JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Air Hostess, in Eastman color.

Lin Kepin sings the theme song, “I Want to Fly to The Sky” to an admiring crowd.

All air hostess applicants have to go through vigorous training and tests, including measurement of their height and weight ….

... and tests of balance and agility…

... and the proper way to walk and serve coffee.

Hong Kong's Kai Tak Airport as shown in Air Hostess.

 

Modernity, diasporic capital, and 1950's Hong Kong Mandarin cinema

by Poshek Fu

Study of Hong Kong film culture in English-speaking academia has matured rapidly in the last two decade. Critical attention has been expanded beyond the periods before the 1980s and includes different film genres, its industrial connections with different parts of the pan-Chinese world, and films in languages other than Cantonese. Recent interests in the globalization and cultural politics of Shaw Brothers cinema in the 1960s and 1970s illuminate these trends. However, Shaw Brothers' rival studio in Singapore and Hong Kong has been little studied.[1][open notes in new window] This is the Cathay Organization-MP&GI, which was most famous for its series of urban romance and musicals (several of which were written by the celebrated writer Eileen Chang) — including Our Sister Hedy (Si qianjin), The Battle of Love (Qingchang ru zhangchang) and Mambo Girl (Manbo nulang). This studio projected a dazzling perspective on modern life and sensibility in its films. In fact, before the building of Shaw Brothers Movietown in Clearwater Bay in the late 1950s, Cathay-MP&GI dominated the film business of postwar Hong Kong, shaping in particular the industrial practice and production trends of Mandarin cinema. Both diasporic Chinese capitalist corporations played critical roles in leading Hong Kong to become a global cinematic city.

To correct this academic imbalance, my essay analyzes the broader context of postwar Hong Kong history and migrant culture in which Cathay-MP&GI developed to become the dominant film company. I focus on one of its most celebrated film, Air Hostess (Kong zhong xiaozhe), to bring to light the ways Cathay-MP&GI production was intricately intertwined with the changes in gender relations and the Cold War politics of postwar Hong Kong and Chinese cinemas.

Postwar Mandarin cinema in crisis

The 1950s were a period of change and uncertainty in Hong Kong in general, and its Mandarin film industry in particular. The colony recovered rapidly from its almost four years of Japanese occupation. In contrast, across the Pearl River, China remained ravaged by continuous violence after eight years of bloody war against Japan. The Nationalist-Communist Civil War brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy when the Communists took over the mainland in 1949. Tens of thousands of Chinese people fled to Hong Kong in search of a better future. As a result, the population of the colony jumped dramatically from about 600,000 in the wake of liberation from Japanese occupation in August 1945 to over two million in 1951, and in 1961, to three million.[2]

Some of the refugees were studio executives and film artists from Shanghai. To rebuild their careers in exile, they contributed in an important way to rebuilding the Mandarin cinema industry in postwar Hong Kong. The “King of Chinese Cinema,” Zhang Shankun, for example, fled to the colony to escape persecution by the Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government for his ambiguous cooperation with the Japanese in wartime Shanghai. And Li Zuyong, a finance tycoon with intimate connections to Nationalists, left Shanghai during the Civil War to look for business opportunities in Hong Kong.

Zhang and Li teamed up to found Yonghua (Ever China) Productions in 1947 to make Mandarin films. They imported film equipment from Europe and the United States and recruited hundreds of directors and actors from Shanghai, including such major stars such as Tao Jin, Liu Qiong, and Li Lihua. Yonghua’s debut films, Bu Wancang’s The Soul of China (Guohun) and Zhu Shilin’s Palace Intrigues (Qinggong mishi), were both huge-budget costume dramas projecting a pro-Nationalist sentiment and won praise from critics and had great box-office success in Hong Kong as well as in China and Southeast Asia. Yet, the worsening Civil War in 1948-1949 caused the Chinese banking system and currency market to collapse; thus Yonghua received only a small fraction of their box-office benefits. Then came the Communist victory in 1949, which virtually closed the China market to Hong Kong cinema.

The close of their China market threw Yonghua and all other Mandarin film studios into a state of crisis. Their survival depended on access to the mainland. In fact, to all Mandarin film producers, Hong Kong only represented a safe and convenient production site since their films were made for the mainland (particularly Shanghai) market. While the whole industry was dealt a serious blow by the market change, Yonghua was particularly hard hit because of its poor finance management and huge operating costs.[3] Tensions between Li Zuyong and Zhang Shankun increased, and in 1949, Zhang was forced out of the studio. Yonghua survived for a few years, thanks to loans from its Southeast Asian distributor, the Cathay Organization, and the Nationalist government, which had gone into exile in Taiwan in 1949. Its production exhibited a pronouncedly anti-Communist bent.

Yonghua was one of thirty-three Mandarin film studios in Hong Kong in the early 1950s. Most of these studios were small, without their own production crews. Their financing was weak; they could start a project only when they acquired funding from investors and found distributors interested in its market potential. Yet this flexibility enabled them to survive better than Yonghua in these worsening business condition. The loss of its China market forced the industry to reformulate its marketing strategy.

