In a series of 3 articles, Linda Lai shares her field notes in film studies from a Cultural Studies perspective. The first discusses the kid A-Chang, as a HK counter-part of Shanghai’s Three Hairs. 有關香港「細路祥」三篇連載的第一篇,黎肖嫻潛進環繞苦難中的孩子的沈甸甸而充滿矛盾的論述。

 

The same piece of iron and steel could be turned into war weapons that destroy the world, or productive machines that benefit human kind.

「同是一塊鋼鐵,可能造出戰爭的利器毀滅世界,也可能造出生產的機械造福人群。」

The above morally charged dictum is not about corporate ethics, but an interpolation on education when it seems to be losing direction. It is about children, also the quote that opens the Hong Kong film The Kid (aka My Son A-Chang 細路祥, dir. FUNG Fung 馮峰, 1950) [1] in which 9-year-old Bruce Lee 李小龍 plays a kid of his age, who spends his days on the street. The dictum mentioned screams between the credit sequence and the first scene: we see a fake philanthropist boasting his cash donation to a free school to support street kids. The irony is blatant: his life-style, shown in the rest of the film, yields no productive machines.

Comics-artist Yuen Bo-wan’s five hand-drawn caricatures of the kid A-Chang (Bruce Lee) run through the opening sequence. With three bunches of hair on his head, A-Chang is unmistakably an emulation to Shanghai’s Three Hairs. As the credit sequence closes, A-Chang evolves from a cute naughty kid into a little gangster wearing a hat, with a knife in his right hand and his left leg kicking. This opening credit sequence serves as a summary trajectory of the kid who gradually does away with his kid’s way – but to be an adult man? or to act like one?

No doubt The Kid still grabs the contemporary audience as it is on record the late kung-fu master Bruce Lee’s first screen appearance as a feature-length protagonist when he was just nine. [2] The central story – a kid’s encounter with the gangsters – is nested within a bigger story of the exploitative, hypocritical capitalists’ ills.

The opening of The Kid (1950), a title card highlighting HK local comics artist Yuen Bo-wan (name on L) as original writer, and Chor Kei (name on R) as screenplay writer. The figure in centre is “the Kid” in the comic version personified by Bruce Lee in the movie version. Click on image to watch the whole film.

 

The Kid《細路祥》(Xi Lu Xiang, aka My Son A-Chang [1]), 77 minutes, b/w
Elephantine Film Company, Datong Film Company, Hong Kong, released May 31, 1950 大象影片公司、大同影片公司1950年5月31日發行Dir Fung Fung 馮峰 (1916-2000) Scr Tso Kea 左几 (adapted from comic strip by Yuen Bo-wan 袁步雲Cinematog Yuen Tsang-sam 阮曾三 Ed Man Lung 孟龍 Exe Prod Leung Biu 梁標 Prod Co Datong Film Company 大同影片公司Act Li Long [Bruce Lee] 李小龍 (Kid Cheung), Tong Yuen 湯丸 (Kid Su Mei), Wong Kwai-lam王桂林 (Kid A Niu), Fung So-bo馮素波  (Kid A Zhu)Chan Wai-yu 陳惠瑜  (female factory worker and workers’ leader), Yee Chau-shui 伊秋水 (Uncle Ho), Lee Hoi-chuen 李海泉 (school headmaster Hung Pak-to), Fung Fung馮峰 (gangster leader Flash Knife Lee), Yuen Bo-wan袁步雲 (gangster Boaster Chiu), Go Lo-chuen 高魯泉 ( School Secretary Ko)

 As the film went under production… 1949-1950 …and into the 1950s: a postwar new wave of healthy cinema emerged

一個揚言拍攝題材健康,堅持要富教育意義,宣揚傳統道德的倫理的小小香港戰後電影「新」浪潮在分裂中冒現

1950. Communist China was less than a year old. There was no border control yet between China and HK (until June 1951). In six post-WWII years, 1945-1951, the population of Hong Kong rose from 600,000 to 2.1 million [3], implying that the sudden surge of refugees from the mainland prominently restructured the colony’s population. While housing was an obvious challenge, many immigrants, including children, became cheap labour for post-war economic recovery. Cantonese film The Kid (1950, dir. Fung Fung)happens to hold up a microcosm in which many contradictions of recovery, capitalist logic, unemployment, class split, social integration and schooling problems were dramatized, with a hint on political alliance.

