As someone who can only read a handful of Chinese characters, I’m hardly qualified to write an authoritative history of Hong Kong’s film magazines. But I hope that my amateur enthusiasm will make up for my lack of scholarly credentials. In this spirit, please join me on a personal tour of the magazines from my favourite period of Hong Kong cinema: the late 1950s to early 1960s.
Published from 1955 to 1974, International Screen was the official publication of the Singapore-based Cathay Organisation’s Hong Kong studio, Motion Pictures & General Investment (MP&GI). Along with Shaw Brothers, MP&GI was the most powerful and influential Chinese film studio of the 1950s and 60s and is remembered today for such classics as Mambo Girl (1957) and The Wild, Wild Rose (1960). Founded by the cosmopolitan Loke Wan Tho, the studio specialised in comedies, melodramas, and musicals squarely targeted at Chinese audiences with Western tastes and middle-class aspirations.
International Screen was the first Hong Kong movie magazine that I started collecting and proved an entertaining supplement to the MP&GI films which were being released on DVD at the time. Besides the alluring full-page colour portraits of the studio’s stars, the magazine offers a fascinating—albeit carefully scripted—glimpse of MP&GI’s development (such as construction of its studio, billed as “The Best Equipped Studio in the Far East”) and of its leader Loke Wan Tho, who was regularly featured in the magazine (being honoured by Hong Kong University, celebrating his 42nd birthday, attending the International Ornithological Congress in Helsinki).
Of particular interest to me is the news about the early interactions between Hollywood and Hong Kong. Long before Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi journeyed to the West, superstar Li Lihua had been signed up by Cecil B. DeMille for his production The Buccaneer (although she ended up instead in Frank Borzage’s 1958 film China Doll). Her trip to the U.S. was covered in the pages of International Screen, as were those of Linda Lin Dai and Lucilla Yu Ming (who, I was surprised to learn, had met with Gene Kelley about a role in the Broadway musical Flower Drum Song). There are also articles about Hollywood productions that filmed in Hong Kong, such as Hong Kong Affair (1958), the first American feature shot entirely in the colony (at the MP&GI studio). Its cast included local nightclub singer Shek Yung and veteran Chinese American actor Richard Loo, who was profiled in the magazine. Evidently, Loo had plans to produce and direct an English-language feature set in Hong Kong with an all-Chinese cast: an intriguing project that alas never came to pass. And then there are the “East-West” meeting of the stars, some of which, like that of Robert Wagner and Cantonese opera superstars Yam Kim-fai and Pak Suet-sin, are so unexpected that they border on the surreal.
Most tantalising of all are the articles about those MP&GI films not yet released on DVD. Some have screened at film festivals, like the Eileen Chang–scripted Battle of Love (1957). Others have been spotted on the Web, like the musical Calendar Girl (1959), which though battered still survives. And then there are those which remain frustratingly “lost”, like the Lin Dai mega-production Scarlet Doll (1958), which was hyped as possibly the greatest Chinese movie yet made. Although these films remain impossible or difficult to see nowadays, at least their ephemeral traces still survive in the foxed and fragile pages of International Screen.
Debuting in December 1957 (and in print until 1984), Southern Screen hewed closely to the successful format established by International Screen—with its mix of studio propaganda, star profiles, coming attractions, international movie news, and amusing quizzes—yet it also seemed to proclaim, “Anything MP&GI can do Shaw can do better”. The most obvious example being the gorgeous fold-out pinups, whose popularity with readers can be gauged by their frequent removal from old copies of the magazine. Other instances of Shaw’s one-upmanship include Southern Screen‘s exclusive coverage of Li Lihua’s second trip to the U.S. (with a special colour page of personal snapshots taken at Disneyland) and an illustrated overview of Shaw’s “Five-Year Plan” to build new theaters and modernize its old ones.
Elizabeth Taylor’s 1957 trip to Hong Kong offers an interesting example of the rivalry between the two studios. MP&GI’s International Screen featured only two pictures of the press conference and a caption complaining about how she and husband Michael Todd showed up late—”as usual”. Contrast this with Southern Screen‘s 4-page coverage and full-page portrait of “The Liz”. It seems that Liz and Michael spent most of their 10-day visit at Shaw’s private villa overlooking Deep Water Bay. Looking at the two magazines together month by month, one can catch flashes of the media blitzkriegs and talent raids that occurred continuously between Shaw and MP&GI.
