When movie critics and scholars discuss the modern classic, Wong Kar Wai's "In the Mood for Love" (2000), the actors most mentioned are, understandably, its two stars, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. But another one left out of the discussion should be noted: the elderly actress playing the Amah, who had also appeared in Wong's "Days of Being Wild," as the maid for Leslie Cheung's adoptive mother. This actress, Chin Tsi-Ang (钱似莺), was seen in more than 180 films and countless TV productions during the mid-1960s-early 2000s, acting a variety of minor supporting roles, bit parts or as an extra, usually as a major character's mother or grandmother, maid or housekeeper, even a brothel madam and in at least two instances, an elderly hitwoman. She was a well-known and beloved figure in the Hong Kong movie community, where many of its biggest stars referred to her as "Mama Hung" (Hung being her married name). When she died in 2007 at the age of 98, among the many public tributes to her was this one, from director Wong Kar Wai: "Mama Hung's life story is a glorious page in modern Chinese movie history, and I am very saddened to hear of her death. In the days I worked with Mama Hung, I always admired her spirit of enthusiasm and dedication to filmmaking. She was a totally optimistic elder, as well as a friend and mentor to younger performers, and we will always miss her." But it is unlikely that many fans of Chinese films outside of Hong Kong were aware that this prolific character actress was actually a pioneer of Chinese movies, who as Qian Siying (the Mandarin pronounciation of her name), was the first martial arts heroine. We have already met such silent era heroines as Fan Xuepeng, Wu Lizhu, Xia Peizhen and Xu Qinfang, but Qian Siying is recognized as "The First Heroine" by Chinese film historians, because she made her first screen appearance in that sort of role in 1925, while the others began doing those roles in 1927 or 1928. Qian Siying also stands out in that she was the only one of those mentioned who trained in martial arts before she became an actress, and in fact from childhood.
Qian Siying was born in Shanghai in 1909, and shortly after her birth her parents consulted a fortune teller, a common practice at the time. The seer warned them their little girl would die early unless she was raised as a boy. So they dressed their daughter in boy's clothes and encouraged her to take up boys' pastimes, like sports. She was avid about sports, and at age 8, disguised as a boy, she was admitted to the all-male Chin Woo Athletic Association (精武体育会), where she excelled at martial arts. In 1925, when she was 16, an old friend of her father's, businessman Zhang Puyi (张普义), visited the Qian home. Zhang had just taken the plunge into the growing movie industry by starting a new film company and hoped to persuade Mr. Qian to invest in it. The first film from the new studio -- the Langhua Film Company -- was to be an action film called "Nanhua Meng"《南华梦》[South China Dream], and when he met his friend's athletic young daughter Zhang immediately recognized her talent potential. Mr. Qian was at first opposed to this, for while he was interested in investing, he was appalled at the thought of his daughter becoming an actress. But as Zhang pointed out, how could he turn down an old friend, especially if it would help his new business, one in which Mr. Qian himself would have a financial stake?
《South China Dream》(later retitled to《Dreams of Women》)was released in two parts, 20 reels total, and the box office receipts were good enough to permit the studio to make two more action films in which Qian Siying again had important supporting roles. But Langhua didn't last: after making a non-action movie, a conventional romance, Zhang Puyi overreached by taking the bold step of sending a film crew on location to south China to make an historical epic about the Chinese revolution. Not only was the film never finished, the expenses bankrupted the studio.
But Qian Siying's supporting roles in Langhua's successful first three movies launched what would become a long movie career. In 1928 she joined the Fudan Film Company, her first role for that studio being the female lead in《Baiyan Nüxia》《白燕女侠》[The Swallow Heroine], after which she starred in three more for Fudan the following year. In 1930 she moved up a level to the Great Wall studio, making what became her representative work,《Jiangnan Nüxia》《江南女侠》[Southern Heroine], directed by Yang Xiaozhong and co-starring Zhang Zhizhi as her villainous adversary. Qian's performance wowed audiences. This also came out just as Shanghai studios were discovering the potential of marketing their product to Southeast Asia's Chinese community; Qian's emerging popularity there brought a steady stream of theater owners to Shanghai to buy copies of Qian Siying's films, regardless of cost. She went on to make nine more action films for Great Wall and other studios, and since some of these were multi-parters, the actual number was about twice that. The last of these was released in 1931, by which time the fervor for martial arts movies had cooled, so Qian moved into other genres, eventually making a seamless transition to sound films.
