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Stephen Chow (left) and Ng Man-tat in a still from Royal Tramp. Critics called Chow “the finest Hong Kong comedian of his generation” and “Hong Kong’s hottest actor” of the 1990s.

Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle were not the films that made the Hong Kong comedian famous – so which ones did?

  • Jackie Chan? No – Hong Kong’s biggest movie star of the early 1990s was comedian Stephen Chow Sing-chi, who consistently struck box-office gold with his films
  • Critics called him ‘the finest Hong Kong comedian of his generation’, ‘Hong Kong’s hottest actor’ – and some of the phrases he coined are still used today
International viewers in the early 1990s naturally assumed that Jackie Chan was Hong Kong’s biggest movie star, but that accolade belonged to comedian Stephen Chow Sing-chi.

With his unique brand of mo lei tau “nonsense” comedy, his energetic disposition and a surfeit of boyish charm, the prolific Chow consistently struck box-office gold with hits like All for the Winner, Fight Back to School, Royal Tramp and From Beijing with Love.

As a Post critic wrote in 1990, “he only has to appear on the screen to provoke laughter from his fans”. By 2001, according to the Hong Kong Movie Database, his films had taken well over HK$1 billion at the box office.

“In April 2000, when I invited him to the Far East Film Festival in Italy for a tribute, I called him the finest Hong Kong comedian of his generation,” says former Variety film critic Derek Elley. “I’d stick by that today.

Stephen Chow at an interview with the Post in 1989. Photo: SCMP

“His style always felt a bit apart from mainstream Hong Kong film humour. He manages to be both very local, with the mo lei tau nonsensical humour and puns, and very universal – he’s a master of deadpan delivery, and of the false build-up and quick put-down.”

Chow was born in 1962 and, like just about every other young boy in the 1970s, became a big fan of Bruce Lee. “He began to study martial arts, and it is said that his friends were made to call him ‘Little Dragon’,” wrote one Hong Kong critic.

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He applied to join the TVB acting school with his friend Tony Leung Chiu-wai, but was turned down, although he was accepted as an evening class student. His first job was presenting a 1980s children’s television programme called 430 Space Shuttle with Leung.

“He seems like a quick-witted, sarcastic, wisecracking guy even in real life,” says cultural commentator and Post critic Ben Sin. “This was evident back when he was hosting 430 Space Shuttle, as even then he was sarcastic, making mostly harmless verbal jabs at children.”

Chow played a vampire in a darkly comedic mini-soap opera within 430 Space Shuttle called The Nuts (Black Vampire and White Vampire), and this got him noticed.

“But it wasn’t until 1989 when he rose to fame, first with the TVB show Final Combat,” says Sin. “This show paved the way for all his 1990s movies. On that show, the humour was already based on sarcastic comebacks, puns on Cantonese words, and random phrases like ‘have a sip of tea, eat a bun’.

“After Final Combat came another TVB show, The Justice of Life, where he again played a wisecracking sarcastic person. These two shows made him very popular with Hong Kong viewers.”

Chow made his mark on film-goers with Curry and Pepper in May 1990 – the Post review described him as “Hong Kong’s hottest actor” – and became a star later in the year with All for the Winner, which was a comedic riff on the Chow Yun-fat hit God of Gamblers.

Stephen Chow at a film shoot in 1989. Photo: SCMP

In the film, Saint of Gamblers in Chinese, Chow played a hick from mainland China who could see through objects and predict the future. This made him popular with his gambling-obsessed uncle.

“This raucous comedy is so unpretentious in its single-minded pursuit of laughs, that even the most highbrow critic will find it hard to resist,” said the Post in 1990. “Chow’s performance combines a naiveté with some downright zaniness that is well suited to his comic persona.”

Chow followed up with a slew of films, making around eight movies a year at the apex of his success. The films were of varying quality, but they were all hits, and he experimented with many kinds of roles.

Ng Man-tat (left) and Stephen Chow in a still from All for the Winner.

“My favourites from Chow’s early period,” says Elley, “are All for the Winner, which is the first full flowering of his trademark parodistic style; Fight Back to School, with its brilliant use of Chow’s boyish looks and all those trademark running gags; and his first co-directing credit, the James Bond parody From Beijing with Love, which is one of his best.

“A lesser-known favourite from the same period is The Magnificent Scoundrels, which seems effortless – the whole thing flows in a seamless line from start to finish,” says Elley.

“I was very happy while shooting Curry and Pepper and Fight Back to School,” Chow told Elley and Lorenzo Codelli in 2000. “But From Beijing with Love was very difficult for me. It was the first time I was the director, and I had to take care of everything. I was under a lot of pressure.”

Stephen Chow (left) and Anita Yuen in a still from From Beijing with Love.

The mo lei tau comedy style, which Chow has always refused to define, may be “nonsense”, but there is a lot going on. Cantonese wordplay, sarcasm and puns play a big part, but the reactions of the actors are also important. An absurd reaction to the situation at hand is at the heart of the style.

“The phrase mo lei tau is modelled on a similar sounding Cantonese phrase, mo lei yau, which means ‘without reason’,” one local critic wrote. “In Chow’s comedy, the situation is usually normal, but the attitude and reaction of the character is abnormal. The comedy comes from the interaction of the two – from the gap between sanity and insanity.”

The insanity is based on reality, Chow notes. “My comedy style is mostly built up from personal experience from my childhood to the present,” he told Elley. “Most of the inspiration comes from my life, my friends and comic books.”

Gong Li (left) and Stephen Chow pose for photographers to promote The Flirting Scholar in 1993. Photo: SCMP

It’s a very Hong Kong form of comedy, Sin says. “Mo lei tau resonated with Hongkongers because Chow’s comedy relied on a lot of Cantonese puns and wordplay, and humour that was specific to Hong Kong.

“I think young Cantonese-speaking Hongkongers can be quite snarky in the way they speak, and Chow’s verbal jabs and insults were a more creative, wittier version of how many Hongkongers talk.

“Some of Chow’s mo lei tau jokes are still used regularly by Hongkongers, like calling a cockroach ‘Siu Keung’ (Little Keung), or naming a generic bowl of BBQ pork with egg on rice ‘soulful sorrowful rice’,” notes Sin.

Although Chow’s superstardom peaked in the mid-1990s – there was one big misfire, 1995’s Sixty Million Dollar Man – he remained incredibly popular throughout the decade, with hits like God of Cookery and King of Comedy.

Stephen Chow in a still from Shaolin Soccer.
In the early 2000s, Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle won releases and fans in the US.

In this regular feature series on the best of Hong Kong cinema, we examine the legacy of classic films, re-evaluate the careers of its greatest stars, and revisit some of the lesser-known aspects of the beloved industry.

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