Except for one or two pro-Beijing film companies, including Changcheng (Great Wall), which were allowed to continue to sell films to the mainland, all film studios tried to survive the change in business conditions to shift their market focus to the diasporic Chinese community in Southeast Asia while trying to increase their market share in Hong Kong. They invested in small budget Cantonese productions or simply made a Cantonese-language copy of every Mandarin film they produced. Above all, they sought to open new markets in Taiwan. With so many Nationalist officials and functionaries fled there from the Lower Yangzi region, Taiwan had become the largest Mandarin-speaking community outside of the mainland.

But these markets were difficult to develop. By 1955 the Mandarin film industry was permeated by a sense of gloom and anxiety. In a roundtable discussion in that year, for example, industry leaders — including producer Zhang Shankun and director Bu Wancang — warned that Mandarin cinema would collapse unless the industry could expand its distribution network. The Southeast Asia market was vulnerable because of the political and economic volubility of the region partly as a result of the widespread postwar decolonialization movements. In Singapore and Malaya, moreover, Mandarin cinema had to compete with popular Hollywood motion pictures and films in Malay and various dialects (particularly Cantonese). In Hong Kong, screens were dominated by Cantonese productions and Hollywood spectacles, while Mandarin film artists remained mostly unfamiliar to local audiences. Thus, in 1955, over 120 Mandarin films produced in the past five years, including many with Cantonese dubbing, were still in backlog, waiting to be distributed in theaters.[4]

Taiwan turned out to be the most disappointing of all; its intricate Cold War politics of anti-communism frustrated everyone in the cinema business. Because Taiwan’s film industry was still in its infancy, it was the official policy of Taipei to mobilize support from the Hong Kong Mandarin film industry in its global war against Chinese communism. The Taiwan government pledged, therefore, to provide all forms of subsidies and market assistance to Mandarin filmmakers who were not affiliated with the Beijing-sponsored studios in exchange for their loyalty and propaganda efforts. In the parlance of the time, they were the “Freedom filmmakers” (ziyou yingren) devoted to promoting the Nationalist cause of anti-communism as well as promoting Chinese Confucian tradition (which was allegedly under Communist attacks on the mainland) in Hong Kong and other Chinese communities around the globe. Financial supports included, in particular, production subsidies and access to the growing Chinese-language film market in Taiwan.

However, the policy was frustratingly inconsistent and subject to all sorts of contingencies. For example, while a few “Freedom” films — such as Zhang Shankun’s Qiu Jin the Revolutionary Heroine (Qiu Jin, 1954) and Tu Guangqi’s Semi-Lower Class Society (Ban xialiu shehui, 1955) — won awards from the Nationalist regime in the early 1950s for their skillful projection of anti-communism and pro-Taiwan nationalism, both were however banned in 1956 (along with other 60 Mandarin pictures). Censors had  “discovered” that some members of their production crew were “communists,” even though these “traitors” changed sides only after completing the film.[5] Similarly, in 1955 Taiwan raised import duties for Mandarin films by twenty percent as a punishment for their “lack of contributions” to the anti-communist crusade. As one of the industry leader pointed out in frustration:

“Freedom filmmakers had to sell their films [to different markets] and had done their best to help promoting pro-Taiwan nationalism without falling foul of censorship [in both Hong Kong and Southeast Asia]. These punishments would serve no other purpose but destroy the [pro-Taiwan] Mandarin film industry,” thereby pushing more filmmakers to “defect to the Communist cause.”[6]

Limited outlets attracted few investors. As a consequence, small investments resulted in a decreased number of productions and lower standard of production. According to producer Hu Jinkang, while profits from each film dropped almost half between 1951 and 1955, the production budget per film decreased from HK$300,000 in 1951 to HK$120,000 in 1955. Similarly, there were one third fewer films produced in 1955 than in 1953.[7] The Hong Kong Mandarin cinema industry was in crisis; many small film studios folded and unemployment was rampant. Amidst this atmosphere of depression, the plan of the Cathay Organization to expand its distribution network into Southeast Asia and expand its production facilities in Hong Kong brought hope for a renaissance of Mandarin film culture outside China.[8]

New and modern: Cathay-MP&GI

The Cathay Organization was founded in 1947 in Singapore, and to viewers around the world, its history was synonymous with the charm and charisma of its founder, Dato Loke Wan Tho (1910-1964). The only son of the fourth (and most business-minded) wife of the Chinese-born Malayan billionaire Loke Yew, Loke received his post-primary education in the West (Switzerland and England), adopting a Westernized, highly cosmopolitan outlook. His demeanor was that of a British gentleman, immaculately dressed and graciously mannered in his constant socializing with the rich and famous of the world. Loke was by temperament more a scholar in love with nature and the world of ideas and truth than a businessman obsessed with deals and profits. In fact, choosing his career had been an agonizing decision.

