Hong Kong star fights to become silver screen queen in 1960s after years in martial arts films
At 71, Connie Chan reflects on a life in film that saw her play boys in martial arts dramas, transform into a teen idol, retire early and come back for a stage play
In the 1960s, film star Connie Chan Po-chu was at the peak of her popularity, setting a record by shooting 32 movies in a single year.
That year was 1967. Chan, then 20, had transformed into a beauty queen in Hong Kong after years of playing male roles in martial art movies. Her new image, characterised by her long, dark hair and mini skirt, captured the hearts of the post-war generation.
Chan was also a teen idol and appeared prominently in the local media, with publications featuring her selling like hot cakes.
She retired from the film industry in the 1970s with an impressive 230 movies under her belt, remembering best the last one in 1972, The Lizard. “Bruce Lee called on us during the shooting at Shaw Brothers Studio; he was really charismatic and we took pictures together,” she recalled.
She made a comeback in 1999, almost three decades later, appearing in a theatrical drama. The production broke records by running 137 shows in total.
Now 71, Chan is surprisingly humble when her accolades, recently published in a three-volume luxury set, are brought up – unexpected in a top celebrity. “I’m afraid my life doesn’t have much excitement for you to write about,” she said at the beginning of an exclusive interview with the Post.
“Don’t listen to what my fans have to say; they are anything but objective,” she added.
Her shyness can be attributed to her childhood. She was born as Ho Pui-ken to poor parents in Guangdong province. At the age of four, she was adopted by Chan Fei-nung and Gung Fan-hung, Cantonese opera masters who were childless.
Gung managed Chan’s movie contracts and finances for many years. “My mother made all the decisions for me and I was very obedient,” she said.
“Things are different now, but I still believe one’s success is based on a combination of being there at the right time, the right place, and with the right people, and that’s what happened to me.”
How did you start your showbiz career?
My [adopted] parents were both Cantonese opera masters. My father founded an opera school in 1953 but he trained only those taking lead female roles. But I, with my short hair and dark complexion, did not come close. So I was sent to learn northern operatic skills under master Fen Juhua, who saw that male roles [were more appropriate for] me. I did all the martial arts moves such as leg stretching, kicking and using swords and spears. In 1959, I took part in a Peking opera show, and the martial arts scene was intense. That was just before I started filming.
You played male roles in most of your early films. How did you later turn into a princess and a top teen idol? Perhaps due to my martial arts skills, I did many films set in old China. My godfather Cho Tat-wah, a leading actor at the time and the boss of a large film studio, took me under his wing in quite a number of titles. So I [started playing roles such as] a teenage boy ... then gradually moved on to play a young disciple of a master, and I often got paired up with Josephine Siao Fong-fong to play young lovers. As I grew older, I took up female roles as a benevolent assassin, somewhat like a modern-day female Robin Hood, in a series of films such as Black Rose, Black Cat, et cetera. Little did I know those roles would be the transition to my next phase as a darling girl in urban Hong Kong.
Was it easy for you to play a female role?
No, it wasn’t easy. I was too used to playing a boy. I remember there were song and dance scenes and I was rather stiff at dancing. But it was a time of change ... and with it, the audience tastes, so I moved along. After all, it was my mom who made all the decisions for me, and I was simple-minded and obedient.
You shot 32 films in just one year playing the new female roles. How did you manage to memorise all the lines and scripts?
I didn’t need to. Before shooting a scene, the director explained to me in detail what it entailed and what he wanted me to do, and I just did it. I remember reporters in those days came straight to the studio for their stories. We did not need to entertain the press or go through the publicity drill. Nowadays, the media can take a line from a long interview and develop that into a fabricated story. But life back then was simple and I could focus on my work without distractions.
The year 1967 was also one of major riots in Hong Kong. Were you affected?
I remember there was tear gas near my house on Argyle Street at the height of the movement. Cinemas were closed, and our work was suspended for a few days. But we were very focused on our work and were not bothered by the ongoing political situation.
Why did you retire in 1970 at the age of 24?
Like everything else at that time, it was my mother who made that decision. She saw the dwindling of local movies in the face of stiff competition from Taiwanese films and the city’s free wireless television service. So she advised me to perform Cantonese opera gigs in America. I did that for a few shows. My last movie before my full retirement was The Lizard in 1972. Bruce Lee came to see us in the studio. He was already an international superstar and the pride of all of us. It’s a sad pity that he left us soon after.
Were you as domineering as your mother when you became one yourself in 1975?
Times have changed and so have society and people, so I can’t possibly use my mother’s way to raise my son. It would produce only adverse results if I did. I can understand why he’s not interested in my movies which catered to the older and more traditional generation [and preferred] those with his contemporaries such as Andy Lau or Leslie Cheung. I have a close relationship with my son Dexter, [a bond] closer than friends and less formal than mother and son.
What made you decide to come out of retirement in 1999?
It was an invitation to perform Sentimental Journey, a stage drama. I still can’t figure out how I got the guts to say yes when the offer was 100 shows to start with. It’s just sheer delight to play the role of Yam Kim-fai, my Cantonese opera mentor, and I got precious advice from her surviving partner Pak Suet-sin in refining the script on Yam and Pak. I remember losing my voice at the 70th show, and I had to rely on previously recorded takes for some of the songs.
You resumed Cantonese opera performances in 2010. How do you see the future of the genre?
Cantonese opera came late in my career. But I’m enjoying it with the Reincarnation of Lady Plum Blossom Dream in 2014 and Dream of Peony Pavilion in 2016 ... Nowadays, there are too many Cantonese opera performances, not too few. Groups tend to present a different repertoire every night to entertain fans. In the past, it was the other way round so the same repertoire would be refined with each performance. It’s very important for performers to focus on polishing their skills. But young ones tend to think they have become masters after one or two shows without polishing their skills further. They should know there is no end [to learning] on the arts path. I only hope the future Xiqu Centre at the West Kowloon Cultural District will be a great impetus for Cantonese opera to thrive.
How would you compare the showbiz in old Hong Kong and now?
I feel everything was simple in the old days and that’s good for me as I could focus on my work without distractions ... But now competition has gone up and it takes a lot of hard work to succeed. But then I climbed my ladder of success with a lot of hard work too, and it’s been a long bittersweet experience.
What was the expression “Chan Po-chu lai la”, or Chan Po-chu is coming in Cantonese, about?
It was coined by tens of thousands of my fans in the 1960s to mean “make way immediately”.
What were the fans like in the 1960s?
They were so devoted to their idols that they really competed against one another even during a screening. Supporters for Josephine Siao and those for me would boo and throw shoes and bananas at the screen whenever their idol’s “rival” appeared on the screen. Or they would walk out collectively to the washrooms when a long solo passage featuring the rival idol was shown.
What was your relationship with your silver screen romantic partner Lui Kei, who was reportedly attacked by your fans?
We were both artists of Chi Luen Film Company so we did a lot of films together. I was in my early 20s, so naturally, I was in many films about a young girl in love, and Lui played the male role. There were indeed many rumours about us. But I did not take them seriously. I even paid a visit to Lui in hospital after the attack.
What was your mother’s attitude towards dating when you were making those romance movies?
She was very strict and did not allow me to date which she believed would distract me from work.