Comedy, Drama, Films, Gangster, Hong Kong, Martial arts, Reviews

Chinatown Kid

4 stars

唐人街功夫小子, [lit. “Chinatown Kung Fu Kid.”]. Hong Kong 1977. Directed by Chang Cheh. Starring Alexander Fu Sheng, Sun Chien, Philip Kwok, Lo Mang, Johnny Wang, Shirley Yu, Susan Shaw, Jenny Tseng. 115/90 mins. In Cantonese, Mandarin and English with English subtitles

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A buffet of kung fu, crime, comedy, culture clash and carnality that may not be the healthiest but sure is filling…

18 years before Jackie Chan had his globally groundbreaking Rumble in the Bronx in Canada, Chang Cheh took Alexander Fu Sheng on a trip of equally questionable authenticity to the other side of the USA. Chang’s troupe of sorts was important in its own right in helping pave the way for kung fu action-comedy; in essence, punching a hole through the door to the West that many were able to see through before Jackie and Stanley Tong completely kicked it down. This effort would be led by the most beloved gone-too-soon actor of his era (after Bruce Lee, but before Leslie and Anita) in the centrepiece of his career.

Mainland immigrant Tam Tung (Alexander Fu Sheng) lives and scrapes together in poverty with his grandfather (Ching Ho Wang.) Grandpa is too old to work now, but for Tam not having an HKID card is a huge roadblock keeping him from being allowed to do any “honest” work. Fortunately, Tam proves to be highly enterprising after seeing how people sell orange juice with machines, determining that his 12 years of practising kung fu allow him to squeeze oranges (isn’t that what he learned it for?) better than the machines can. Upon seeing Tam’s natural talent, Ho Gor (Johnny Wang Lung-wei) — “Mr. Ho” as the subs put it, but more “Big Brother Ho”, immediately delineating that he’s a gangster for any who hadn’t already guessed from his dress and entourage — gives all of his men a chillingly ominous order: Go drink orange juice.

Just seeing the massive wad of cash Ho throws out to give his underlings refreshments, Tam pretty much already knows he wants to be a gangster — after all, how else could someone poor, harassed by police and not even allowed to work get such respect and comfort in life? Ho just as quickly decides that he wants a mighty person like Tam working for him and against a rival gang, thereby helping Tam through his troubles until he agrees to join him. But things don’t go exactly as planned for either of them when Tam’s compassionate nature gets in the way, as he can’t help but rescue one of Ho’s hos upon learning she’s unwillingly working for him. Ho views that as an affront and both frames and targets Tam in response. So out of determination to escape gang life in HK, Tam flees undocumented (now double-undocumented) to Chinatown San Francisco …. but we just said “escape gang life in HK” — not anywhere else!

Meanwhile, another struggling recent arrival to gang-plagued Chinatown is Taiwanese exchange student Jianwan (Sun Chien), who just completed his compulsory military service (complete with Tae Kwon Do training) before getting a scholarship. Jianwan and Tam come to work under the table (as students aren’t allowed to work either) in the same Chinese restaurant for a strict, very money-oriented owner (Chih Ching-Wang.)

The owner and workers have to face extortion and other troubles from two feuding gangsters: Mr. Wong (Lo Meng), boss of the Green Tiger “Gym”, and rival Pai-lung (Philip Kwok/Kuo Chui) who leads the White Dragon Gang. And guess what? Brother Ho too has taken a trip to Chinatown to do business with Mr. Wong. As Mr. Wong also gets his butt kicked by Tam once during an extortion attempt, they have much common ground, with both of them as well as Pai-lung still eyeing Tam to either be in their ranks or be eliminated so he can’t join any others. Finally, there’s kindly laundrywoman Yvonne (Jenny Tseng or just “Jenny” — one of HK’s biggest singers of the period), who…doesn’t have an especially important role in the story, but likes Tam and helps him adapt some. And she’s Jenny (more on that later.)

A proto-Chow Yun-fat Philip Kwok made laying back with a toothpick daring anyone to cross you look cool enough himself; but there’s little heroic about him.  