Despite his awareness that he was “destined” to be a businessman taking charge of the sprawling family business, he chose to pursue his true passion, history and literature, at Oxford. When he later returned to Singapore, he decided to focus his career on the film business. This decision, I believe, was sparked in part by his effort to harmonize the conflicts between his personal interests and family obligations and in part by his desire to escape from his famous father’s tall shadow. Rather than simply take over the family business, Loke sought also to build a new venture around the modern entertainment of motion pictures, which he believed would both prove his “entrepreneurial spirit” and modernize the everyday culture and sensibility of Southeast Asia.[9]

Indeed, new and modern were the major themes of Loke’s approach to cinema business. On the basis of two movie houses operated by his family, Loke founded the Cathay Organization, whose mission was to build a film exhibition empire in Singapore and Malaya. He articulated his business vision in terms of creating a modern culture of leisure and entertainment as a way of transforming the popular culture and the everyday life of the region:

“I dedicate myself entirely to the film business not only because I have a strong personal interest in it, but because, ultimately, I want to bring [new modes of] pleasures [through modern, sophisticated entertainment] to every person in Southeast Asia...”[10]

To bring his vision into reality was, however, a formidable challenge because of the decolonialization movement and the accompanying political and economic turmoil that swept through the region in the 1950s. Also, to build a film exhibition empire in Southeast Asia was to compete directly with the Shaw brothers, Runmi and Run Run, whose vision, energy, personal network, and entrepreneurial skills had enabled them to reign over Southeast Asian film exhibition since the 1930s. The Shaws owned a chain of over one hundred cinemas across the region, so to challenge their dominance required money, determination, and creativity. In light of this, Loke set out to expand his exhibition circuit both quickly and strategically. Between 1948 and 1955, the Cathay Organization expanded its cinema chain to over forty theaters, and two years later, eleven more were added. In 1957, Loke announced he would invest Strait currency-$10 million in building six more new venues in three years, increasing the Organization’s cinemas to a total of over sixty.

Loke not only expanded his exhibition circuit in Singapore, Malaya, Brunei and N. Borneo quickly and determinedly, he also made his new cinemas the most modern and opulent in the region. Appealing to Southeast Asia's rising middle class, he tried to introduce a modern, bourgeois entertainment culture to the region. In order to have theaters a par with all the “modern cinemas of the world” and to enable audiences to “have the best atmosphere in which to relax completely,” he made all his movie palaces sleek in architectural design and modern in technology and amenities. They were fully air-conditioned, generously equipped with the most advanced Western-made acoustic and visual technology, such as Cinemascope, and lushly decorated with plush chairs and expensive carpets imported from the United States and Europe. For example, the 1557-seat Singapore Odeon, one of Loke’s favorite cinemas, demonstrated his aspiration for Western-style modernity. It boasted two huge parking lots on the ground floor, the “world’s best” York air-conditioners, GB-Kele projectors that were the first available in Southeast Asia, and a luxurious auditorium decorated with the “newest and most advanced” furniture. Revealing Loke’s aspiration of bringing Southeast Asian leisure culture up to the global standard of bourgeois culture, which was shaped by and expressed in Hollywood cinema and movie-going culture, Odeon featured a Hollywood Café with the “most modern” classy decor designed by no one but Loke himself.[11]

In order to supply films to show in his rapidly expanding exhibition network, according to author Lim Kay Tong, in 1955-1956 Cathay began to pay attention to film production, while strengthening its distribution arm, International Film Distribution Ltd. (which supplied films in 14 languages to all Cathay venues in addition to 200 other independently owned cinemas across Southeast Asia).[12] Cathay’s extension into production started with the opportunity created by Yonghua’s insolvency in 1955. As Yonghua’s major distributor in Southeast Asia, Loke had extended several loans to Li Zuyong. With an expansion plan now, Loke decided to take over the company, expand its studio facilities and sign up film talents, including eminent directors Yan Jun and Yue Deng and stars Linda Lin Dai, Lucilla You Min and Grace Chang (Ge Lan). In March 1956 Movie Production & General Investment (MP & GI, or Dianmou in Chinese) was founded to become the Chinese-language film production arm of Cathay. Loke served as its president, and Zhong Qiwen (Robert Chung), a former Yonghua executive who had studied color film production in Hollywood, became the general manager.

According to Law Kar and Shu Kei, the operation and administrative structure of MP&GI were organized largely in line with Hollywood studios, particularly with its creation of a star system and the emphasis it placed on promotion and on script development. MP&GI launched a magazine Guozi dianying, or International Screen, to promote its stars and films to Chinese audiences in Asia. For the first time in Hong Kong (and Chinese) film histories, Loke established a Script Department, which brought together some of the most creative minds from exiled writers, including such famous writers as Song Qi, Sun Jinsan, and Eileen Chang. Contrary to the lack of respect for scriptwriters seen in the Hong Kong film industry, the Script Department played a central role in shaping the studio’s productions.[13] Backed by diasporic capital, and operated as a central part of a transnationally organized, vertically integrated business structure, MP&GI set itself the goal of bringing modern entertainment to all people in Asia and modernizing their popular culture.   

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