The new chapter in Fong-fong's life

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 January, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 January, 1997, 12:00am

Art is said to mirror life, but sometimes the reverse is true. In the movie Hu Du Men, the opera diva Lang Kim-sang leaves her real self behind as soon as she steps through the symbolic door to the stage. And in a sense Josephine Siao Fong-fong, who played Lang, is leaving her old self behind as she steps over the threshold into 1997.

The past year has been one to cap all the others for the acclaimed actress. In the past 12 months, she has scooped five acting awards: the Hong Kong Film Awards and Golden Bauhinia Awards for Summer Snow, the CineAsia award for excellence in acting, an award from the Asia Pacific Film Festival and, just last month, her second consecutive Golden Horse for Hu Du Men.

To top it all, as Siao was launching her memoirs last week, came news that she had been made an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in the Queen's honours list - the last time they would be given out in the territory.

'This MBE is very significant; it means a lot to me historically. This is good. I think this is better than if it came earlier,' she says.

As for the awards, Siao dismisses them all as a matter of 'luck'.

'I truly believe that. One fortune teller told me that 1996 would be a lucky year for me. In hindsight, I realise he was right.

'A lot of people work hard but it's no use if you don't get a break. And I got these breaks. I'm very happy about it,' she says.

Siao does not mention, of course, the hard work that she has put in or the painstaking research she usually does for any role.

Even for a part with such wide commercial appeal as that in the upcoming Mahjong Dragon in which she plays a traffic officer, Siao spent considerable time talking to policewomen to get a feel of being on patrol. She even put on 'eight or nine pounds' (about four kilograms) so that she could look tougher.

But this kind of preparation is more a joy than a chore since it allows her to meet people from different walks of life. 'It's the fun part of making films since it allows me to meet people and understand a lot of things. Filming is also fun but I don't enjoy the press promotions and watching the shows,' she confesses.

There are two other things Siao dreads. One is talking about herself and the other is being asked to look back on her past. The former she finds boring and the latter she fears, she says, because she has a poor memory.

Ironically, with a film career spanning more than four decades and as one of the few actresses in Hong Kong who can truly claim to be a 'star', she is regularly asked to do both.

Her life story is well-documented. Born in Shanghai in 1947, she fled with her parents to Hong Kong when she was two. From the age of five, she was moving people to tears with films such as Nobody's Child and Window.

By the time she was 21, she had enchanted audiences in more than 200 movies. She stopped for four years to pursue a degree in the United States but came back to win even more fans, and she has not stopped since.

Yet, now approaching 50 and with more acting honours heaped upon her in the past year than in all the previous ones put together, Siao has decided to stop filming.

'Don't say retire,' the tall, elegant figure quickly interjects. 'Retire means you're not doing anything, right? Means you start your gardening or something. I just want to stop and put the sword back into the scabbard for awhile until my ear gets better.' Siao lost the ability to hear in her right ear when she was two and has since been jealously guarding what remains of her hearing. But in the past year, her condition has deteriorated, she says, which is one of the main reasons she is saying goodbye to the film world for the time being. 'I'm afraid it might be too strenuous because once I make films, I have to take sleeping pills which is not good for me. The irregular times mess it all up.' Her hearing aid can only hold up for two hours before it starts buzzing and gives her a migraine. At home with her family - husband Clarence Chang Ching-po, executive director at Express News, and daughters, 15-year-old Kai-chin and 11-year-old Ya-chin - she can get away without wearing it.

'They know they have to come very close and speak loudly, or they use simple sign language when they talk to me,' she explains.

Before she can take her bow, Siao is committed to two more films, including one with veteran director Lung Kong who worked with her on Window.

Part of the strain might be due to the high standards the actress sets herself and to her inability to say 'no', especially when it pertains to work.

One of her conditions in accepting a role is that she only works seven hours a day. But, often, she finds herself on the set for much longer because the director feels he hasn't quite got it right and needs that extra shot.

'I don't feel nice; I just can't walk out after seven hours and refuse to do any more. I want them to make a better film, and some things take longer,' she sighs.

And then, much as she dreads the media round, there are the pre-release interviews that she goes through.

Many other actors such as Maggie Cheung Man-yuk, Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing and Anita Mui Yim-fong have refused to do the same for their films, and Siao would have a more valid excuse than any of them. Yet, she finds herself saying yes again.

'If I have made the movie, then I think I have the obligation to do some promotion work. This is being professional about it, I don't think you can wash your hands of everything once filming ends. Other people might do it, but I don't think I should,' she says.