In 1930, while making a 2-part silent for the Phoenix film studio, her director was Hong Ji (洪济), the younger brother of Hong Shen, "Father of the Chinese Screenplay." Romance blossomed, and in time they were married. She continued making movies, took a year off to have their first child, then returned to the screen. Hong Ji was not a major director, and except for two movies he made for Tianyi, the Shanghai forerunner to Shaw Brothers, most of his work was for poverty row studios. After several years of dormancy, by the mid-1930s the Hong Kong film industry was reviving, and Hong Ji was offered the opportunity to create and direct for a new Hong Kong studio which would specialize in making Cantonese sound movies, to be called the Nanyang (South Seas) Film Company. So after his actress-wife made her last appearance in a Shanghai production in 1935, the Hong family moved south. Their original intent was for Qian Siying to continue her acting career in Hong Kong, but as the family grew (eventually 7 children, 5 boys and 2 girls), Qian decided her family committments demanded greater attention. After making one movie in 1937 and another in 1941, she retired from acting, but continued her involvement by helping her husband with the business side of the studio. Her husband, now known as Hung Chung-ho (洪仲豪 Mandarin: Hong Zhonghao), went on to a major career, directing, writing and/or producing over 120 films between 1937-55, many of them of the martial arts genre.
[left, now known as Chin Tsi-Ang, about the time she returned to movies]
In 1962 the Hong Kong government requisitioned their studio property for a development, and Hung Chung-ho died not long after. Although she was now a widowed grandmother (she eventually had over 20 grandchildren and more than 10 great-grandchildren), the one-time martial arts heroine still felt the urge to make movies. She had the connections, but when the matter of her age (now 53) came up, she smilingly replied she just wanted to get back into movies, and was willing to take "green leaf" roles (bit parts or extras) to do so. So she did, specializing in the kind of older characters mentioned earlier. Although she of course always played older women, often that of a major character's mother, the variety was such that one writer termed her the "mother of a thousand faces." (Another dubbed her the "Goddess of Longevity.") She went on to work in more than 180 theatrical films over the next five decades, the last being a 2002 romantic comedy《My Wife is 18》. In addition, she appeared in numerous TV productions. At the Hong Kong Film Awards in 1993, she was honored with a lifetime achievement tribute.
Matriarch of the Hong Movie Clan
As noted earlier, her husband Hong Ji/Hung Chung-ho was a younger brother of pioneer writer/director Hong Shen, and several of the couple's close relatives and descendants were involved with movies as well. In addition to Hong Shen, youngest brother Hung Suk-wan (洪叔云 Mandarin: Hong Shuyun) was a writer/director in Hong Kong, and his wife Yung Yuk-yi (容玉意 Mandarin: Rong Yuyi) was a very popular Cantonese star in a career that spanned five decades.
[right, an elderly hitwoman prepares to whack Stephen Chow, in 1990's "Mad Monk"]
But while several members of the Hung clan became names only in Hong Kong, one grandson's name would be recognized by fans of Hong Kong movies worldwide: Hung Kam-Bo (洪金宝 (Mandarin: Hong Jinbao), or more familiarly, martial arts legend Sammo Hung. She was justifiably proud of her eldest grandson, not just because of his success, but because of the difficulties he overcame in achieving it. The "Fat Dragon" was never the ideal of an athletic build, but hard work got him to the top. As his grandmother expressed it, "He suffered a lot as a child."
[left, in 1991's《Easy Money》with Cat III legend Amy Yip, sorely missed by this writer for a couple of good reasons]
She once jokingly told an interviewer who asked about her children that "Many of my children are big stars!" Opening a photo album, she proudly displayed photos of herself with "sons" Chow Yun-Fat, Chin Han, Charlie Chin, Andy Lau, Stephen Chow, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Leslie Cheung, Ray Lui .. "And my daughters...": Ivy Ling Po, Anita Mui, Brigitte Lin, Cherie Chung, Carina Lau, Cecilia Yip, Angie Chiu ... "really a full house, a star-studded family, isn't it?"
[left, as Maggie Cheung's amah in《In the Mood For Love》 (2000)]
"I've Never Considered it Work"
In her later years, Qian Siying was interviewed on several occasions by Hong Kong TV stations for her recollections of early movie-making. In a 1994 interview for a TV special highlighting active elders, she said "After my husband died, and the studio shut down, I started off on a life of leisurely retirement, but soon discovered I wanted to continue in movies, so I went back and I've never stopped, and when I had a supporting role in《Mad Monk》with Stephen Chow, it meant I've had an almost 70-year movie career. My children and grandchildren didn't want me to return to movies, saying it was too hard, and I didn't need the money. But as I told them, making movies to me is fun, a kind of entertainment, and I've never considered it work." (Two more TV interviews with her, conducted in May, 1997 and June, 1999, are archived at the Hong Kong Film Archive; since I'm not in Hong Kong and my understanding of Cantonese is minimal, I leave it to someone else to plumb those resources, which might be invaluable for students of early Chinese film.)