The early issues of Southern Screen are an interesting record of the development of Shaw’s movie empire, from its humble incarnation as Shaw and Sons to its transformation into the globally ambitious Shaw Brothers brand. In particular, the documentation of Shaw’s Cantonese division is what I find most valuable. The omission—whatever the reason—of the studio’s Cantonese films from Celestial Picture’s acquisition and digital restoration of the Shaw Brothers Film Library has resulted in the symbolic erasure of an important part of the studio’s legacy. Shaw’s Cantonese division was inaugurated in 1955 with the founding of an actors training programme and gave birth to two certifiable superstars: Patricia Lam Fung and Pearl Au Kar-wai. Director Otto Preminger was so impressed with Au Kar-wai that he casted her in his unfortunately aborted film project The Other Side of the Coin. As for Lam Fung, she created the mold for 60s super idols Connie Chan Po-chu and Josephine Siao Fong-fong and was so popular that she was dubbed “The Jewel of Shaw”. But where are her Shaw films today? Six were featured in a special retrospective at the Hong Kong Film Archive in 2003 and a couple have subsequently screened again at the archive. Yet the continued unavailability of her Shaw films remains a conspicuous gap, somewhat like if Audrey Hepburn’s best films were unavailable on DVD. Once again it is these old magazines that tenaciously preserve the radiance of Hong Kong cinema’s slowing fading stars.
Great Wall Pictorial and Union Pictorial
I would be remiss if I failed to mention two other major studio publications of the 1950s: The Great Wall Pictorial and The Union Pictorial. Both studios fell on the leftward side of the contentious political divide that split Hong Kong’s film colony into separate camps. Founded in 1949, the Great Wall Movie Enterprise was one of the first production companies to start making Mandarin-language films in Hong Kong in the wake of the escalating civil war on the Mainland and the consequent mass exodus of Shanghai’s filmworkers. The studio started off with no political agenda but in 1950 fell under the control of leftist factions. The Union Film Enterprise, on the other hand, was a collective established in 1952 by veteran Cantonese film workers, who wanted to counter the escapism that dominated Hong Kong cinema with their own progressive and socially conscious movies. The Great Wall Pictorial and The Union Pictorial were launched respectively in 1950 and 1955, and both ceased publishing in 1962. Regretably, I’m not that familiar with either magazine. The Union Pictorial, from the few issues I’ve seen, strikes me as a fairly conservative magazine aimed at a more mature readership (although it did spotlight up-and-coming young stars like Nam Hung and Teresa Ha Ping). As for The Great Wall Pictorial, it seems a little lighter in tone—and not at all what one would expect from a leftist organization—with articles such as “And Then God Created Hsia Moon”, “Li Tziang’s Szechuan Cuisine”, and “Dance, Mao Mei, Dance!”. Although noticeably less lavish than the publications of Shaw and MP&GI, The Great Wall Pictorial also featured full-page colour glamour shots (as did Union). In fact, the magazine was a pioneer of this convention through its inclusion of hand-pasted colour plates in its early issues. Later on, the magazine featured stylish two-colour printing and bold graphic design.
Happiness Movieland and Screenland
Let me finish this sampler with two of my personal favorites from the Hong Kong movie magazines of this era: Happiness Movieland (pubished from 1956 to 1961) and Screenland (published from 1959 to 1970). Running at a slim 32 pages, Happiness Movieland was around half the size of the studio publications mentioned above. But what it lacked in length, it made up for with its diverse coverage of both Shaw and MP&GI, smaller independent companies, and the short-lived Amoy and Swatow dialect cinemas. There are also many nods to the geographic breadth of Chinese movie fans with coverage, for example, of Diana Chang Chung-wen’s and Carrie Koo Mei’s visits to Thailand and Shangguan Qinghua’s visit to Vietnam, as well as articles about regional coproductions, such as Pagoda, starring Hong Kong star Helen Li Mei and Philippines star Gloria Romero. Designwise it’s an attractive publication, making creative use of two-colour printing (like that in Great Wall Pictorial) and lively graphic borders. As for Screenland, its conspicuously extensive coverage of Shaw films (and lack thereof for MP&GI films) suggests some kind of connection or arrangement witht the studio, but what sets the magazine apart from its contemporaries are the many 2-to-4-page photo narratives that fill its pages. The following titles suggest the range of topics, from the amusingly dumb to the just plain strange: “Tso Tat-Wah’s Fruit-Picking Ordeal”, “Yu So-Chau Target-Shoots”, “Kong Yat-Fan’s Space-Trip in a Dream”, “Grace Ting Ning’s Magic Handbag”. Well, that’s all, folks! I hope you’ve enjoyed flipping through the pages of Hong Kong cinema’s golden yesteryears.