TVB newbie

I’ve been truncating my manuscript which is an English translation of Wong Jing’s 2011 tell-all. I changed the format of his memoir by having most of his words reconfigured as third person narration. This allowed me to put in my own insights into what would’ve otherwise been a fairly skimpy book (i.e. his book consisted of 246 pages with many photos peppered throughout). My problem is that literary agents and publishers have a strict policy about how many words that you can have – something which can only be adjustable depending on the popularity of the subject matter. I didn’t want to completely get rid of chapters and passages in general, so this blog has essentially been a dumping ground for them. In this instance, this article is going to be a depot for what was going to be the third chapter: Jing’s years working for TVB – the Hong Kong equivalent to The Beeb (i.e. BBC). As for the cover and the rest of the photos, The Romancing Star II (1988) is loosely based on Jing’s TVB tenure. Personally, I thought the movie was funnier than 30 Rock. I should note that I even truncated this chapter since Jing spoke too much about being a TV critic than a TV creator.

Monday, April 7, 1975. A 19-year-old boy is sitting alongside his father on a bus to the broadcast network known as TVB. His 20th birthday is on the 3rd of the next month. With a restless heart, he nervously hopes to adapt to a summer job. This boy is a movie madman. He uses all his pocket money to watch movies. He dreams that one day he may have his own movie. He dreams that April 7 is a dream-like start. His name is Wong Jing, and he is accompanying his father, Wong Tin-Lam, to see Mr. Chung King-Fai. The latter is an actor who would go to be an executive producer on television. In fact, over twenty years later, Jing would cast Chung as a villain in Young Gambling God (a.k.a. God of Gamblers: The Early Stage).

Chung is both serious and sincere. Jing regards him as a respectable predecessor to himself. This is why Jing felt honoured that Young Gambling God had finally fulfilled his wish to direct Chung. Back to 1975, Wong Tin-Lam wanted to introduce Jing to Chung because Chung made something of himself by graduating from Oklahoma Baptist University (with a Bachelor of Arts in Speech and Drama) and the Yale School of Drama (earning a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts). Jing got mixed signals since he previously wanted to study film in England, but his father said: “Stay here to observe and you will learn the craft of the overseas.”

Once he became familiar with Jing, Chung led him to meet someone who would have a great influence on Jing – Mr. Louis Lau Tin-Chi. He was the head of the script department of Enjoy Yourself Tonight. This was a popular variety show that began in 1967 and continued to enjoy a lengthy run until October 1994 – a couple of months before the release of Jing’s God of Gamblers Returns, but I digress. Initially, Louis Lau didn’t think that Jing would amount to anything. He only let him collaborate because of Jing’s father being a respected writer and director. Louis became Jing’s mentor and, much later, produced three of his movies i.e. Mr. Possessed (1988), How to Pick Girls Up! (1988) and Perfect Girls (1990). Amongst Kung Fu movie fans, Lau is perhaps best known as writing the script of a classic Kung Fu movie titled The Victim (1980).

Back to Enjoy Yourself Tonight, many middle-class people had no idea of its impending longevity as they thought that it was vulgar. Jing joked in his book that he was perhaps destined to have a lifetime being described as vulgar. Joining Jing and Louis was a man named Ng Yu, who would go on to become the chief executive of E.E.G. (a.k.a. Emperor Entertainment Group). For all of the simplicity associated with crass, it was difficult to do the show because it was the only one that allowed for interaction with the audience (not just studio laughter). The show was always on a Friday night or late evening, and the workload was scary. Not even the most scholastic scribes had the ability to do it. During their three years together, Jing and Ng had jagged nerves. Between the three men, Ng would become the most powerful since E.E.G. has its fingers in pies beyond film production and distribution. The other pies being TV production along with every aspect of the music industry (i.e. recording, distribution and concerts). Jing speaks quite highly of Ng Yu: “He was quite congenial and such a good partner that I didn’t complain one bit about my salary.”

Still, Jing wanted to earn income as a writer so that he could alleviate the burden of his father’s responsibility to their family. Jing’s desire to help his family meant that he was more diligent than other writers of his age, thus he became better. TVB were not particularly sensitive to his plight, so he began working for less than minimum wage (i.e. pocket money or chump change). This was to avoid Jing being seen as getting favouritism in case any accusations of nepotism would arise from jealous staff members. Writing a joke would earn him H.K. $8 (approximately U.S.$ 1) whereas writing a short script would be worth H.K.$ 89 (roughly U.S.$ 11). In his first month, he earned the H.K. equivalent to U.S.$13 for two gags and a short script. In his second month, he earned what would be the H.K. equivalent of U.S.$ 130. In his third month, he earned more than U.S.$ 144. Jing proved himself worthy enough in the summer that Louis gave him a fixed part-time job.