Chinatown Kid is a very rare union between the two distinct sides of Chang Cheh: One which was firmly rooted in the past with a full emphasis on martial arts and feudal codes of chivalry and brotherhood, and another that was completely concerned with contemporary Hong Kong — particularly its urban youth and their challenges often involving crime. It must be noted that the West never got regular exposure to the latter side of Chang, as the powers that be seemed convinced that they weren’t interested in it at all. Chinatown Kid, however, became an exception precisely because it very visibly maintains its thematic and content roots in the traditions of his period films; and it probably got major brownie points for being in San Francisco …. Or somewhere. While some of Kid’s content was filmed on location, most was clearly not and it only has comedically superficial concern outside of the Sinophone world. The “Americanization” of the distinct look of Shaw Brothers sets (and characters) can range from strange to decently credible to just cute.

Americanism #1: Just grab a Coke and a hotdog and BAM! You’re in America! [If the trip wasn’t so sudden, there’d probably be no need to specify the US uses US dollars.]

There are so many very good yet also rather dubious things about Chinatown Kid that’s it’s hard to know where to even start. Credit is due just for how many types of content it stuffs into less than two hours. There were very few popular films at the time that were this “pan-Chinese” in principle, with interactions between Mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwanese Chinese plus (more in theory) English-speaking “Western” ones under a foreign backdrop. It also throws up all kinds of themes including class divisions, the struggles of illegal and sometimes even legal immigrants (HK and US alike), the corresponding lures of gang life and drugs, and Westernisation of Chinese (mainly women.) It’s equally eclectic genre-wise, with heavy doses of martial arts, comedy both clever and lowbrow and gangsterism, moderate ones of social and familial drama, and light sprinkles of exploitation (that are nonetheless sprinkled all over.) How well everything it puts on its plate is actually cooked also widely varies.

Americanism #2: Apparently, every single resident of SF Chinatown took out the time, money and effort to import their cars and invert the roads so no immigrant would have to get readjusted.

If you didn’t believe Carl Douglas when he said that everybody was kung fu fighting in Chinatown back in the 70s (at least among the “kids” i.e. younger men; slang which this movie and Cantonese use in the exact same context), Chang Cheh has more concrete visual evidence for you here. The fighting is actually a lot more sparse this time around than on many of Chang’s kung fu movies — meaning that it only covers about a quarter of the length instead of 1/3rd to half. But this one is primarily story and comedy-driven; neither which were frankly things Chang was ever particularly known for. It still manages a lot better than expected, however, when noting the notoriously pedestrian/bad usage of “between fight” space in some of his other movies. And the fights steadily get bigger and better, with frequently well-used “terrain” including cars, punching bags and (Chang’s favourite places to wreck) restaurants. Flamboyant fashion and set design oozing the 70s make it all yet more fun to look at.

Something as small as when Brother Ho tells Tam and grandpa to keep the huge juice change turns into a well-conceived standoff needing compromise for both sides to save face. Grandpa is too proud as a blue-collar workman who never begs to take it — especially from an arrogant gangster. But Bro Ho is too proud as a triad boss to take the change back — especially from a lowly, struggling senior. Richly awkward character situations do just as well. Restaurant Owner never really cares who’s beating, killing or selling drugs to who as long as it’s not in his restaurant and will go to radically passive lengths to avoid “causing any trouble” (which is ironically now a to-a-tee stereotype for older-generation Chinese-Americans, with the movie’s not even bothering to name him further bolstering it.) Adding more fun is his wacky sexpot daughter Lena (Shirley Yu), who he (to put it very lightly) can’t seem to be able to control at all — not even from going out with one of the same gangsters coming to his restaurant to threaten him.

The movie has just the colourful cast needed to put on such a show. Alexander Fu Sheng more or less ended up being the James Dean of HK cinema; becoming wildly popular through charisma and rebellion in a life and career at its apex abruptly ended in a road accident. However, Fu’s persona both on and off-screen was the stark opposite, as a puckish good boy rather than bad boy who was amiable even in rebellion (against HK’s excess formality.) Those qualities can’t hide for a second even as a gangster or (more common) formidable fighting machine on this movie, giving both an unusual air of benignity. A year before this, he and Jenny had what was probably HK’s highest-profile celebrity marriage and power couple status up to then, giving their deliberately low-key, sweet-natured, plot-detour chemistry here a special resonance that’s fully welcome. (Aptly enough, Jenny would later move to San Francisco.)

