February 25, 2008

GOLDEN YEARS : The luminous legacy of Raymond Chow.

On our ongoing mission to bring you the very best of current and classic Asian action, we make every effort to track down the talent concerned and get first-hand stories of their creation. Though we may yet get fresh reminiscences from many famous names of the Golden Harvest era, it seems certain that the studio’s founder, Raymond Chow (Chow Man-wai), will not be among them. Raymond’s daughter, Roberta, is a long-time friend of mine (we first met on the set of Project A, Part Two) and I beseeched her to help me set up a career interview with her father. Having never got a straight answer, I finally tracked Raymond down at an industry event, and got an answer (albeit not the one I was hoping for!) straight from the horse’s mouth. “I’m completely retired now,” he told me, “and I think that, when you’re retired, you should stop doing interviews!”

So, if Raymond were inclined to do an interview, what stories might he tell? I decided to trawl back issues of Hong Kong’s Chinese language press to find out.

Though it’s acknowledged that he brought many martial arts heroes to fame, Chow’s own kung fu background is less well-known. A fragile child, he was sent to train at the martial arts school of Hung Kuen legend Lam Sai-wing, located at Jaffe Road in Wanchai, on Hong Kong island. At that time, Lam was already an elderly man, and had ‘closed the doors’ of his school, meaning that he would take no more new students. Chow became Lam Sai-wing’s last official student, and learned the double broadsword in order to strengthen his arms. (The martial world is a small one. I am also a Hung Kuen practitioner, and also study Tai Chi at the school of Li Fai, where I was delighted to meet my fellow student, Raymond’s wife Felicia.)

In 1957, Raymond Chow was working as journalist for Voice Of America when he was approached by Run Run Shaw to come and help establish the then nascent Shaw Bros studio. He started in publicity, but soon moved on to work in production. Chow made a major change to the studio’s working practice when he rearranged the schedule so that stars worked during the day, rather than through the night. Under the previous system, most of the actor’s kept vampire hours, and the studio staff seldom saw them.

After 13 years at Shaw Bros, Raymond decided to leave the studio. He subsequently partnered with Leonard Ho (Ho Kwun-cheung), godfather to Jackie Chan, to form Golden Harvest. Run Run Shaw was supposedly dismayed by Chow’s defection and the rise of Golden Harvest. The studios clashed when Harvest produced ‘Zatoichi Meets The One-Armed Swordsman’. In the film, Jimmy Wang Yu’s monodextrous (new word, make a note of it) hero clashes with Japan’s legendary blind swordsman. Shaw contended that the eponymous hero of Shaw Bros release ‘One Armed Swordsman’ (available on Dragon Dynasty) was owned by the studio. Chow countered that the hero had been created by prolific screenwriter Ngai Hong, and so was owned by him. Shaws tried to prevent the film’s release in Hong Kong, but the initial judgement was in favour of Golden Harvest. It was later overturned on appeal, but by them the movie had finished its Hong Kong run. However, this explains why ‘Zatoichi Meets The One-Armed Swordsman’ has been so rarely seen since.

The new studio reaped its truly golden harvest when Chow signed martial arts legend Bruce Lee. The producer saw Lee, who had been a child star in black-and-white Hong Kong melodramas, perform a kung fu demonstration on the TV show Enjoy Yourself Tonight. By the time Chow tracked Lee down, by ‘phone, the latter had returned to his home in LA. On a crackling transpacific ‘phone line, Lee asked Chow which of his film’s he was most proud of, and the producer replied ‘Zatoichi Meets The One-Armed Swordsman’. Bruce assured Chow that he could make a much better film, and it has to be said he delivered on that.

When Lee started shooting his unfinished epic Game Of Death, he decided he wanted to stage a fight between himself and his student Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He demanded that Chow sign the towering basketball champion. Raymond protested that Jabbar’s manager would never risk his prize client in a kung fu movie. Lee replied that he could convince Kareem to shoot the film without telling his manager, but that he would need to pay the star in gold bars.

Given his unique perspective on the development of the Hong Kong film industry, it’s a shame that Raymond refuses to go on camera. Regardless, I hope we’ll continue to do justice to his work, just as we have with our Dragon Dynasty releases of such Golden Harvest classics as the Police Story series, Last Hurrah For Chivalry, Above The Law and Shanghai Express.


That's great. I love Martial Arts!!!!!
- Marie Wesley, Atlanta, Georgia | 2008-03-10 15:32:02
So Bey, will we ever see Golden Harvest making films again?
- Philip Kenny, Hong Kong | 2008-04-07 09:08:54


Your comment

Who are you?

Where are you located?



Its great to see the late era Shaw Bros Five Deadly Venoms and The Return of The Five Deadly Venoms (AKA Crippled... MORE ›

Viewing an Invisible Target

Of Hong Kong’s recent contemporary martial arts actioners, INVISIBLE TARGET has a special place in my heart.... MORE ›



Join the Order of the Dragon and receive e-mail updates on the latest releases, news items,and special promotions.

Sign Up