On Jing’s first day as a properly working adult, his father was directing a TV series called The Legend of the Book and The Sword. This was based on a 1955 novel titled The Book and the Sword, which was published three months before Jing’s birthday. The novelist was Louis Cha. Speaking of men named Louis, Lau Tin-Chi would later find himself working under the authority of a TVB actress named Gigi Wong Suk-Yee (a.k.a. Huang Shu-Yi). The situation involved herself as the presenter of the aforementioned The Victim, a Sammo Hung movie where she is credited on the English print as “executive director” – this is H.K. speak for extra director (as gleaned when doing a Google search for HKMDB and executive director). In Jing’s case, he directed a 1998 movie titled Love Generation Hong Kong where the executive director was Raymond Yip Wai-Man.

Back to the fall of 1975, Jing didn’t have much to say in his book about his first day as a truly grown-up employee. However, he did say: “After I finished working, I decided to go home. But just after I walked out of the TVB entrance, there was suddenly a woman calling me – Wong Jing, Wong Jing. She scared me, but I had the courage to turn around. It was Gigi Wong, one of the three major flower buddies at that time. This was the first time that I saw a big star, and it left an unforgettable impression. She said – Come back, everyone is waiting for you. I had to go back to the TVB lobby with her where I saw Lisa Wong Ming-Chuen, Louise Lee Si-Kei and my father sitting on the sofa. He was waiting for me. At the time, my pulse might have been one hundred and ten heartbeats per minute.”

Jing continues to say: “It was quite daunting to stand in front of the three female major TV stars of that time. I saw them as sisters, and it was inevitable that even they would be shivering when in the presence of an authority figure like my father. As I stood in front of the three ladies, I felt like a little boy who was about to be disciplined for doing something wrong. I felt helpless.”

Far from being humbled, Jing says that it was the opposite: “In fact, at that time, I was quite conceited. I often performed and even directed plays when I was in middle school. I considered myself to be something of a versatile artist and I even thought I could be an actor. After writing scripts for half a year, I suddenly had a chance. At that time, there was a training program that was a cooperation between TVB and the Hong Kong government. It was called After Graduation. It selected more than ten students for each category – acting and crew work. There was a TV series that was going to begin filming. It was called Hotel. The director who was going to audition these graduates was Lee Tim-Sing. As it turned out, none of them were qualified. Suddenly, he came up to me and asked me to consider. I assured him that I would do it. I put my portfolio on the top so that I would have more chances of standing out. Other candidates for the role were Ng Man-Tat and Chow Yun-Fat, but I was to be the first choice for the protagonist. I should note that one of the candidates was an actor named Wong San. Before dying in 1999, I directed him in the following films – The Romancing StarThe Crazy Companies II, God of Gamblers and Money Maker.”

For Kung Fu movie fans, Wong San is best known as the director of the ill-fated Opera troupe in Sammo’s The Prodigal Son (1981). Back to the screening process in 1976, it’s interesting to note that Chow Yun-Fat and Ng Man-Tat would find themselves acting for Jing in God of Gamblers circa 1989. Jing literally weighed his chances of making it as a leading man in 1976: “At that time, I only weighed one hundred and thirty pounds. I used to play basketball fairly frequently, but when I saw Chow Yun-Fat, who was still not red hot at the time, my heart had fallen down to the lowest pit of my stomach. Chow was only 20 years old at the time, the same age as myself – he was even born in the same month. Even though I was able to see that he would be a huge star, he would be alternating between nine shifts on the same channel. This would immediately kill me as an actor, so I concentrated on being a screenwriter. Later, when I mentioned this to Chow, he had no imprint of this in his memory at all. But for me, it is deeply imprinted in my mind.”

By the time that Jing and Chow turned 21 in May of 1976, Saturday Night Live had been on air for 7 months. The significance being that Louis and Ng Yu wanted to turn Enjoy Yourself Tonight into the Chinese equivalent. A similar approach had previously worked for Michael and Sam Hui with their Hui Brothers Show for TVB. For two seasons from April 1971 to February 1973, the Hui brothers modelled their show after an American sketch program titled Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (which aired from 1968 to 1973).

Michael was the king of not only H.K. comedy but H.K. box office. Games Gamblers Play, released in October of 1974, went on to accumulate a domestic gross of H.K.$ 6.2 million by the time that it finished its theatrical run. More significantly, it cemented the local industry’s transition from having films dubbed in Mandarin to being dubbed in Cantonese. Jing examines Games Gamblers Play: “It showed me how much of the H.K. population loved gambling. It was a record-breaking success that paved the way for a TV show like The Shell Game and a movie like God of Gamblers. Even movies which aren’t about gambling can sometimes feature gambling scenes such as John Woo’s Heroes Shed No Tears.”