Giving a very different impression is “The Kid with the Golden Arm” Lo Mang, with his image, character, martial arts and (blue) Green Tiger tattoo coming off far more menacing. It was an image well built as he unlike most of the other performers had already entered the industry as a highly accomplished martial artist. Sun fit in to his role even more naturally for his real-life Taiwanese and Tae Kwon Do background (even if he doesn’t so much look the part of a bashful bookworm.) Relatedly, this is the first, pre-Venoms Venoms movie; meaning they’re all here, but before they were named and fully gathered as such for The Five Deadly Venoms and others to come. In retrospect, their roles here are mixed up indeed.

There’s even more going on here beyond the main cast. Shirley Yu couldn’t exactly have been expected to win any acting awards, but her hyperbolically coquettish style of expression was unique for the industry in a way that makes her short role (and career) memorable all the same. Her speech and demeanour here amusingly aim to depict a promiscuous, impudent and probably rather stupid “Americanised” girl. It’s a different spin on the basic idea of every other movie I heard of her starring in (including Dreams of Eroticism, Crazy Sex and The Scandalous Warlord) without any (clear) nudity this time. Then there’s Kara Hui in one of her few early small support roles, playing two things (in one) that would be as far from what later defined her extraordinary career as possible: a helpless hostage and hooker.

But this is Chang Cheh’s kung fu domain, where women tend to have little place beyond ornaments. In fact, one of the female leads is literally given as a celebratory prize to one of the heroes (by another man she belonged to before that) — she even comes with a “red packet.” Another scene where Lena’s boyfriend gives the signal it’s time for her to leave an Overly Manly Situation by smacking her backside — with the camera panning down to it to make sure we can’t miss it — erases any last doubts. Nevertheless, it’s fitting that Hui showed up here, as Kid’s largely lighthearted kung fu comedy/culture clash cocktail perfectly prefigures the film that would provide Hui’s star-making turn 4 years later: My Young Auntie, directed by Lau Kar Leung (who also happened to be Fu’s martial arts teacher, by the way.) But even when acting yet more jovially than Hui’s heroine (who never really hurt anybody) would, Tam is no auntie; meaning if you pull a knife on him, he’ll literally shove it back into your ass.

The movie itself is just as mercurial as its protagonist, with both acting utterly benign and airy much of the way but quite willing to go into explosions of violence. Even Kid’s message comes off that way, one minute stressing the coolness and honour of its gangster lead while the next suggesting it’s the wrong way to go (the only thing clear is that Chinese shouldn’t sell drugs to other Chinese — take the further possible implications of that message as you wish.) The imbalance was probably more Chang’s doing, as he just didn’t have it in him to resist serious violence or yanggang (masculinity) as his films were specially classified for (unlike Lau, who reasonably didn’t see comedic or sillier films as the time or place for the kind of violence he could also unleash when he wanted to.) But here, you can see a rather goofy gag of a man hitting his head on the ceiling literally just 3 seconds before a close-up of someone groaning as he shoots heroin into his arm.

Chang kind of recycled ideas and events in his movies at times, as the way Tam quickly comes to look up to and imagine being the big boss he runs across then gets in danger of being corrupted is quite similar to how The Boxer from Shantung did it in 1972. Then again, one can’t blame a director sometimes pushed to make as many as 9 films in the same year for that too much. And Chang still wasn’t as blatant with that habit as Lo Wei was, as he adds some variation and extra detail here. Otherwise, some character actions are incomprehensible. Why would a man panic while desperately dodging gunshots only to suddenly start walking towards the man with the gun in the open afterwards? The choreography to end one fight is more comically strange, with a hero hitting a man a few times then stopping for a moment to turn him around to beat another side of the body a few times then repeating step one; a full body beating massage.

Americanism #3: If their fashion doesn’t already scream “San Francisco” to you, the distinct San Franciscan British accent will!

One final quirk worth special mention that isn’t a problem at all is its wondrously unusual music from Chen Yung Yu aka Frankie Chan (combined with a better-than-usual De Wolfe stock music selection) that makes for one of the finest SB soundtracks. Anyone who knows of Chan — and the fact he composed for soundtracks as iconic as Five Fingers of Death and 36th Chamber of Shaolinknows that’s saying a hell of a lot. Even if this isn’t quite Chang Cheh’s best overall in terms of concept, the martial arts or (believe it or not) even weirdness, it stands among his most fascinating, with extra credit for foundations it helped set. The thematic and categorical versatility serves as one of the best examples of why not all “kung fu movies” of the 70s could or should be so simply pigeonholed as kung fu movies. Chinatown Kid gathered several kinds of the period’s most representative talent to leave a valuable but more simply fun little document of a fleeting era led by a fleeting superstar.

