Raymond Chow helped shape Hong Kong’s identity
- The film producer who died last week made wuxia and its related kung fu a global cinematic art form
- Without Chow, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan would not have been introduced to the world
What a sad week for Hong Kong! First, Louis Cha Leung-yung; now Raymond Chow Man-wai. It’s truly the passing of the city’s once golden era.
If Cha had modernised wuxia as a literary genre, Chow made it a global cinematic art form. Without Chow as the mastermind, first behind Shaw Brothers Studio, then Golden Harvest, there would have been no Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan.
Wuxia, and its related kung fu, translated easily from the printed page to the silver screen. It also proved highly adaptable for the camera. It could feature costumed fighters and swordsmen set in ancient China, or its modern incarnations in Lee and Chan. They are the Chinese superheroes, the equivalents of Batman and Superman. In all these, Cha and Chow helped create their cultural template that has endured to this day. And the genre, while popularised by Chow and others in Hong Kong, proved to be universal. Where would such Hollywood stars as Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, David Carradine, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Wesley Snipes be without those Golden Harvest movies?
When Lee’s breakout movie The Big Boss, financed by Chow, was first released, The New York Times’ legendary film critic Vincent Canby wrote dismissively that it made spaghetti westerns look like a “noble work of art”. How wrong he was! Hollywood Westerns, Japanese samurais and Chinese kung fu would each form a martial film tradition that carries a similar message: in the absence of law and order, righteous violence is the only answer.
After the Asian financial crisis, the Hong Kong film industry went into long-term decline. But its fall was so noticeable mostly because of the heights to which a few film moguls such as Chow took it during the 1970s and ’80s.
Ironically, the baton has been passed to Hollywood. Taiwan’s Ang Lee revitalised the classical wuxia drama with his 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with the help of kung fu director Yuen Woo-ping.
Then came The Matrix series and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, both of whose kung fu sequences were directed by Yuen; and the Kung Fu Panda sequels. Arguably, Hollywood now does kung fu better than Hong Kong. None of these could have happened without Chow, Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest.
Nowadays, people like to talk about a distinct Hong Kong identity, whatever that is. But if there is one, Chow indubitably helped shape it. He put the city on the international map.