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The Cathay Story

Preface

For those who love the Hong Kong films of the 1950s and 1960s, Cathay (for most fans, perhaps it's more appropriate to say: MP & GI) represents a story at once wonderful, elegant and melancholic. It was a time when the Mandarin and Cantonese cinemas were separate worlds. In the Mandarin universe, Great Wall/ Feng Huang, MP & GI and Shaws were once the brightest stars. Now, their glories are only part of history. We hope this book will offer readers a more thorough understanding of Cathay's films.

1. The articles by Yu Mo-wan, Stephanie Chung Po-yin and Poshek Fu set a grand stage on which the Cathay story is played out, looking at the organization from the perspectives of family business, the film industry or the cultural background. Rich in information and lucid in historical delineation, they provide a solid foundation on which to conduct research. From that foundation, Law Kar and Shu Kei probe into MP & GI's creative environment, looking at the roles played by studio head Loke Wan Tho and established writers who were involved in the company's scripts. Shu even makes the bold attempt to discuss the issues of house style and how individual fimmakers operate within the studio system. Finally, Stephen Teo focuses on the martial arts films of Cathay's later period, looking at them from a fresh perspective and filling a gap often neglected in Hong Kong cinema.

In the second section, the issue of border crossing is explored. The most direct approach is of course geographic. We are familiar with the glamour of MP & GI, but little did we know that film production at the vertically integrated movie empire started with the Malay films of Cathay Keris; Timothy P. Barnard offers a detailed introduction to that part of history. Another geographic connection is examined by Yeh Yueh-yu, who looks at the complicated ties between Cathay and Taiwan as well as the influence of the company's transnational operation on the film industries of Hong Kong and Taiwan. Crossing another type of border, Yau Ching and Mary Wong dissect the rather modern notions of sexual identity and gender relationships in MP & GI films, a reminder of the lack of sophistication in this area in the cinema that followed.

MP & GI is also cherished for its musicals and Leo Lee Ou-fan and Yung Sai-shing trace the influence back to, respectively, Western opera and Hollywood musicals, showing how MP & GI films successfully blend together cultures East and West, high and popular. And Michael Lam, who is never trapped by boarders, offers an insightful observation on the stranger's predicament in paradise; in so doing, he invokes the disciplines of literature and sociology - that's really crossing boarders.

Other authors zoom in on the filmmakers. Leung Ping-kwan and Edward Lam focus on, respectively, Nellie Chin Yu (Qin Yu) and Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing), both writers with a special sensibility for the modern city woman and whose works play an important role in the establishment of the so-called 'MP & GI style'. Both Mandarin and Cantonese films are made in MP & GI and prolific director Wang Tianlin worked on both sides of the language divide. He not only directed the classic The Wild, Wild Rose (1960) but also the 'North vs South' series that find comedy in the conflict between Shanghai and Cantonese cultures. Sek Kei provides a first draft of his cinema.

Tso Kea (Zuo Ji) is a director of Cantonese film known for his dedicated approach. Li Cheuk-to's article continues the preliminary study of the director he began 20 years ago and, in the process, draws a profile of MP & GI's style. Another long-time follower of MP & GI films is Wong Kee-chee, who applies his expertise on Mandarin pop to an essay on the composer Yao Min. And while most MP & GI fans have vivid memories of its gorgeous actresses, Taipei's Tso Kuei-fang makes a case for the men, offering sketches on such stars as Peter Chen Ho (Chen Hou), Kelly Lai Chen (Lei Zhen), Roy Chiao (Qiao Hong) and Chang Yang (Zhang Yang).