The kid was made by a short-lived company Datong Film Company [大同], which made a total of 8 films between 1948 and 1952, two of them by Fung Fung. The year 1950 was a fluid moment of change and uncertainty. Communist-backed HK film company such as Sun Luen Film Company [Xinlian新聯, funded by the Communist Party through newspaper Wen Hui Pao 文匯報], was still in preparation and not operating until 1952. [4]. United Film Enterprise [Zhonglian] 中聯影業公司, [5] the best known local film company claiming to follow the progressive ideals of the May Fourth Movement by 21 Hongkong-based veteran movie stars, writers and producers, progressive values, did not release its first film until January 1953. [6] The so-called “big four’ Cantonese film production companies of the time – Sun Luen, United Film, Kong Ngee [光藝] (1955, founded by a businessman from Singapore) and Overseas Chinese [華僑] (1956) – all claimed to uphold a moral mission for cinema and to adhere to healthy subject matters of educational value to spread traditional moral ethics. One can say that in 1950, a new “health cinema” wave was evolving – to console those new migrants anxious of losing their cultural roots and values, or simply marketing strategies to scramble for a chunk of the population.

movie ad for Chung Luen’s The Guiding Light (1953), in which 12-year-old Bruce Lee plays a kid in need of guidance

A-Chang, the kid in Yuen Bo-wen’s comics

The Kid was a film adaptation of the work by comics artist Yuen Bo-wan (袁步雲, 1922-1995, original name Yuen Chi-tang 袁鋕登), who was trained as an all-rounded Cantonese opera performer.  After Japanese occupation, he was close to penniless at one point due to gambling.  Then Yuen was asked to contribute to Chinese-language daily Shing Po (成報); that turned out to be the serial comic strip 連載連環圖The Kid 《細路祥》, meant for educational values, portraying a good boy turned bad and turned good again.

Surviving records give us some idea of the practice of the time: 2 days per rental, 10 cents penalty for each day of late return. Serial comics were first published in newspapers, then the tabloid blocks of the comics were used to compose an eight-page single book form, a practice originated from 1930s China. Sun Sai-shing 沈西城, fiction writer, screenwriter, critic and publisher of pictorial, recalled:

“That was 50 to 60 years ago. Almost every day after school, I would run to the serial comics rental stall for my picks – to see good guys and bad guys fighting flamboyantly, to see women with jade-light shining bodies posing unless light thin clothes…, and I would be so absorbed, wasting my studies. … In early 1950s, we kid all had a copy of comic strips in our hands, and that was how we spent up our pocket money. As we finished up primary school, our taste seemed to elevate, and we prefer to read comics with more educational meanings, and first among them, Yuen Bo-wan’s The Kid.” [7]

It is not clear when The Kid was turned into the 3.5″ x 5″ comic book form. But we can be sure the culture of rental comics 出租漫畫書 was on, as it is self-referenced in the movie.

 

A-Chang, the kid in Fung Fung’s 1950 movie

The film highlights two “primal scenes” where A-Chang’s initiation struggles originates. The first is the tenement buildings, “a multi-family dwelling occupied by the poor,” and second, street-hawking stalls [daipaidong]. [8] Orphan A-Chang lives in a tiny backroom of a tenement building with Uncle and his two kids. During the day, A-Chang runs a primitively set up outdoor “reading gala” in a street corner. Hanging comic books 公仔書 on a few strings nailed to the wall, he asks for meagre rental charges to children who come to read. Nearby A-Chang’s reading stall is much a bigger daipaidong, a street-stall on wheels serving noodles in soup, where members of a clandestine group often gather. Between the tenement room and the street-stalls, A-Chang is split between staying dependent and taking risk to go independent: should he go to school as Uncle wishes, to become a somebody in future, or should he join the labour force to make poor Uncle’s ends meet now? A-Chang quits school where rich kids bully him, a detail that also marks Shanghai’s Three Hairs, who, wronged by rich kids for doing good, is also forced to quit school – thus highlighting the impossibility to do good in society where class discrimination rules. A-Chang then works in a factory as cheap labor. Not accepting more bullying at work, he turns to a precarious street life to make quick money. He wants to be “man” as soon as possible. Trouble arises as he gets caught up in a gang’s plan to rob the factory where he has made true friends with the female workers.

(Left) The starving A-Chang is tempted to steal the BBQ duck and run | (Right) A-Chang dressed up like a “man” …

The Kid articulates a kind of progressive sentiments of the time critiquing capitalist economy. Neither the streets nor school is safe. The factory is a place of exploitation of women and children. Sexual harassment is a daily fact; children are subject to danger and abuse. Kids of the rich and the poor are forced to segregate. The film’s two true heroes are both female – the brave leader of the factory workers and the sympathetic young daughter of the fake philanthropist, both a loyal friend of A-Chang’s. Though gangsters are in shady business, they are also the protector of those the law cannot protect. These gangsters are as marginalized as children and women workers. The plot presents them to have no choice but live off the conspiracies of the rich’s own members. In ordinary conversations, they are individuals with convictions and a sense of righteousness.

