Profile: Kwan Tak-hing

Posted in Profiles by - July 12, 2014
Profile: Kwan Tak-hing

Date of birth: June 27, 1905 (Guangzhou, China)

Date of death: June 28, 1996 (aged 91), Hong Kong

Other names: Sun Liang-chau, San Ching-jau, Kuan Tak-hing, Guan Desing

Occupation: Actor, instructor, action director, writer, producer

Style: Hung Gar, White Crane kung fu

Biography: Kwan Tak-hing was Hong Kong’s first bona fide kung fu movie star who became synonymous with the role of real-life folk hero Wong Fei-hung, who he would play in a series of over 70 black and white Cantonese films throughout the 1950s and 60s. In many ways, his life echoed that of his famous alter ego, and he is fondly remembered by the Chinese film industry and kung fu movie fans alike.

Kwan Tak-hing was born in Guangzhou, China, in 1905 and was forced to work from an early age to support his family following the death of his father. He worked as a cowherd and on construction sites from the age of 12. From the age of 13, he worked as a waiter in Singapore before joining a Beijing Opera troupe under the tutelage of Cheng Hsin-pei.

Kwan developed his skills as an acrobat, actor and performer after entering the Beijing Opera where he was known by the name Sun Liang-chow. He made the transition into film with one of the very first Cantonese talkies, The Singing Lovers (1933), filmed on location in America. He progressed to leading man status with films like Song of Sadness (1935), and appeared in his first martial arts film, The Knight of the Whip (1936), before the advent of war with Japan.

He entertained Chinese troops stationed behind enemy lines during World War II and according to Bey Logan in his book Hong Kong Action Cinema, “his troupe of patriotic entertainers were so successful in raising the morale of the Chinese army that the Japanese put a price on his head!”

At the age of 44, Kwan Tak-hing made his debut as Wong Fei-hung in The Story of Wong Fei-hung Volume 1: The Whip that Smacks the Candle (1949). The film was produced by the Yong Yao Production Company, directed by Wu Pang and based on the popular Wong Fei-hung novels written by Zhu Yuzhai. Kwan was not the original choice for the role. Matinee idol Wu Chu-fan was in the running until Kwan demonstrated his skills at Hung Gar, lion dancing and pole fighting – all of which were practiced by the real Wong Fei-hung. Kwan was also awarded extra credence when he was personally endorsed by Wong Fei-hung’s widow, Mok Kwai-lan.

Kwan Tak-hing lent an unmistakable gravitas to the role and helped to further cultivate the idealism surrounding Wong Fei-hung. He played Master Wong as a figure who was deeply respected by both the poor and the rich; a learned man, a teacher, a healer and Confucian philosopher who advocated diplomacy ahead of violence. Master Wong only fought for a noble and righteous cause in the truest sense of the Shaolin tradition.

With his martial arts background, Kwan Tak-hing was perfectly adept at handling the fight scenes, as were his regular co-stars, which included Simon Yuen, Shek Kin and Walter Tso. The Wong Fei-hung films were some of the first to display genuine kung fu techniques and practices when compared to the fantasy-led wuxia films which were popular on the Mainland. It soon became a prerequisite of Hong Kong kung fu cinema for lead actors to have a genuine proficiency in the martial arts. With this in mind, Kwan Tak-hing was essentially laying the foundations for Bruce Lee in the 1970s. (As a side note, Bruce Lee’s father, Lee Hoi-chuen, also made several appearances in Kwan Tak-hing’s Wong Fei-hung films).

Many of the cast and crew involved in the original Wong Fei-hung film series had links to the real Wong Fei-hung, who died in 1924. These included fight choreographer Leung Wing-hang and the actor Lau Cham (father of Lau Kar-leung and Lau Kar-wing) who were both students of ‘Butcher’ Lam Sai-wing, one of Wong Fei-hung’s original students. Wong Fei-hung’s son, Wong Hon-hei, was also involved in the original film series. Kwan remained true to the essence of Master Wong throughout the long-running series and helped to popularise many of the tropes associated with his legacy, from his famed ‘no-shadow kick’ to the Drunken Fist and his mastery of calligraphy and lion dancing.

In 1955, Kwan Tak-hing was elected chairman of the Chinese Artist Association of Hong Kong, a non-profit organisation of Cantonese opera groups and artists. In 1956, at their most popular point, a total of 25 Wong Fei-hung films were released, all starring Kwan Tak-hing. The last of the original Wong Fei-hung films was 1970’s Wong Fei-hung Bravely Crushing the Fire Formation, but their legacy lives on. After the initial series of films ended, Kwan entered semi-retirement and opened his own kung fu school – teaching Wong Fei-hung’s style of Hung Gar – and a series of herbal centres where he manufactured his own soups and ointments.