The most touching are the remembrances of those who had lived the MP & GI experience. Kei Shang-tong (Qi Xiangtang), who now lives in Canada, gave us more than 10,000 Chinese words of his memories, afterwards patiently answering our questions and proof-reading our drafts. He was a significant contributor to the music style of MP & GI and had composed many scores and songs for the company's films. In his work is the dignity of a professional musician. Another veteran, Tau Ho-fun (Dou Hanxun) was dearly unforgettable in our interview with him. He was a producer of Cantonese films in both the company's early International Films days and its glorious MP & GI years. A true gentleman, it was obvious that he still harbours deep affection for the company he once worked for. He was extremely helpful every time we asked him for help and one weekend, he showed up at the office with a stack of scripts and artifacts, donating to us what he had kept for years.

Film veterans we talked to always gave a thumb-up whenever the name Albert Odell was mentioned. Although he was only briefly involved in the early days of International Films, he had laid the foundation for the MP & GI to come. Interviewing him was pure delight and listening to the fluent Cantonese with which he spiced his speech, sometimes using slang we had long forgotten or had never even heard of, always brings a smile to our face. We also interviewed Meileen Choo (Zhu Meilian), the head of the Cathay Organisation's modern era. She is the niece of MP & GI founder Loke Wan Tho (Lu Yuntao) and she grew up in the film industry. Her recollections of the relationship between Loke and her father, Choo Kok Leong (Zhu Guoliang), and the men's different approaches to business gave us helpful glimpses into Cathay's development, especially in the later years.

Less dedicated to work was young assistant Sek Kei (Shi Qi), who went on to become one of Hong Kong's top critics. His witty reminiscence of his days at the art department in the 1970s gives the melancholic story of Cathay a humourous and romantic touch of François Truffaut.

2. This is the Cathay Story, but in most minds the real story is the glory days of MP & GI. For its films are simply gorgeous. And it's easy to forget that in addition to the fabulous Mandarin films, MP & GI had also made lots of Cantonese films. That's because the two kinds of films are exactly that - two kinds and very different kinds. In Father Takes a Bride (1963), Wang Yin and his children live in a cottage on Diamond Hill, their middle-class life peaceful and comfortable. Their neighbours are a much-abused little girl and her mean and wretched stepmother. They may live next door, but they seem to belong to a different world. They wear Chinese-style clothes, in sharp contrast to the trendy Western garbs that adorn the beautiful physiques of Lucilla You Min and Kelly Lai Chen (Lei Zhen). Oh yes, isn't theirs exactly the lower depths of the Cantonese film world? Such a polarity of worlds is also found in Education of Love (1961). The sheltered bourgeois lifestyle of Wang Yin and Jeanette Lin Cui is the opposite of the dirt-poor harshness of little Sammo Hung (Hung Jinbao) and his drunk of a father, Zhu Mu. MP & GI's directors and scriptwriters were mostly Mainland intellectuals with westernised tastes. They were certainly capable of making films about middle-class or even upper-class life, but their idea of the grass root was rather skewed, unlike Cantonese filmmakers' heart-felt concern for the populace.

I'm mindful of another film, Dreams Come True (1960). Kitty Ting Hao (Ding Hao) plays two roles in it, a poor flower girl and a rich repatriate from San Francisco. The flower girl is mistaken for the repatriate and is wined and dined. At one gathering, all the diners are old folks in cheong sam, revelling in a barbaric snake banquet, with Cantonese opera playing in the background - unadulterated stereotyping by northerners of their southern brethren as exotic.1 For Better, For Worse (1959), directed by Yue Feng, offers a less biased view of local society. Chang Yang (Zhang Yang) plays a white-collar worker leading a happy life. Hit by sudden unemployment, he succumbs to his sister's lobbying and fights with his wife, causing his stepdaughter Connie Chan Po-chu (Chen Baozhu) to seek employment at a Cantonese restaurant. Such an environment is obviously not familiar to director Yue, yet he manages to avoid looking at it with prejudice, giving the alien lifestyle a goodness of the ordinary. Yes, these immigrants with a notable past are stuck in Hong Kong, but they have given their hearts and minds to this city, not taking any looks back.

