ceremony was different because that’s based in Taiwan). My father thought that he had survived the second World War, but it destroyed his most critically acclaimed movie.

He wasn’t blacklisted as evidenced by Wife of a Romantic Scholar winning a H.K. film award for best screenplay in 1968. Back to 1961, The Wild, Wild Rose was nominated by the seventh Asian Film Festival (a Taiwan event) until the Shaw Brothers (the rival studio) pointed out that it had plagiarized a French Opera titled CarmenI would later joke to people, but not my father, that the brothers picked up on the French connection (no pun intended) but not the American one (a short story titled Madame Butterfly). Speaking of which, one of his favourite actresses had committed suicide in Los Angeles. Her name was Kitty Ting Hao. This happened in 1967 (she was 27 years old like Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin). He directed her on five occasions – Riots in Outer Space (1959), The Greatest Civil War on Earth (1961), You Were Meant for Me (1961), The Greatest Wedding on Earth (1962) and, more importantly, All in the Family (a 1959 comedy where she had a supporting role).

I saved this for last because he was awarded best director at the 1960 Asian Film Festival. It also won best screenplay and best actress. One year later, my father lost face (an insurmountable pain which Chinese people take more seriously than anybody else as can be seen in countless H.K. movies including mine). Because of the Carmen controversy, people would go on to say that he was cursed. He had worked with two other actresses who had committed suicide. 1964 was when Linda Lin Dai threw in the wrong towel. He directed her in The Film World’s Merry Song (1958) and Lady on the Roof (1959). Because Rosamund Kwan resembled her (it’s too bad that she wasn’t born after the suicide), I had cast him in The Frog Prince (1984). It was my version of exposure therapy. He appreciated it. He was so smitten by her likeness that he had cast her in Ghost Fever (1989). I was reminded of a supernatural romance titled Rouge (1988), which was produced by Jackie Chan.

Coincidentally, Rosa’s father co-starred with Linda in Love Without End (1961), The Mirror (an incomplete movie that was delayed for release in 1967) and the Blue Versus Black duology (ditto except 1966). I think that the real reason why Linda committed suicide was because of her rivalry with Teresa Li Li-Hua. The latter married the former’s most kindred spirit – Yan Jun. This was in 1957. Linda was so embarrassed that she moved to New York to find a wealthy boyfriend. My father had to improvise the storyline of The Film World’s Merry Song (which Teresa was the leading actress in). Linda felt that she should have been the star instead because she was 9 years younger. Alas, she wasn’t self-deprecating enough to realize that she was too expensive. Also, Teresa was more popular among older generations.

Furthermore, Teresa had been in more of my father’s movies. She was in Lady Balsam’s Conquest (a 1955 drama where my father was the co-director), Blood Will Tell (another such film where he was credited as an assistant director but had more involvement), What Price Beauty? (same thing), Blind Love (ditto except in 1956) and Madame Butterfly (ditto except in 1958). Linda only returned to H.K. because she had a wealthy boyfriend (a warlord’s son). My father forgave her and gave her the lead role in Lady on the RoofAs for the last member of the suicide squad (forgive the comic book pun), 1968 was when Betty Loh Ti hanged a preserved duck (Cantonese slang for throat-related suicide). She made herself a victim of a drug overdose like Kitty. Both women were suffering from what I call a divorce hangover.

I never understood the Western slang term of “chasing the dragon” being used for heroin. Likewise, I never understood how Cantonese people refer to heroin as swallowing clouds and spitting out mist. Then again, drug addicts already have messy minds. At any rate, my father directed Betty in A Beggar’s Daughter (1965), The Lucky Purse (1966), Darling, Stay at Home (1968) and Travels with a Sword (1968). As you can imagine, he was a man made timid by caution which could not be thrown to the wind. Instead of seeing dollar signs, he saw red flags. He made sure that he was as nice as possible to his mousy actresses without coming off as flirtatious. His attitude influenced how I would treat my actresses. I’m nicer to women than I am with men because men are less sensitive.

In 1968, my father began gambling but the difference between himself and my mother was that he knew when to call it quits because a winning streak can easily become a losing streak. For all of his drinking and smoking, his biggest bad habit was sleeping pills. Right up to his death, his mind was ravaged by this plague. His body was not as holy as the temple that his bedroom was. My life has never been plagued by sleeping pills. This is because an exceptionally satisfactory sex life leads to heavy sleep. In 1969, I became much worried for my father’s pill usage after Margaret Tu Chuan had overdosed on sleeping pills. It was reported to be double suicide with a female room-mate. The alleged motive behind Margaret’s death was that she divorced a H.K. tycoon. I find that preposterous because she could easily have eloped to America like Linda Lin Dai did.

I believe that Margaret and her sapphic sister were murdered. After all, it’s all too common for women to marry men for their money. In H.K. and Taiwan in particular, actresses usually retire after they meet wealthy businessmen. I allege that the couple intended to do what the lesbian duo aspired to do in Bound (the Wachowskis directed this 1996 thriller which starred Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon). Back to the suicide pact pair, they were described in H.K. as Golden Lotus sisters (two women who are fond of each other regardless of whether they are related, friends or lovers). Which reminds me – Sister Cindy (one of the main characters in Naked Killer) was not named because of this slang term, the nurse nickname nor the archaic nun pronoun. A sister can be an authoritative woman in any given Chinese social setting. Quite ironically, a “Tao nun” is a slang term which means female drug addict.

