Television, not the Brits, made Louis Cha 'Jin Yong' a household name

  • The death of the legendary martial arts novelist has been met with tributes from all sections of society and not a little political point-scoring
PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 November, 2018, 8:41pm
UPDATED : Friday, 02 November, 2018, 10:19pm

It’s the sign of a great artist that people from the left and right will try to claim him as one of their own, and that people will use his work, in life as in death, as a prism to reflect on society’s conflicts and controversies.

So it’s no exception with wuxia novelist Louis Cha Leung-yung. Tributes have been pouring in since his death was announced on Tuesday. Expressions of admiration are almost universal. But implicit in some of the eulogies is political score-taking among the local literati.

While acknowledging his literary legacy, veteran columnist and confessed Anglophile Chip Tsao made a controversial statement in an interview with Ming Pao Daily News, the newspaper Cha co-founded in 1959.

“Without the freedom provided under British colonialism, Jin Yong’s [Cha’s pen name] achievements would not have been possible,” he said.

Meanwhile, Lingnan University historian Lau Chi-pang said Cha might not have achieved literary success today because of the city’s anti-mainland sentiments. Cha was born and educated on the mainland but moved to Hong Kong as a newspaperman shortly before the 1949 communist takeover.

Louis Cha was ever ready to voice unpopular opinions

“We had intellectuals coming south,” Lau said. “We had workers coming south. They all were welcomed as a contributing force to the growth of the city.”

Now, he said, there had been “anti-locusts” campaigns, a derogatory term used by some Hong Kong people to attack mainlanders who supposedly come to the city to “eat up” its resources.

Of course, such observations are neither here nor there. While martial arts were considered spiritual pollution during the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong was a big fan of the classical wuxia novel Water Margin (also variously translated as Outlaws of the Marshes and Tale of the Marshes).

Deng Xiaoping adored Cha’s novels and Jiang Zemin tried to pressure, unsuccessfully, the Swedish Nobel Prize committee to give the novelist the literature prize.

In any case, his most famous novels were set in times of war, decline and turbulence during the late Song, Yuan, Ming and middle Qing dynasties; and ancient Chinese history is hardly a popular reading subject for young people today. They also lack explicit sex, perverse violence and Cantonese colloquialism.

If anything helped make Cha an enduring household name, it wasn’t British colonialism but those highly popular TV serialisations of his novels by the then-new television stations during the 1970s.