He continued to reprise the role of Wong Fei-hung in films like The Skyhawk (1974) opposite Sammo Hung, and Yuen Woo-ping’s The Magnificent Butcher (1980) and Dreadnaught (1981). Because Kwan Tak-hing had defined Wong Fei-hung as an older man, future interpretations would cast the character as much younger, like Jackie Chan’s comedic portrayal in Drunken Master (1978) and Drunken Master II (1994), and Jet Li in the Once Upon a Time in China films, although Hong Kong audiences would complain that Li was too young to take on the role.

Kwan was known colloquially as ‘Master Wong’ and was famed for being a humble man – he was paid only $4000 for each of the 90 plus films he made throughout his career. In later life, Kwan Tak-hing – in another parallel to that of the real Wong Fei-hung – opened his own apothecary and dedicated himself to charity work. He was awarded an MBE in 1984 for his services to charity and the entertainment industry.

Kwan continued to make the occasional film appearance. His last film was the 1994 comedy It’s a Wonderful Life! co-starring Leslie Cheung. Kwan Tak-hing died of pancreatic cancer in Hong Kong in 1996 at the age of 91, outliving Wong Fei-hung by 14 years. There is a grave marker dedicated to him in Kowloon, but his ashes were sent to San Francisco to rest with his second wife.

Speech! With Bey Logan, Hong Kong Action Cinema, 1995: “Everybody knew who the character was, so we had to do a good job! Luckily, we had many of the grand-students of the real Wong Fei-hung working on the films. We were the first Chinese movies to feature real kung fu. Before, everything was swordplay and magic! Our audience wanted something different, a new kind of hero, and that was what we gave them.”

