Born Tong Kong-nin (1917–1959), Tong Tik-sang was a native of Zhongshan, Guangzhou, whose ingenuity in writing and directing significantly shaped Cantonese opera's development and inspired Hong Kong cinema. The Hong Kong Film Archive is celebrating the centenary of the birth of Tong on 18 June 2017 with a retrospective featuring 27 films adapted from his operatic works, or directed/written by Tong himself. Presented in four themes, the selected titles will be screened from May throughout August.

Tong wrote over 400 operas during his twenty-year career. Among them were A Forsaken Woman, The Nymph of the River Lo and Snow in June written for Fong Yim-fun's San Yim Yeung Opera Troupe; Princess Cheung Ping, The Legend of Purple Hairpin and Love in the Red Chamber: The Interrupted Dream written for Yam Kim-fai and Pak Suet-sin's Sin Fung Ming Opera Troupe; A Beauty's Grave, Two Immortals at the Pavilion of the Moon and Fête of the White Hare written for Ng Kwan-lai's Lai Sing Opera Troupe. Recognised as gems of Cantonese operas, these libretti offered a wealth of adaptation material for film over the decades.

The four themes of ‘Traces of Snow in Tong's Songs', ‘Old Scripts Revisited', ‘Lovesick Pairs' and ‘Whodunits' lend an eclectic look at Tong's legacy. On the day of Tong's birth, a panel of speakers will take a new look at his career highlights and offer new insights into his legendary works.

We wish to extend a heartfelt thanks to Prof. Chan Sau-yan, who guest-curated this programme with the assistance of Ms. Yuen Tsz-ying.

A short profile of Tong Tik-sang

An avid lover of literature, music and drama since young, Tong joined the Huguang Drama Troupe in Shanghai, working in lighting and as a prompter at the age of 19. Following the deaths of his parents and the fall of Guangzhou, he fled and took shelter in Hong Kong. In 1937, he joined the Kok Sin Sing Opera Troupe led by Sit Kok-sin, husband of his cousin Tong Suet-hing, as a copyist, while studying libretto writing under the wing of the famed playwrights Fung Chi-fun and Mak Siu-ha. Written in 1938 for Pak Kui-wing (father of Pak Suet-sin)'s Hoi Chu Opera Company of Men and Women, The Consoling Lotus of Jiangcheng is believed to be Tong's first Cantonese work.

Since penning his debut screenplay, The Tolling Bell (1940), Tong continued to write prolifically for both film and stage and began to take the directorial reins, which catapulted his fame to new heights. The first pinnacle of his career came between 1941–1944, when he cranked out 124 Cantonese opera scripts, with 58 titles completed in 1944 alone. Rich and diverse in themes but never trite in treatment, the scripts he adapted run the genre gamut from Peking opera to folk tale, from Chinese to Western classics, from period to contemporary and from tragedy to comedy.

Among the 95 scripts Tong wrote during the post-war years between 1945–1949 were: I'm Crazy about You (1946) scripted for Ma Si-tsang and Hung Sin Nui; Four Martyrs of the Yellow Flower Mound Uprising for the Kok Kwong Opera Troupe and Gone the Phoenix from the Cage (1948), the first film in which he performed the dual role of screenwriter–director.

Passing over the threshold of creative maturity, Tong penned some other 170 Cantonese opera scripts between 1950–1955. This corpus of refined, meticulously crafted masterpieces reflects his scholarly interest in the operatic classics of the Yuan and Ming dynasties and consummate efforts to elevate the art of literary writing for stage and screen.

Tong's extraordinary life was sadly cut short when he collapsed during the premiere of Love in the Red Chamber on 14 September 1959. He died on the following day at the age of 42.

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