The film ends on a pastoral note. Uncle resolves to take A-Chang and his two little cousins back to the peace and purity of the countryside in China. To preserve the child, leaving the polluted colony is the only solution. A-Chang’s fall is about a boy who wants to be a man too early. Precociousness is dangerous. As the film closes, A-Chang bids his little girlfriend farewell, noting, “I don’t’ think I would come back anymore,” leaving her crying. What would become of the kids? That remains an open question, to which the film offers little hope as the family walks away from the camera on foot on the rugged rail-tracks into the infinite depth of China.

The moral arithmetic is simple: only family, that is, the tiny room in the tenement building, is where harmonious love is possible; or else back to “motherland” for permanent peace. The ideological reasoning is blatant: Hong Kong the modern city is not safe; there is no hope to be found, neither through education, nor through conscientious self-making; and even when factory workers unite, they are doomed to lose. And this is 70 years ago. How have we advanced since then? How would we describe the narrative “trajectory” of Hong Kong as a place of experiences through all these years?

philanthropist making empty promises to make big donations to support schooling

A-Chang saying good-bye to his friend in a manly way, “I won’t come back any more. … Heroes don’t cry!”

 

The Social Backdrop Vs Political Backdrop of The Kid: beyond narrative discourse

What has been handed down to us from the past are artefacts of persuasion such as Yuen’s comics and the personae A-Chang enlivened by Bruce Lee’s performance. Whereas Three Hairs in China has become an exemplary case of political appropriation, its claimed counterpart “A-Chang the Kid” carries persuasive reasoning and didactic imperatives coming out of the hands of specific afforded stake-holders – with experiences in filmmaking, being part of a network of media practitioners – burdened with negotiable political alliances. Fung Fung’s environment was far more complex than Zhang Leping’s. It is no simple (anti-Japanese and war-lord) nationalist patriotism like in China. Hong Kong back around 1950 was a conundrum of unresolved world power relations that yet demanded on the Hong Kong everyday subject. To ally with the “left” or the “right” was itself a riddle embodying contradicting ideals and ideologies.

The year 1950 was a kind of gap moment in the film-cultural domain. Local films faced great uncertainty for their market in China. The Guangzhou branch of many Hong Kong-based companies were closed down. Members of the mainland movie arena’s southward migration to Hong Kong resulted in the split of Mandarin Vs Cantonese local-made films, thus also split alliance of the local audiences, which lasted until the 1970s. Cantonese-language film companies were not free from the scramble for influences, and had their own battles of survival different from CCP-supported mandarin-language film companies.

 

As The Kid went under production to meet its audience…1949-1950 Constitutional reforms for representative democracy were attempt, but tantalized

A serious plan, first of its kind, to give Hong Kong inhabitants a greater share of managing their own affairs was proposed in May 1946, less than a year in the post-Japanese occupation recovery period started. The Young Plan 楊慕琦計劃, named after the then HK Governor, Mark Young (term 1946-47), proposed to institute constitutional reform to introduce representative democracy, thus widening the colony’s base of political leadership. With a proposed Municipal Council, more defined areas of concern were stipulated through representation in urban services, social welfare, education, town planning and other functions. But the proposal was objected by the Legislative Council’s Unofficial Members as well as Governor Alexander Grantham, Young’s successor. Their fear for transfer of power to a broader base as well as the anxiety for potential penetration by Communist China forced the plan for an electorally-based government to finally drop altogether in 1952. [9]

Perhaps it is important to take a closer look at the many circumstances that thickened the plots for possible reform. The determination to combat potential unrest to secure a safer society was realized in a series of bills passed in the LegCo between 1949 and 1950, which suggested the kind of fear that made administrative reform less urgent:

27 April 1949: “Illegal Strikes and Lock-outs, 1949” (Hansard: LegCo Sittings 1949 Session: 152)

25 May 1949: “Societies Bill, 1949”; Section 5.3 states restrictions to society registration (Hansard: LegCo Sittings 1949 Session: 178-9)

17 August 1949: “Registration of Persons Bill, 1949” – to issue identity cards to registered persons; Section 9 listed 115 Commissioners or any authorized police officers with the lawful power to arrest and detain any suspect, and to search his/her property (Hansard: LegCo Sittings 1949 Session: 236-7)