From 1971 to 1973, I had often performed in high school plays and even directed them. I even wrote six plays. I became increasingly confident that I could make money as a director to support myself if not my family. I was quite conceited. The directors who inspired me to become a director were Francois Truffaut and Lui Kei a.k.a. James Lui Chi (an actor and an erotic writer). However, I am a bigger admirer of Li Han-Hsiang. I admit that he wasn’t a perfect man. Then again, there is no such thing as a flawless saint. He didn’t have the most open of minds but his deep skill can not be denied. He may not have been the most diverse of writers but he was a set designer who understood so much about what makes art. He had first-class skills. Today, there are no new Chinese film-makers who can match him for output.

He is responsible for Michael Hui’s best film because it was himself who wrote the script for The Warlord (1972). Mike’s writing ability is so hit and miss that he is like a drunk boxer, but not like Jackie Chan in Drunken Master (1978) or Drunken Master II (1994). I would have loved to have written a screenplay for Hui back in the eighties, but he was creatively dried up with the same amount of grey on his hair as an old orange except less tasty. After leaving the Shaw Brothers studio, Li Han-Hsiang made two masterpieces – Burning of Imperial Palace (1983) and The Empress Dowager (1989). This leads to my next anecdote – I had a high school classmate surnamed Long, whose father ran a book store full of ancient books on Sai Yeung Choi Street (the best street to get books). Papa Long was humble despite being the king of rare books.

Allegedly, Li Han-Hsiang bought a set of detailed records on women with bound feet. This makes sense given the number of erotic movies which he wrote and directed. It was only when I saw Chang Cheh’s The Five Venoms (1978) that I realized what one of those contraptions were. After Li died in 1996, his books had either been stolen or passed on to next of kin. Back to when I was a teenager in the seventies, I had enrolled at the City University of Hong Kong. In 1973, I was surprised that I could afford it. Even if I had all the money in the world, the feeling was bittersweet because, two months earlier, one of my all-time idols had died. Of course, I’m referring to Bruce Lee. His successful career was still an embryo. His death was sadder than that of James Dean. Spending time with a bunch of high school graduates made me happier. We particularly had some fun two days before Christmas day.

We would play around all day to the point that I would come home feeling tired. This made me think about how I would feel if I was raising children. One time, I wanted to stay in but a close friend (in the geographical sense) called and invited me to his house for a dusk till dawn party. He told me that his sister’s co-graduates from a religious school will attend. I had reservations because I figured that they would be boring nuns. My eager friend insisted that, if anything, they were sexually repressed. I was torn between wanting to go and not wanting to go. I then realized that indecision is a form of arrested development. I saw this as an opportunity to improve my social skills – namely dancing and flirting. I had to get dressed without causing sound. I thought about sneaking out by slowly walking to the door, but the wrong timing could make me look suspicious.

I was less likely to catch attention by walking normally, especially with the number of eyes in the house. There is an American cop expression – got made. If I got made, I would be grounded. I could not afford to have my social life be at a standstill. Aptly, it was either get made or get laid. My parents were so busy that I only had to be quiet when opening and closing the door. I went to my friend’s house and rang the doorbell. Before the door fully opened, I saw two girls dancing in a way that was in no way as innocent as one may suspect by their uniforms. Seeing those two girls grooving the way that they did would later inspire me to write a movie titled Raped by an Angel 2: The Uniform Fan (1998). Seriously, those two girls were mingling in such a way that made me wonder if going to a same sex school was the main cause of homosexuality.

They were cavorting in a way that made me think more about the cowgirl position than Cantonese pop music. If I was the only male at any given party, then I would instigate a threesome. However, I figured that the host should be gracious with the guest. Instead of sharing a girl, I could choose my favourite. The host didn’t mind who I picked because he found them equally nubile. I called dibs on the girl that I liked, but I was never possessive. His generosity paid dividends in a way that definitely led to divided legs. After making only one Taiwanese Kung Fu movie in 1973 (Dragon Blows starring the actress who played May’s aunt in Jackie’s Police Story II), my father decided to literally hedge his bets by working for TVB – Hong Kong’s biggest TV station (which was owned by the Shaw Brothers).

It wasn’t common to have film directors make the move to TV. The wage was small but stable. My father’s mind became more stable as well as his body (this includes less drinking). At the start of each day, he went to their station by walking instead of getting a bus, because he wanted to save money. He was overwhelmed by how much writing was in English. It wasn’t just signs and documents but even vending machines. He was trembling on his first day as he was surrounded by so many intrigued eyes. If I was him, I would have blamed it on coffee. Instead, he overcame such intrigue by claiming that he was cold from drinking soda cans. The curious eyes faded to that of admiration. Some directors gradually became jealous after he re-established his reputation on TV.


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