“If you don’t deal with Tam Tung, Tai Kim will deal with me, but first I’ll deal with you!”

Chinatown Kid is released as part of Shawscope Volume One Limited Edition Blu-ray Boxset from 20th December 2021 from Arrow Video. This 10-disc box set includes 12 Shaw Brothers films, and two discs of soundtrack selections from the De Wolf Music Library.

 

In the yanggang world of Chang, women may not even speak English in prohibited spaces.

Side note

Both the English and Mandarin dubbing (which are unfortunately, by far the most common practices almost anywhere outside HK) kill the meaning, nuance or purpose altogether of several portions of dialogue; not so much because of language/culture-specific references, but for parts where the dialogue actually changes into those languages (as both dubs keep everything in the same language.) For all its worth however, this movie’s dub did a lot better than some similar ones, as My Young Auntie’s English dub notoriously translated everything into one language without even changing the dialogue and humour specifically based upon switching or not understanding languages — to the point that some of it wasn’t even coherent at all. Back in the day it was especially difficult to avoid English dubs of HK and some other Asian movies, while in recent years (especially if you’re outside the West) it’s becoming increasingly difficult to avoid Mandarin dubs.

Home media details

Distributor: Arrow Video (UK)

Edition: Blu-ray (2021)

While it’s common for international audiences to see two or more very different cuts of films and HK is even more notorious for that practice than most places (a more recent example being The Grandmaster), this was one that was hit extra-hard by inferior releases, with most in the last two decades seeing the 90-minute version. Besides the automatic disadvantage of only having Mandarin or English tracks, the 90-minute version has a number of quite awkward cuts (the police search that literally happens in one second on that version is the first but far from the worst), removes the entire part of the movie and plot with Kara Hui (thus making Tam and Ho’s animosity seem more forced), and adds a completely different happy, stupid ending. It’s of primary interest to those who were either forced to watch it back in the day or curious about what they had to settle for. The originally listed 120-minute version seems lost (unless that’s really just a matter of PAL vs NTSC speed), but the 114-minute international version here must be about as good as it gets, quality and transfer-wise.

Also included are HK/US/German trailers and a 7-minute local documentary on Fu’s life. But the most interesting extra personally is a well-edited 23 minute interview with Susan Shaw/Siu Yam Yam (the third of the not-really major female characters) from Frédéric Ambroisine. It has her giving informative and sometimes hilariously frank commentary as her scenes unfold. While I had already written nearly all of this review’s main content before watching the interview, it taught me that I didn’t know the half about how Chang regarded the female performers (in ways that went beyond how their characters were written.) Shaw is upfront but not resentful about it, also voicing respect and an understanding of the international appeal of Chang’s “boys’ action movies” as she rather unassailably categorises them.

On that note, I’ve heard Western fans (and detractors) of Chang more than once speculate that he was gay because of the stark dichotomy between the passion of the male bonding in many of his films vis-a-vis the very minimal attention they gave women. Though Chang was unusually closed for HK about his life outside of the industry, just being gay would do nothing to explain the consistent gusto with which women were objectified in most of his kung fu films (including the unashamed love for prostitutes even among many of their heroes.) The other thing that counters that filmography-based speculation is the fact that he actually did direct several modern-day youth films that had pretty typical boy-girl love stories in them. But as noted before, those were films most Westerners never got to/bothered to see.

About the author

Wally AdamsWally Adams Wally Adams
Technically a product of the Carolinas; branching more widely in roots; a citizen of the world at heart. Asian cinema is but one of many avatars of my longtime fascination with cinema, general culture, music and languages all over. But by now I recognize it may be the strongest of them all and sum it up like this: Whether Mifune in a duel or Madhuri in a dance, Song Kang-ho being a dunce or Gordon Liu in his stance, the finest Asian cinema always leaves me in a trance. Find me on Facebook.
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