During his sketch show years, Michael had formulated a formula for comedy that he would share with the two co-writers of Games Gamblers Play – Thomas Tang Wai-Hung and Louis Lau. The latter had passed down the formula to Ng and Jing, respectively. Say what you will about the differing approaches of Hui and Jing, but what Jing learned had laid a solid foundation for his later work. Jing mentions another comedy writer who he admires: “Woody Allen is my favourite of the Western writers. I prefer his earlier work such as Sleeper, Take the Money and Run and his Sex movie.”

Despite mixed feelings about Michael’s filmography, Jing speaks reverentially: “Although his youngest brother, Sam, was more popular, I feel that Michael is more talented because no-one can remain unimpressed after watching his work. I will always be fond of him because he is a great master. I never got to make a movie with him. I would have gained a lot of older fans and he would have gained a lot of younger ones. I think him and Stephen Chow would have been perfect if they played rivals in a movie. I actually appeared in a movie which Michael’s other younger brother, Ricky, had co-starred in. It’s called Forever Young. Most people forget about the second-born brother – Stanley.”

Jing explains why H.K. comedy isn’t nowhere near as good as it used to be: “Today, everyone talks about film faults. The famous young directors Wilson Yip Wai-Shun and Edmond Pang Ho-Cheung have gone through the forty-something fortification, thereby afterwards not only afraid of making comedies, but they have no courage to engage in commercial films. Everyone just wants to be the next Wong Kar-Wai. I look at Wong’s scenery, star-reliant casts and distributional network, then I think how can he be called a brave outsider?”

After successfully incorporating Michael’s comedy theory for TV, Jing was finally treated as sacrosanct due to high ratings…but he wasn’t completely satisfied. He wanted to make downbeat drama because drama writers got better treatment than comedy writers i.e. more respect meant more control. He never participated in any writers strikes or strikes in general because he knew that he might have been arrested, blacklisted or humiliated. It was just as well. In 1977, Jing had been working for TVB for more over two years but still had five months left before graduating from university. By not overplaying his hand, he played his cards right.

That year, there was rivalry between three networks. Jing reveals the triumvirate: “Before ATV became TVB’s rival, it was named RTV. There was another one which was called Jiayi TV but was already gone by the `80s when the ratings war was between TVB and ATV. Korean TV were a contender but they had decades to play catch up. Meanwhile, Chinese TV was treacherous. People will ditch a losing side before the situation is reversed. I particularly remember something that happened in December. On Boxing Day, I was called in to TVB by Thomas Tang. He told me to dig my head in creating a new series. Just as we were discussing in the office, Yip San-Pou was already looking anxiously outisde. When I came out, I was immediately pulled to the other side and invited to go with the bribed brigade. I made a decision right away – do not go.”

Jing explains why: “Three months beforehand, I was already invited to join Jiayi TV. At that time, Lam Sau-Fung personally saw me, but he did not say anything about poaching Chiu Leung. She had successfully converted 70% of the TVB staff. I had two friends who wanted to join Jiayi, but TVB gave them undisclosed incentives. I figured that Jiayi must be in dire straits if they wanted to poach talent. I was right since Jiayi had shut down on August 21 in 1978. Lam Sai-Heung, the assistant general manager of TVB, joked that there was now more money to go around after we lost most of our workforce. Sai-Heung was a highly respected TV personality; he was dapper, calm and in my eyes – the only genuine higher-up. He dared to withstand the mutiny.”

Jing reveals the deeper downside of working in the world of H.K. entertainment: “The industry was and still is more dangerous than Hollywood. Everyone just talks to the red hot top and speaks with a guilty conscience. The competition between the talents behind and in front of the camera had reached unprecedented levels of unscrupulous behaviour. Chinese TV politics was so dark in 1977 that it reminded me of an American film from 1976. It’s called Network, and it was directed by Sidney Lumet. In that light, if there is any light under such a dark cloud, I respect Chow Yun-Fat for not resorting to such immoral extremes. It’s also why John Woo liked him.”

Jing reveals the identity of another person, albeit not an actor, who was different from the rest: “Lee Tim-Sing is the person who I respect the most in the TV world. He is like a brother to me. He’s not exactly first-class talent and he’s not going to be known as the most well-read of people, but I admire his tireless efforts. His hard work as a producer puts to shame the lazy people who relied too much on their qualifications. He never struggled for power. This type of person in today’s entertainment industry has all but disappeared. I could say that he was the last of a dying breed but I don’t know who or even if there was a first. In 2009, he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award. When I saw it on TV, I clapped. I had more reasons to be enthusiastic than the applauding audience. Most of them were just being sociable. I use Lee as an example to youngsters that you can be successful without losing your integrity and dignity.”