One can readily see the differences between the worlds comparing the Mandarin films and Cantonese films of MP & GI. Take Tso Kea's The Sorrowful Lute (1957) and Tao Qin's Calendar Girl (1959), for example. Tso's film takes place in Guangzhou, where a singer works at a rooftop carnival. The film starts with her performing the number 'On the Peach Blossom River', backed by a chorus of girls. Singing a Mandarin pop of the 1930s and wearing sexy miniskirts, the performer, a lover of Cantonese opera, is lackluster. Less than two years later in Calendar Girl, the same number is staged, but with a nostalgic fondness for the popular culture of 1930s Shanghai. But it's no longer what it was, and instead of indulging in self-pity, a fresh twist is given to the song, not to mention a brand new package. On Western civilisation's impact on Chinese culture, Tso seemed more cautious, and more conservative.

The Mandarin films are less judgemental. Li Mei in The Bedside Story (1960) and Lee Hong-kum (Lei Xiangqin) in Bitter Romance (1963) are both married women who like to go out for fun. But while the Lee in the Cantonese film is a tramp beyond redemption, the Li in the Mandarin film is merely a spoiled woman who needs to learn a little lesson but still ends up a winner in the battle of the sexes. Even an unabashed man-eater like Mrs. Lu (also played by Li) in Torrents of Spring (1960) is not punished. 'Love is not for everyone; you're not worthy.' The speaker is none other than the Mrs. Lu who openly plays with men. By contrast, many women in MP & GI films who give up family for love or personal freedom are treated with sympathy and dignity, though not without regret, like Wang Lai in Her Tender Heart (1959) and Education of Love. Even the mother who ends up a toilet attendant in Mambo Girl (1957) and the mother who harms her daughter because of her man in Lily of the Valley (1962) are portrayed with more understanding than reprimand.

A key of corruption is featured in The Sorrowful Lute and The Tender Age (aka The Splendour of Youth, 1957), both directed by Tso. In the former, the singer is brought to the door of a mansion and offered its key. In the latter, the matriarch of a corrupt family hands to a young woman the key to her room - on Christmas Eve - plunging the innocent girl into the abyss of decadence. The nightlife in Tender is full of allure. The young woman is invited by a friend to stay in the latter's home but is told never to go downstairs in the evening. Yet it's party time every night downstairs. No one can resist the urge to open this Pandora's box. Inside are not only the decadence of material like but also the prancing desire of youth. All these are treated with moral high-mindedness by the film and redemption rests with an architect intern - played by none other than Ng Cho-fan (Wu Chufan) - and his worker friends, a very Union film world indeed. Going on a picnic, the girl and the architect are sitting inside a convertible, singing a Mandarin song, a moment in which the worlds of MP & GI and Union film merge. A mysterious sitting room is also featured in Evan Yang (Yi Wen)'s Bachelors Beware (1960). It's total darkness when the door is opened; as the eyes adjust, we begin to see the youthful bodies inside, burning off their youth. Seldom are such scenes of degeneration featured in Chinese cinema, even less without judgement. It's like an obliging father who pays his son a lip service of disapproval but indulges him deep down.

3. If I say that putting this book together is a bittersweet experience, readers may laugh at the cliché. It is. But it's also a cliché that's true. I only blame myself for not coming up with a better way to say it.

Bitter because of the lack of time, our own inadequacies, the hugeness of the topic and our greed trying to grab more than we can handle. Systematic studies of MP & GI are rare;2 that's why when we took up this job, we were a little flabbergasted. Fortunately we received generous help. Film veterans sat down and talked with us, Yu Mo-wan offered his help compiling the filmography and writing biographies, Law Kar gave us many useful ideas, Sam Ho went to Singapore to conduct interviews, and writers contributed their ideas to complete this book.

