Hong Kong’s late ‘King of Comedians’ Leung Sing-por’s optimism and values still inspire
Daughter and ex-actress Margaret Leung, 80, recalls dreamy suppers with her father, an industry titan who took change in his stride but always stayed true to his beliefs
Hong Kong’s “King of Comedians”, the late Leung Sing-por, did not start out as a funnyman. He literally grew into that role, playing the clown or chou sheng in Cantonese operas from the late 1940s when he became too chubby to be cast as a scholar or action hero.
His versatility across multiple genres firmly installed him among the city’s artistic greats, and in 1976, Queen Elizabeth named him a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for bringing “enjoyment to millions”.
Also known as “Por Suk” or “Uncle Por”, Leung starred in 400 films and countless stage performances in a career that spanned half a century, before succumbing to cancer in 1981. He was 73.
Next month, to pay tribute to Leung on the 110th anniversary of his birth, the Hong Kong government is co-organising screenings of eight of his films and an exhibition on his life.
His daughter, 80-year-old ex-actress Margaret Leung Po-man said: “I hope that his merriment can be brought out again, and people can watch an actor, who performed with natural skills, in films made without anything added by technology.
“You won’t forget his movies because they make you laugh,” Leung added in an interview with the Post, flanked by her nephew Andrew Leung Tze-wung, 40.
She said her father had not known if his efforts to reinvent himself after he put on weight would pay off.
But he took change in his stride and gave it a shot, she said, adding that she hoped the elder Leung’s optimism and values would inspire Hongkongers today, especially filmmakers.
“I think Hong Kong people have been very resilient ... and he was [good at] facing reality, as well as making efforts to survive [amid difficulties],” she said.
Leung was born in Singapore in 1908. His parents were Cantonese opera performers and influenced by them, he began acting at the age of 17. In 1939, he moved to Hong Kong after being recruited by one of the top Cantonese opera troupes in the British colony.
After switching to comic roles on stage following the second world war, Leung ventured into films in the 1950s.
In 1953, he starred in A Bachelor’s Love Affair, playing a character pretending to be a rich man by wearing a suit and smoking a cigar so he could win love. The film, critics say, reflected the societal changes as Hong Kong became more industrialised and people believed that adopting Western fashion and practices would win them social status.
But in real life, Leung never forgot his roots, his daughter said, citing how he donned the formal costume of Chinese gentlemen, or tangzhuang, rather than a Western suit when he received the MBE insignia from then governor Murray MacLehose in April 1977.
In 1956, he starred in a film with Margaret Leung, called Precious Daughter, about how a Hong Kong family helped a wealthy young lady overcome her muteness.
The performer also graced the small screen for more than a decade, as the lead in the live TVB variety show Enjoy Yourself Tonight. TVB was the city’s first wireless commercial television broadcaster.
On the night he died, the show was suspended for the first time in 13 years, as stars gathered for a special programme to pay tribute to Leung.
Asked to share little-known details of her father, Margaret Leung described him as “flawless … and a very responsible father and husband”.
Leung had seven children – four girls and three boys – and in Margaret Leung’s teens, the family lived on Tak Shing Street in Yau Ma Tei, considered an upscale residential area at the time.
Kung fu legend Bruce Lee lived nearby on Tak Hing Street and was her friend and cha-cha dance partner. Lee died in 1973 aged 32.
While Leung’s children did not get a lot of time with him given his busy acting schedule, Margaret Leung recalled “relaxing moments” such as when the family went on an idyllic picnic to Bride’s Pool in the northeastern New Territories with actress Fong Yim-fun.
Some nights, she and her younger brother would ask their helper to wake them up to have supper with their father when he got home. His favourite types of food were rice, soup and homey dishes with preserved fish, barbecued pork and tofu.
“That was his most relaxed meal,” Margaret Leung said.
“We often looked dreamy as we shared his supper, and he would look at us and giggle at our look ... he was a very natural person.”
Margaret Leung and two of her sisters later became actresses but she said it was not something her father had suggested. He left it to film directors to instruct his daughters, and instead focused on teaching his children to embrace traditional Chinese ethics in how they behaved and treated others.
“He taught us that we should ... not take advantage of others,” she said, explaining that her father always believed one should suffer if it could prevent others from facing the same fate, as this was the principle to remain true to one’s conscience.
Nephew Andrew Leung added: “Whether you are familiar with his work, different generations of Hongkongers know that Leung Sing-por was a happy and positive man. [His works] bring people from all walks of life together.”