Filmography (as actor): 1933 The Singing Lovers; 1935 Yesterday’s Song (Voice of the Brokenhearted); Song of Sadness; 1936 The Knight of the Whip; Bloodshed at the Twin-Willow Manor; 1937 The Modern Seductress; 1939 The Knight; 1940 The Flying Tiger; The Fantastic Knight; 1941 A Living Hero; 1947 The Guangzhou Adventure of the Fearless; One-Eye Dragon, the Strange Hero; 1948 Fishing Village in the War; Bloody Cloth; 1949 The Story of Wong Fei-hung Volume 1: The Whip that Smacks the Candle; The Story of Wong Fei-hung Volume 2; The Lady Protector and the Knight with the Whip; A Woman’s Heart is Never Mended; A Sword to Save a Country; 1950 The Story of Wong Fei-hung Part 3: The Battle by Liuhua Bridge; The Story of Wong Fei-hung Part 4: The Death of Liang Huan; Xue Rengui’s Bloody Battle at Liu Village; 1951 The Brave Archer; The Five Heroes’ Deadly Spears; The Story of Wong Fei-hung Part 5; The Silver World of Stardom; 1952 Soul of the Tiger; 1953 How Wong Fei-hung Defeated Three Bullies with a Rod; 1954 The Boxer of Nanhai; The Story of Wong Fei-hung and Lam Sai-Wing; Wong Fei-hung Tries His Shadowless Kick; Brother in Bloodshed; 1955 How Wong Fei-hung Vanquished the Bully at a Long Dike; Wong Fei-hung’s Victory at Fourth Gate; Wong Fei-hung’s Rival for the Fireworks; Story of Iron Monkey (Grand Finale); The Story of Wong Fei-hung; The True Story of Wong Fei-hung; 1956 General Kwan Seduced by Diaochan Under Moonlight; Chang E’s Flight to the Moon; The Life of Zuo Song; How Wong Fei-hung Saved the Lovelorn Monk from the Ancient Monastery; Wong Fei-hung Goes to a Birthday Party at Guanshan; Wu Song’s Bloody Fight on Lion’s Bower; Wong Fei-hung’s Battle at Mount Goddess of Mercy; Wong Fei-hung Rescues the Fishmonger; The Heroine of Deadly Darts; The Princess is Kidnapped; How Wong Fei-hung Vanquished the Bully at the Red Opera Float; Wong Fei-hung’s Victory in Xiao Beijiang; How Wong Fei-hung Vanquished the Ferocious Dog in Shamian; How Wong Fei-hung Thrice Captured So Shu-Lim in the Water; Wong Fei-hung Wins the Dragon Boat Race; Wong Fei-hung’s Story: Iron Cock against Centipede; How Wong Fei-hung Pitted a Lion against the Unicorn; How Wong Fei-hung Subdued the Two Tigers; How Wong Fei-hung Vanquished the Twelve Lions; Wong Fei-hung’s Seven Battles with Fiery Unicorn; How Wong Fei-hung Saved the Dragon’s Mother’s Temple; How Wong Fei-hung Thrice Tricked the Lady Security Escort; How Wong Fei-hung Fought Five Dragons Single-handedly; How Wong Fei-hung Pitted Seven Lions against the Gold Dragon; Wong Fei-hung and the Lantern Festival Disturbance; Wong Fei-hung’s Battle at Shuangmendi; Wong Fei-hung and the Courtesan’s Boat Argument; How Wong Fei-hung Set Fire to Dashatou; Wong Fei-hung at a Boxing Match; The White Crane Heroes; Wong Fei-hung’s Pilgrimage to Goddess of the Sea Temple; Wong Fei-hung’s Fight in Foshan; 1957 General Guan Escorts His Brother’s Wife on a 1,000 Mile Journey; Fifteen Strings of Coins; Ne Zha’s Adventures in the Heavenly Palace; Huang Feihu’s Rebellion; Knife in Fish-gut; World of Fist; How Wong Fei-hung Fought a Bloody Battle in the Spinster’s Home; The Flag Which Conquered 7 Provinces; How Wong Fei-hung Smashed the Flying Dagger Gang; The War Between Chu and Han; Wong Fei-hung’s Battle at Saddle Hill; Wong Fei-hung, King of Lion Dance; How the Boxer from Nanhai Stole the Dappled Horse at Night; How Wong Fei-hung Spied on Black Dragon Hill at Night; Wong Fei-hung’s Three Battles with the Unruly Girl; Devil’s Sword; Ne-Zha’s Adventures in the East Sea Ne-Zha’s Adventures in the East Sea; Wong Fei-hung’s Rival for a Pearl; Wong Fei-hung’s Fight in He’nan; 1958 The Flying Prince; Wong Fei-hung Saves the Kidnapped Leung Foon; How Wong Fei-hung Pitted an Iron Cock Against the Eagle; How Wong Fei-hung and Wife Eradicated the Three Rascals; Wong Fei-hung’s Victory at Ma Village; Wong Fei-hung’s Battle with the Five Tigers in the Boxing Ring (+ pro.); Wong Fei-hung’s Battle with the Five Tigers in the Boxing Ring; How Wong Fei-hung Stormed Phoenix Hill; Wong Fei-hung Seizes the Bride at Xiguan; How Wong Fei-hung Subdued the Invincible Armour; Wong Fei-hung’s Fierce Battle; How Xue Gang Smashed the Temple; Fan Lihua Bears a Son in the Golden-Light Militia; Lest We Forget; Huang Feihu’s Rebellion; Wong Fei-hung’s Story: Five Poisonous Devils Against Twin Dragons; Massacre of the Innocents; 1959 How Wong Fei-hung Defeated the Tiger on the Opera Stage; Wong Fei-hung Trapped in Hell; The White Lady’s Reincarnation; How Wen Tianxiang Thrice Tricked Grand Sire Wen; Seven Heroes Spy on Chongxiao Bower; Shattering the Copper Net Array; Wong Fei-hung on Rainbow Bridge; The Rascal He on Fire; Three Attempts to Steal the Cup of the Nine Dragons; King Kong’s Adventures in the Heavenly Palace; 1960 Tao Lung Fighting Against Fin Kum Kong; Wong Fei-hung’s Battle with the Gorilla; Wong Fei-hung’s Combat in the Boxing Ring; Two Orphans Conquered the Dragon at Tianshan; How Na Zha Rescued His Mother from the Snake Mountain; The Strange Hero Conquered the Dragon; 1961 Romantic Night of Hong Kong; Killing of the Villains; The Invincible Iron Fan; How Wong Fei-hung Smashed the Five Tigers; 1967 Wong Fei-hung Against the Ruffians (+ scr, action dir.); 1968 Wong Fei-hung: Duel for the Championship (+ action dir.); Wong Fei-hung: The Duel Against the Black Rascal (+ action dir.); The Magic Whip (+ action dir.); Wong Fei-hung: The Eight Bandits (+ action dir.); Wong Fei-hung: The Invincible Lion Dancer; Wong Fei-hung: The Incredible Success in Canton (+ action dir.); 1969 Wong Fei-hung in Sulphur Valley (+ action dir.); Wong Fei-hung’s Combat with the Five Wolves (+ action dir.); Wong Fei-hung: The Conqueror of the Sam-hong Gang; Wong Fei-hung: The Duel for the Sha-Yu-Qing (+ action dir.); 1970 Secret Agent No. 1; Wong Fei-hung Bravely Crushing the Fire Formation (+ pro, action dir.); 1974 The Skyhawk; 1980 The Magnificent Butcher; The Magnificent Kick; 1981 Dreadnaught; 1986 The Family Strikes Back; Aces Go Places IV; 1994 It’s a Wonderful Life!

This post was written by
Editor and creator of Kung Fu Movie Guide and the host of the Kung Fu Movie Guide Podcast. I live behind a laptop in London, UK.

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