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The Cathay Story, Revised Edition

Preface


For those who love Hong Kong films of the 1950s and 60s, 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 unfolds, looking at the organisation 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 filmmakers 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 cinema1.

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 Emilie 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 borders, 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 borders.

Other authors zoom in on the filmmakers. Leung Ping-kwan and Edward Lam focus on, respectively, Nellie Chin Yu and Eileen Chang, 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 Wong Tin-lam 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 finds comedy in the conflict between Shanghai and Cantonese cultures. Sek Kei provides a first draft of his cinema.

Tso Kea 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 some twenty 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 writes about the composer Yao Min and the relationship between his creative style and MP & GI as a film studio. And while most MP & GI fans have vivid memories of its star actresses, Wong Kee-chee takes special interest in the uniquely charming Helen Li Mei and Roy Chiao; Taipei's Tso Kuei-fang makes a case for the 'comedy man' Peter Chen Ho, sketching an overview of his cinematic career.

The most touching are the remembrances of those who had lived the MP & GI experience. Kei Shang-tong, who passed away in 2007, gave us more than 10,000 Chinese words of his memories, afterwards patiently answering our questions and proofreading 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 Hon-fun 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 artefacts, 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, the head of the Cathay Organisation's modern era. She is the niece of MP & GI founder Loke Wan Tho and she grew up in the film industry. Her recollections of the relationship between Loke and her father, Choo Kok Leong, 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, 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 humorous and romantic touch of Francois Truffaut.

In this revised edition, we have added three Oral History interviews with 'Mambo Girl' Grace Chang, 'Mr Melancholy' Kelly Lai Chen, and child star Peter Dunn. Grown up in Shanghai, both Grace Chang and Lai Chen came from an affluent background. Chang's father was a lecturer and a banker while Lai's grandfather, Gu Zhuxuan, was a business magnate in Shanghai who owned a vast number of properties including the revered Tianchan Theatre. They fled to Hong Kong with their families during the war, and had enjoyed a successful career ever since they joined the company. MP & GI was like a second home to them. Peter Dunn's family originally came from Guizhou but he himself is Hong Kong born and bred. His was just a reasonably well-off family but his parents made quality of life one of their priorities. Their regular visits to Shatin Hotel for afternoon tea during weekends become part of his childhood memory. From this, one can deduce that the middle-class flavour in MP & GI films is not entirely imaginary.

(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 Lai Chen. 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 Tsui is the opposite of the dirt-poor harshness of little Sammo Hung and his drunkard 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 grassroots was rather skewed, unlike Cantonese filmmakers' heartfelt concern for the populace.

That brings to mind another film, Dreams Come True (1960). Kitty Ting 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.

2For Better, For Worse (1959), directed by Griffin Yue Feng, offers a less biased view of local society. Chang 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 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 Doe Ching'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 miniskirt, the performer, a lover of Cantonese opera, is lacklustre. 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 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 life 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—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 (aka 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) 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 chequered 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 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 60s to join in on the fun. 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 Eastmancolour. 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 civilisation, 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 Doe Ching's Our Sister Hedy (1957). But most of the time, it's an eager embrace of a new lifestyle, like Evan Yang's Mambo Girl.

(4) Systematic studies on MP & GI are rare3. When we first put together this book seven years ago, we were blessed with the generous support of the late Mr Yu Mo-wan, who helped compile the studio's filmography and write the biographies. Law Kar gave us many useful tips, Sam Ho went to Singapore to conduct interviews, and writers contributed their ideas to complete this book. Special thanks go to the film veterans who spared time for our Oral History interviews and shared with us their touching stories. Now for this revised edition, most writers spend extra time amending their previous contributions, particularly Poshek Fu, Leung Ping-kwan and Wong Kee-chee who simply rewrite theirs. We owe each of them our heartfelt gratitude. 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.

Wong Ain-ling
14 January 2009


Notes

1. For more about Wong Tin-lam, see Wong Ain-ling and Angel Shing (eds), Oral History Series (4): Director Wong Tin-lam, Hong Kong: Hong Kong Film Archive, 2007 (in Chinese).

2. For the differences between Hong Kong and Shanghai cultures, see Michael Lam’s ‘Strangers in Paradise’ of this volume. From the viewpoint of career history, Griffin Yue Feng (1910–1999), one of Zhu Shilin's co ntemporaries , is a good example for cross-reference. Yue entered the film industry in the late 1920s. His 1930s works scripted by Yang Hansheng—The Wrath of the China Sea (1933) and Escape (1935)—received rave reviews from leftwing critics. Similar to Zhu Shilin, he stayed behind in wartime Shanghai to make films, and settled in Hong Kong after the war to further his career. He had been in the service of several companies since then—Great Wall, MP & GI and Shaw Brothers. His last film was Village of Tigers (Co-dir: Wang Ping, 1974).

3. Weng Lingwen, 'The Dian Mao Film Company: Cantonese Film Group', in Cantonese Cinema Retrospective (1950–1959), the 2nd Hong Kong International Film Festival catalogue, Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1978; and 'Motion Picture & General Investment Company (Dianmao)' in Hong Kong Cinema Survey (1946–1968), the 3rd Hong Kong International Film Festival catalogue, Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1979, are ready introductions to MP & GI. 'Preliminary Study of MP & GI Films: From Shanghai to Hong Kong', in Film Criticism, Taipei: Chinese Taipei Film Archive, August 1997 (in Chinese) includes several essays that examine the system, genres and ideology of the company's Mandarin films. Also, Wong Cheuk-hon, Dianying Rensheng: Huang Zhuohan Huiyilu (A Life in Movies: Memoirs of Wong Cheuk-hon), Taipei: Variety Publishing, 1994 (in Chinese); Sha Yung-fong, Binfen Dianying Sishi Chun: Sha Rongfeng Huiyilu (Forty Springs of Cinema Glory: The Memoirs of Sha Yung-fong), Taipei: Chinese Taipei Film Archive, 1994 (in Chinese); and Li Han-hsiang, Sanshi Nian Xishuo Congtou (Passing Flickers: Looking Back Thirty Years), Hong Kong: Cosmos Books Ltd, 1984 (in Chinese), 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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