31 August 1949: “Expulsion of Undesirable Ordinance, 1949” (Hansard: LegCo Sittings 1949 Session: 240-3) – to enact the expulsion of “undesirables” as “occasion may require”

31 August 1949: “Emergency Regulations (Amendment) (No. 2), 1949” enacted with clarification: “(a) that the death penalty and other sanctions may be imposed; (b) that it has always been the law that such emergency regulations could over-ride the ordinary

The new ordinances showed the Hong Kong Government’s immediate exercise of power soon after the establishment of the PRC. Concrete actions followed. According to HK veteran film director Herman Yau’s doctoral research [10], on 4-5 January 1950, the colonial government expelled the chairman of the silk labour union and the principal of Heung To Middle School from Hong Kong respectively. On the night of 30 January 1950, violent confrontation between the police and tramway workers, after an over month-long strike. On 31 January, three leaders of the tramway workers’ union were expelled. In the coming years, from 4 January 1950 to 29 May 1959, “a total of one hundred and eighteen persons were expelled without any court trial.” (Yau, 114-115) It was left to the colonial British-HK government alone to deal with the muddled relationship resulting from the CCP-vs-KMT alliance – given that Britain officially recognized PRC as a nation at the same time acknowledged Taiwan’s legitimacy. Hong Kong was that unique playground.

On 1 June 1950, the day My Song A-Chang was launched in the cinemas to celebrate Children’s Day, Nan Qiao Daily (Nan Chiau Jit Pao 南僑日報, 1945-63), a Chinese-language newspaper in Singapore, reported that, “according to a telex dated 22 May 1950 from United Press (UP), a US news agency, the movie companies in Hong Kong were under the control of the Communist Party … almost without exception. The [colonial] government asked for a halt to all communist propaganda; that was to say, the government would not let Hong Kong ‘go red’ [go communist].” History shows this was more a stated position with a US angle that did not seem to have been followed through. Yau points out: “almost at the same time the UP telex was published, the colonial government convened a meeting of the film producers.” On 23 May 1950, English-language newspaper Hong Kong Standard reported, “Hong Kong Government . . . told [the film producers] not to produce films that would cause disturbance” (Jarvie 1977: 29-30, cited by Yau, 48) [11], which reads more plausible what the hands-tied British-HK administration would do. It was not until two years later in 1952 that two of the passed bills were applied to the filmmaking community during the workers’ strike against their employer Yong Hua Film Company 永華 – the government arrested and deported 10 filmmakers, marking the exteriorization of the tension between the colonial government and pro-Chinese activities.

 

Beyond the left and the right: what could progressive thinking mean?

The difficulty in drawing clear alignment between progressive thinkers, social activists, who sought to help the needy, and political sympathizers of China continued in multifarious ways and the filmmaking arena continued to be a battle field. What clearly pervaded was that the “left” and the “right” co-existed as convoluted labels and always as splits and conflicts, in need of more research on their history of appropriation.

Taking a long view, were we to connect partisan-intellectuals’ advocacy among ordinary citizens with what is going on, what would we see? My Son A-Chang was, after all, a moral tale that provided a paradigm of proper responses to post-war social hardship asking the question of “who am I and where I belong.” Although the filmic text of A-Chang reads socially critical and ironic like Zhang Leping’s Three Hairs in the 1940s, as a response to the problems of a general milieu, the movie The Kid was a highly specific, personalized narrative account. Three Hairs after all is a engine of a narrative vehicle that shows episodically a spectrum of social ills. A-Chang is a true protagonist in the 3-act tradition of story-telling. The Kid focalizes “what happens” to the main character and “what must he do” to be resurrected. Three Hairs is no more than a drifter, a flaneur whose walking through of the city after all decentralizes him as a subject; he exists in order to reflect China’s national crisis.

By contrast, the general environment of the British colony barely cast a shadow in the plot of The Kid – surely not the administrative reform like the Young’s Plan which staggered on for six years inconsequentially. One may safely conclude that a proper sense of belonging that is needed to fuel committed citizenship to rebuild Hong Kong was at stake, with a population of high percentage of newly arrived immigrants.

The ideological dictum of moulding iron and steel into productive good can be taken both ways – to care or to contain. This question remains vibrant in contemporary society: we must provide “education” and make sure it does what is right. But what is right? Is that only premised on political correctness? But there is a deeper answer left in the tail of the film The Kid – the answer is not social reform, but a return to a pastoral ideal, a return to one’s motherland, where patriotic moralism enables one to forget all hardship.