In 1978, Jing became the most respected TVB employee because he chose not to participate in protests. His philosophy is that it is better to be paid less than being unpaid or unemployed. Because TVB lost so much staff, he rose up the ladder quicker. In October, he cohabited with his college girlfriend – Eliza Yue Chi-Wai. Her married her six months after he graduated from university in 1977. He worked hard to write many scripts so that there would be enough money for when the time came to have a child. Eliza was an actress who was in several TVB programmes, the most memorable one being The Shell Game, but this was 2 years later. Simon Yam was one of the co-stars. The star’s son, Nicholas, was born during the filming. The star was Patrick Tse Yin. Jing says: “After the 20th century, I finally encouraged Nicholas to watch The Shell Game on DVD.”

In the summer of 1978, the TV war began. 1977 was comparatively just a battle cry and a war dance. Everyone in the press thought that the battle was between TVB’s The Giants and Jiayi TV’s Celebrity Love History. Who would’ve thought that the TV personality of Johnny Mak, who Jing respects so much, would quietly start a revolution when he created RTV’s Crocodile Tears? This was the real king. In theory, it seemed destined to lose. RTV had their show on the 21:00 time-slot, while TVB had The Giants on the 19:00 time-slot. The latter show starred Chow Yun-Fat and Paul Chu Kong (they would reunite more memorably in John Woo’s The Killer).

8 p.m. is meant to be the lucky hour for Chinese TV, but no such luck came Jiayi TV’s way. As Jing himself said: Celebrity Love History was watchable for the first fifteen minutes, but most people tuned out so that they could watch a rerun of a series that my father and I had worked on. This was a period martial arts drama titled Luk Siu-Fung. It starred Damian Lau. The ratings for Jiayi’s series was lower than RTV’s series. Later, I watched the Crocodile Tears rerun in cold sweat because it was actually better than The Giants in the plotting. Fortunately, Johnny Mak Tong-Hung’s series was the beginning of the end for Jiayi TV.”

Johnny would go on to be more legendary as a film director, much like how Michael Mann did when he made the move from TV to cinema. By the time that 1979 began, Johnny Mak had helped RTV recruit the many people who lost their jobs at the defunct Jiayi TV. Unfortunately, this included the TVB staff who committed treason just so that they could receive better salaries. As tempting as it would be to the average person for strength in numbers to justify leaving one’s post in the battlefield, this was not in Jing’s nature because it was not in his nurture. Such treachery belonged in the seediest of Chinese gambling halls.

Jing was grateful that he did not participate, because late August of 1979 involved one of the most important TV shows of his career – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Starring Chow Yun-Fat, this drama was popular throughout Southeast Asia. It established the on-screen pairing between himself and Carol Cheng Yu-Ling. This chemistry not only resulted in but was referenced in the box office smash hit known as The Eighth Happiness, which was not so coincidentally released in 1988. Back to the 1979 series also known as Man in the Net, this was the series that made him a household name. Even when he starred in Hotel, he could never receive anything more than a few hundred dollars per episode. When Chow went on to star in The Bund circa 1980, people were eagerly awaiting to see him make a big splash in films…but like a fish out of water, he flopped until John Woo had cast him as the Mark Gor character in A Better Tomorrow circa 1986.

As for Carol, she was cast because Jing saw her potential as an actress in Celebrity Love History. He thought she was underrated because her status didn’t reflect her talent. This type of casting decision would turn out to be rare for him as his bottom line has always been clout. He was disappointed that the summer of 1979 did not feature Carol’s face in any of the local movies. Producer Lee Tim-Sing shared Jing’s opinion that they should make her a star. Jing thought that it was sad that she only succeeded in becoming a TV actress because her boyfriend at the time (a Shaw Brothers actor by the name of Kam Kwok-Leung) was the producer and director of a TVB mini-series that aired in November of 1978. It was titled Twin Sisters. Jing said that Carol was his first crystal girl (classic starlet): “She wasn’t pretty at the time, but she was very playful and easy to write for. As would later be the case with Maggie Cheung and Sharla Cheung Man, Carol actually got prettier as she got older. Women don’t usually look their best in their thirties, but these ones did.”