It's also sweet. Sweet because the films of Cathay and MP & GI are like an integral part of my growing up. Frankly, I seldom watched them as a kid, but every one I watched in adulthood is like a trip back to my childhood home. Seeing the family portrait in For Better, For Worse, I remember wearing my little white dress, going to the studio with my parents to have ours taken. My brothers were not yet in Hong Kong and my parents took their photos to the studio; with a little magic, an incomplete family of three became our full family of five, the created illusion carrying the most authentic of hopes. Seeing Wang Lai and Wang Yin stealing away to a quiet corner of her home for a leisurely cup of afternoon tea, sitting by a small table with checkered tablecloth, I coloured in my mind the black-and-white images, turning the dark grey into sky blue - life so humble can actually be so elegant. Seeing Grace Chang (Ge Lan) perform Kun opera in Spring Song (1959), memories of our family friend Sister Dai's graceful moves on the Shaoxing opera stage emerge - I had made her my idol early on. When the family party heats up to its fun and clamour in Mambo Girl, I was restless, hoping I could fly through the time tunnel to the 1950s and 1960s, to smell once more my youthful boisterousness. Watching the complicated mother-daughter relationship in Her Tender Heart, I started to hear the gossips my mother whispered to her mahjong friends, that Mrs. Cheung used to be Mrs. Chen. 'Her child was only three!' Someone added this footnote. Then they went back to their game...

Yours, mine, his, hers... Together, they add up to a backdrop of an era. It may be a little faded now, but back then, it was probably Eastman colour. That was a changing time, when families moved from the turbulent Mainland to this far-off but peaceful island. They were traditional Chinese families, but once exposed to Western civilization, they were not the same again. MP & GI films had learned to be more open-minded a little earlier than the others. Perhaps it was because they knew how to receive, they were not as sensational. Their world is only a little sentimental, like a cheered up version of Ozu's, as in Tao Qin's Our Sister Hedy (1957). But most of the time, it's an eager embrace of a new lifestyle, like Evan Yang's (Yi Wen) Mambo Girl.

I have veered off too far. The world of MP & GI's films is indeed a rich one and this book has only touched upon a fraction of that abundance. Many of the passages in this volume can be expanded into full-length books and we only wish that the snowball would continue to roll. I'd like to thank all the colleagues and friends who had ventured into the deep of night to put this book together. May you get some sleep.


Wong Ain-ling
Editor
5 March, 2002

Translated by Sam Ho


Notes


1. For the differences between Hong Kong and Shanghai cultures, please see Michael Lam, 'Strangers in Paradise', in this volume.

2. Weng Lingwen, 'The Dian Mou Film Company: Cantonese Film Group' in Cantonese Cinema Retrospective (1950-1959), the 2nd Hong Kong International Film Festival catalogue, Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1978; Weng Lingwen, 'Motion Picture & General Investment Company (Dianmou)' in Hong Kong Cinema Survey (1946-1968), the 3rd Hong Kong International Film Festival catalogue, Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1979; as well as Du Yunzhi, 'Dian Mou: MP & GI' in A History of Chinese Cinema (in Chinese), Taipei: Commercial Press, 1972, are ready introductions to MP & GI. 'Preliminary Study of MP & GI films - From Shanghai to Hong Kong' in Film Criticism (in Chinese), Taipei: Chinese Taipei Film Archive, August 1997, includes several essays that examine the system, genres and ideology of the company's Mandarin films. Also, Wong Cheuk-hon (Huang Zhuohan) A life in Movies: Memoirs of Wong Cheuk-hon (in Chinese), Taipei: Variety Publishing, 1994; Sha Yung-fong: Forty Years of Cinema (in Chinese), Taipei: Chinese Taipei Film Archive, 1994 and Li Hanxiang: Thirty Years in Retrospect (in Chinese), Hong Kong: Cosmos Books, 1984, provide glimpses into MP & GI from the perspective of filmmakers. Of course, there is also Lim Kay Tong: Cathay - 55 years of Cinema, Singapore: Landmark Books, 1991, which offers the most comprehensive description of the company's development.

 

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