An old question thus arises: what does popular cinema do? Aside from the entertainment versus art thesis — itself a binary pair that must be deconstructed — cinema has always functioned as paradigms of moral conduct. This is no conspiracy theory, but to suggest makers, corporate (film studios) or personal (directors), are always scrambling for the room to articulate their response to the world out there, enigmatically, implicitly, or explicitly. The makers then in turn are free to subscribe to, align with, or question “party-line” frameworks. As to the cinema audience, a film like The Kid and others marks out all positions in a moral paradigm, reasoned, apparently logically, and narratively.  What deserves a closer look is what precise narrative reasoning moves us from one point to the other, from what is an isolated reality to what is institutionally justifiable. One must not under estimate the power of narrative reasoning and how it has always been used. One must watch out when a movie is shown to children: narrativity could be understood in aesthetic terms; yet it is gently and profoundly imbricated in pedagogy and moral persuasion, which also describes ideological functioning.

 

ENDNOTES:

[1] My Son, A Chang is the title used in the DVD released.

[2] According to citations in the International Movie Database, Bruce Lee’s first (non-credited) screen appearance was in 1946, when he was six.  According to Wikipedia, earlier in 1941, Lee appeared as an infant in Golden Gate Girl. 按國際電影資料庫所視,李小龍的首部沒有主要演員排名的電影演出為1946年,那時候他只有六歲。

[3] Six hundred thousand in August 1945 (Endacott 1978: 142) to an estimated 2.36 million by March 1950 (Welsh 1997: 438). See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1950s_in_Hong_Kong

[4] Sun Luen [Xin Lian新聯] Film Company was founded in 1952, a project of Liao Yiyuan 廖一原 from Wen Hui Bao文匯報》with funds from the Chinese government, and managed by Lo Dun [actor Lu Duan 盧敦], Xie Jizhi 謝濟之and Li Heng.

[5] Chung Luen or United Film’s full Chinese name is Zhonglian Dianying, or Chung Luen (Union) Film Enterprise Limited, inaugurated in November 1952.

[6] The first film released by Chung Luen, on 1 January 1953, was Family 《家》, an adaptation of the first of May Fourth writer Ba Jin’s trilogy Family Spring Autumn巴金:《家》、《春》、《秋》. The subject matter was picked to mark the company’s inauguration for its anti-traditional, anti-feudalist and socially critical May Fourth value. Bruce Lee played a main role in Chung Luen’s The Guiding Light《苦海明燈》 released the same year in April. Members honoured autonomy and self-directedness as their aesthetic value. Their films would reflect social reality and defend the dignity of (film) art, with an aim to raise the quality of Cantonese films and to combat the on-going practice of making movies quick and rough. Though claiming its members to share the same commitment, the group was not without dispute especially over the relevance of Cantonese opera conventions.

[7] Original quote was in Chinese in an article by Sun Sai-shing in Apple Daily, 24 August 2014:

沈西城:《細路祥‧財叔‧老夫子》。原文:「這已是五十六年前的往事了,幾乎每天下課,我都跑到書檔租連環圖,看忠奸燦爛打鬥,看輕穿襦裳、玉光精瑩女人繡像……,我已沉迷其間,荒棄學業。…五十年代初期,咱們少年朋友幾乎人手一冊,每月零用錢盡花在連環圖上。迨小學畢業,品味提升了,轉看較有教育意義的連環圖,首先親炙的便是袁步雲的《細路祥》。」

https://hk.appledaily.com/lifestyle/columnist/15069223/daily/article/20140824/18842296

[8] Linda C.H. Lai (2013), “The Kid on the Street: dai pai dong, tenement buildings, public housing,” Linda Lai and Kimburley Choi (eds.), World Film Location Hong Kong (Intellect Books, Bristol), 26-27. Tenement buildings, street hawkers’ stalls, and later on public housing, are crucial iconic locations in the history of Hong Kong films on which the drama of the lower-class people is set.

[9] “Young Plan (Hong Kong)” read on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young_Plan_(Hong_Kong)

[10] Lai To, Herman YAU, The progression of political censorship: Hong Kong cinema from colonial rule to Chinese-style socialist hegemony, p. 111; citing Yu Mo-wan (2000). 《香港電影史話 1950-1954》 (Xianggang Dianying Shi Hua, literally Anecdotes from Chinese Film History ) Volume 4 (1950-1954), Subculture Press, Hong Kong, p. 24.

[11] I.C. Jarvie, Window on Hong Kong: A Sociology Study on the Hong Kong Film Industry and Its Audience; Centre of Asian Studies, University of Hong Kong, 1977.

 

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