Making Carol the star attraction of the cast’s females involved a sacrificial lamb in the form of Cora Miao (not to be confused with Nora Miao) as her character was originally meant to be the one who Chow’s character ended up with. Prior to the switch, both female characters had equal fanfare – this showed that the chosen one, any one, would receive a spike in popularity in a manner as fickle as a coin toss. The fateful choice surprised many viewers since Chow and Cora were a couple in the aforementioned Hotel, although some cynics weren’t surprised since Cora’s character in Hotel was Chow’s wife who he jilts out of revenge on her father. The choice also surprised most viewers since Chow and Cora even appeared on a 1977 episode of Enjoy Yourself Tonight where they sang Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.

People who were nostalgic for Hotel wouldn’t be too disappointed by the plot twist in the long run since Cora predated Carol in teaming up with Chow on film. First, there was Joy in the World (1980) then came a trilogy of Ann Hui films which suggests that Ann felt sorry for Cora. These films were The Story of Woo Viet (1981), Boat People (1982) and Love in a Fallen City (1984). Strangely, it took longer for Carol to not just star alongside Chow but to debut in films – both things happened with Last Affair (1983). It would take longer for Chow to team up with Carol again, hence the late 1986 release of My Will, I Will. Back to Man in the Net, their French kiss was unprecedented in the history of H.K. television.

There is a thin line between bonding and method acting which was crossed when Chow filmed the scene where his character is driven to prison. Carol and Tang Pik-Wan (the matriarch character) were hugging and crying for a long time after the scene finished finishing. Tang’s character, a gambler who’s in over her head in debt, is based on Jing’s mother. The aforementioned character actor, Wong San, was in both Man in the Net and The Giants. It’s just so strange that it took so long for Jing to make use of his talents in the film world, especially since Man in the Net would average over 3 million viewers, which is about the same as today’s 50 million. Jing was 24 years old when he was the main writer of it, and that was the age when he fully understood just how cynical that television politics can be. In retaliation for almost poaching Jing from TVB in 1977, Man in the Net contains a character modelled after Jiayi TV’s Lam Sau-Fung.

This is where the plot really thickens – in the series, Lam’s cipher (i.e. thinly veiled character) has a mistress who was said to be based on Cora (who plays the role). In a twist worthy of a soap opera, Cora had chosen to be with Lam by dumping Chow. From TVB’s perspective, she was literally sleeping with the enemy. There is something too superficially superstitious about her quitting the series after filming the eighth episode, since 8 is regarded as a lucky number by the Chinese. At any rate, Cora quit television but didn’t quit acting in general as would be the norm for a Chinese actress who is happily betrothed to a wealthy businessman. Being replaced by a less popular TV actress meant that she had lost face, and could never regain her foothold on TV. Revenge really is a dish best served cold as Jing had put it: “This experience made me never fear that anyone would suppress me for the rest of my life, because I believe that success is the sweetest revenge.”

Cora felt betrayed by Jing since he was pushing her to be a star ever since she won the Miss Hong Kong Beauty Pageant in 1976. Jing convinced Wong Tin-Lam to cast her in his 1976 martial arts TV series titled Luk Siu-Fung. After Tin-Lam finished the Hotel series in 1977, Cora was able to kickstart her career in films. In 1978, Jing had written an episode for an anthology series titled Below the Lion Rock. Instead of the episode being directed by his father, it was directed by King Hoi-Lam. It starred Cora behind Richard Ng. The episode, titled The Story of Smoking, warned about the dangers of tobacco in a comedic way that came off like a parody of those afterschool film specials. The effect was heightened when the second half of the episode had a dramatic story about such perils. When the episode aired on April the 5th, the high ratings enabled Jing and Richard to pitch a film project where Cora plays Richard’s sidekick. Itchy Fingers, as it was finally known in English, was released in January of 1979. Ironically, the studio behind it was Golden Harvest instead of Shaw Brothers…who co-owned TVB.

The director, Leong Po-Chih, would keep her in mind when he decided to cast her in a 1988 film titled Keep on Dancing. He represents a road not taken for Jing in that Leong was born and raised in England before working at the BBC. Back to 1979, Jing was gearing up Cora to be the It girl. She co-starred in a Kung Fu TV series which began airing in February. The English title was The Misfits, but the Chinese title is Wrong Door God. It starred a martial arts film actor named Wong Yuen-San. Jing wrote with Tin-Lam directing. It was the best of these father and son TV collaborations. All the cards were finally stacked up to form a pyramid. However, the higher the climb….the higher the fall. Had it not been for the betrayal, Cora would’ve played Cecilia Wong’s role in a multi-genre movie that was made in 1980. It was a Shaw Brothers movie titled Challenge of the Gamesters, and it was a prequel to TVB’s The Shell Game. It was also the directorial début of Wong Jing.

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