'It makes it tougher, of course. If I could [not bother] then things would be a lot simpler but it wouldn't be very good. If people want to chat with me, I don't think there is a need [to turn them down] unless I'm really busy. I enjoy meeting people.' Her doctor, who does not know of her celluloid career, has told her she should not strain herself and that her hearing can only improve if her health is good.

Besides, Siao is close to completing her external degree in child psychology with Regis University in Denver and feels she cannot afford to lose her hearing at this crucial time.

'I'm selling my hearing, it's not worth it,' she says. 'I have two more semesters and when I finish, I want to work. I hope that in the field of child psychology, I can start something . . . a career or something.

'If my hearing cannot handle it, I will go into research but I hope to be able to work with people. They say it is too late [in my life] to think about a new career, but I don't think so!' Siao will start hitting the books tomorrow when her semester begins. At the same time, she will start a four-month stint at Queen Mary Hospital where she will receive practical training.

Inevitably, her fame will follow her into her new career but she does not think her fame as an actress will be a liability in the field of child psychology.

'It might hinder me,' she concedes, 'but it might help me too. Maybe if the kids and their parents know me, they might be more willing to talk. I think I should look at [fame] as an asset.' One of the theses Siao has written for her degree has been on the subject of child sexual abuse. Although some might read a darker meaning into her choice and interest in the subject, Siao says it is nothing more than seeing the need to do something to help children.

'I know it is such a big problem in the Western world but there is very little data on Hong Kong and other Asian countries. It's very under-reported. I know the problem really exists but because it's such an unpleasant topic, nobody likes to talk about it. I thought I should take that up. I hope in future I will be able to help these kinds of kids,' she adds.

For that reason, Siao was persuaded by Crown Publishing to put together Fong-fong's Private Collection - largely her anecdotes about growing up in the film world. Proceeds from the book, which retails for $100, will all go towards a charity called End Child Sexual Abuse.

The account is a happy one, Siao stresses, with her recollections as well as those of four friends who give their impressions of her.

'It's all fun memories, no hardship. I just write short bits about growing up, my education, about my teachers and how they made me learn and made me grow up. It's not a big book,' she says with a shrug.

Fong-fong's Private Collection also features previously unreleased photographs as well as correspondence between Siao and her friends and relatives.

The frank and often humorous reminiscences include an account of learning to drive at the age of 13, when her English tutor, William Smyly, let her drive his car down Tsz Wan Shan one evening, and how eagerness to meet boys her own age led the teenaged Josephine to a Kowloon church where she thought 'Amen' meant 'Ah! Men!'.

In the book, composer and television personality James Wong expresses the hope Siao will one day be persuaded to write a proper autobiography.

Siao, however, is adamant about not doing so. 'I don't like to look back,' she explains. 'When they asked me to write for this book, I already had a headache. After 20 or so pieces, I told them 'enough already!' ' The book also reveals a side of Siao often eclipsed by her acting achievements: the artist in her.

For as long as she can remember, Siao has loved drawing. On film sets she would often sit with pencil and paper, sketching the person closest to her. When filming Fong Sai Yuk in sub-zero temperatures in Beijing in 1993, she even burned a twig to get some charcoal to draw co-star Zhao Wenzhuo.

'I'm not very good,' she says with usual understatement. 'It's one of my passions but I have no time to pursue it; it's terrible. In the later part of my life I hope to have a studio where I can paint, not to sell the art for money but as a hobby.

'It will be a very serious hobby, though. Once I start, I can do nothing but draw all day. I'm looking forward to the day I can do that. I have already found two Chinese masters to teach me art.' Siao has no regrets about her decision to take a rest. 'I have never missed the industry. I know that if I do psychology I will get to meet a lot of people. That's why I know I won't miss it,' she says.

'If I have a job that requires me to sit home all day , I might. I don't miss the paparazzi the ceremonies and the photo-shoots at all.

'I'm a private person. This industry is so public, to me there's a kind of a conflict.' Through more than 44 years in the limelight, Siao has managed to keep her feet firmly on the ground and she attributes this to being able to get away 'when the whole thing gets too much'.

'The whole thing is an illusion. People write about you, they [want to] meet you . . . this has got nothing to do with normal life. If you always live in this [world], you will get light-headed and lose touch with the common people. And then you become insane. I will become insane!' Siao is confident that once she has stepped back through the hu du men or stage door, she will have little difficulty settling into a normal life.

After all, there is little reason for her to dwell on the past when she has so much else to look forward to.