When the name of legendary hung gar hero Wong Fei-hung comes up in conversation with kung fu movie fans, the work of Jet Li (ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA, 1991), Jackie Chan (DRUNKEN MASTER, 1978), or Gordon Liu (CHALLENGE OF THE MASTERS,1976) is usually cited. But a half century ago, one actor owned the role, his image so firmly fixed in the public mind as “Master Wong” that many people confused him with his screen persona. That actor was Kwan Tak-hing (1905-1996).
Kwan was a rising young Cantonese opera star when he joined the film industry. After an impoverished childhood that saw him working as a cowherd to supplement the family income, he joined an opera troupe at age thirteen. Fifteen years later, he was the leading man and his company appeared in an extended engagement in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Many of the overseas Chinese communities, collectively referred to as Nanyang, were made up of immigrants from southern China, and spoke Cantonese or a related dialect. San Francisco, long known as “Gold Mountain (Gamsun),” was a profitable destination for Cantonese entertainers. It was 1933 and two enterprising young Chinese-Americans who had worked in Hollywood, Kwan Man-ching and Joseph Sunn (Joe Chiu, Chiu Shu-sun), started a production company in San Francisco to capitalize on local talent. The new studio was called Grandview (Daguan). It would go on to be an early powerhouse in Hong Kong cinema. Kwan Tak-hing was cast in the company’s premier production, ROMANCE OF THE SONGSTERS, aka THE LOVERS, a melodrama that was also only the second Cantonese-language “talkie” ever made. It was a rousing success.
Two years later, Grandview relocated to Hong Kong. Kwan Tak-hing continued his association with the filmmakers, starring in two more dramas under their aegis, YESTERDAY’S SONG and SONG OF SADNESS (both from 1935). Kwan sang in at least one of the productions, but he had more talents up his sleeve besides a good singing voice. The opera star was also a martial artist.
Now, some sources suggest that Kwan was “just” a performer, able to mime combat without a true wushu foundation. But evidence in the historical record suggests otherwise. Kwan has been referenced as a master of Shaolin Ten Animal style and White Crane, but his particular specialty as a fighter was in whip technique. He may have started out practicing something similar in China, like rope dart. But during his stay in the US he learned to handle a lariat, and often posed with one in his early publicity pictures. His affinity for cowboy lore can probably be traced back to his youthful experience as a cow herder in China. Kwan claimed to have learned his roping skills from a Native American. This was during the heyday of Will Rogers, the genial cowboy comedian who was famous for the rope tricks that accompanied his monologues. Rogers was undoubtedly an influence on young Kwan, as was the early action movie icon Douglas Fairbanks.
When Kwan returned to Asia in the mid-1930s, he was ready to move into action roles himself. In 1936, Kwan starred in a martial arts film called THE KNIGHT OF THE WHIP, playing “a poor peasant boy” who masters the art of the whip. From this it can be seen that his Western rope skills translated easily into the Chinese idiom. After making THE MODERN SEDUCTRESS (1937), an updated version of a story from the classic “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” and the Qing dynasty martial arts film THE KNIGHT (1939), Kwan made two films in 1940 with director Yam Pang-nin (Ren Pengnian), the Shanghai veteran of wuxia filmmaking who emigrated to Hong Kong after the crackdown on action films by the Nationalist government. One of these collaborations, THE FANTASTIC KNIGHT, was the story of Zorro retold as a martial arts film. Kwan may have suggested the adaptation as a tribute to his hero, Douglas Fairbanks.
When film production in Hong Kong shut down during the war, Kwan joined a patriotic theater troupe and acquired his lifelong reputation as a real-life champion of justice. His wartime activism was reflected in his first postwar feature, THE GUANGZHOU ADVENTURE OF THE FEARLESS (1947), where he played the leader of a band of anti-Japanese resistance fighters. He also starred in several straightforward martial arts films, including THE LADY ESCORT AND THE KNIGHT WITH A WHIP (1949) for Yam Pang-nin and starring Yam’s wife, the wuxia actress Wu Lai-chu (Wu Lizhu). During this period, he also starred in three non-wushu dramas – FISHING VILLAGE IN THE WAR(1948), BLOODY CLOTH (1948), and A WOMAN”S HEART IS NEVER MENDED (1949) for the young director Wu Pang. It was the beginning of a partnership that would shape the course of Hong Kong action film for years to come.
Next: The Hero Kwan Tak-hing, Part 2: The Story of Wong Fei-hung.
Originally posted on April 8 2007. More vintage opera photographs can be seen at the Online Archive of California.
Kwan Tak-hing • Ren Pengnian • Wong Fei-hung • Wu Pang