Stephen Chow Sketches (1): My Grassroots Origin

June 5th, 2007 by Mei

Written by Shi Yong-gang and Liu Qiong-xiong
Translated by Mei, and edited by Lara, of Tales Across The Sea

This translation is based on excerpts from the book Stephen Chow Sketches provided by in a web series. Original copyright of the Chinese text and images belong to the book publisher. We are just providing a translated version based on the chapters posted and publicly available at

English translation of the excerpts is originally posted at the Stephen Chow Forum. Reprint or reposting of the translation by any site other than and is not permitted without approval from the translators.

This translation is an ongoing project, so please check back for new chapters.

Chapter 1: My Grassroots Origin

There is a Pig Sty Alley in Kung Fu Hustle, modeled after the movie The 72 Tenants, or perhaps Kowloon Wall City in old Hong Kong. Pig Sty Alley is very unlike the decrepit Kowloon City, however. By Chow Sing Chi’s design, Pig Sty Alley may be crowded and low-class, but it is also a peaceful Eden populated with crouching tigers and hidden dragons.

“This is the kind of place I lived in as a child, a place packed with so many people, it was easy to get the feeling that there were no strangers and no secrets among neighbors. But there were in fact many surprises hidden behind the mundane interactions within the neighborhood. For example, one day I learned that one of the neighbors was a kungfu master — he was living there for a long time, and I had always called him ‘old uncle’; not even in my wildest dreams would I have guessed he was a kungfu master,” Chow Sing Chi described.

Those familiar with Chow’s movies know well that Chow likes to write his own experience into his movies. He himself admitted as much, saying, “my movies are all my own feelings and experience.” A perpetual theme in Chow’s work is the struggle of the little people. This is related to his own upbringing. “My origin is from the grassroots. I grew up in the typical low class environment, and feel a sense of closeness to regular folks.” Chow lived as a child in a crowded environment similar to the run-down structures in The 72 Tenants.

He is also a descendent of mainland Chinese who immigrated to Hong Kong.

There were two waves of immigration from mainland China to Hong Kong during the 1950s and 1960s. Chow Sing Chi, who was born on June 22, 1962 in Hong Kong, is a descendent of this generation of immigrants. Some Hong Kong newspapers claimed that Chow’s mother Pearl Ling migrated from Canton (Guangdong) to Hong Kong in 1957 after her father was thrown in jail for belonging to the “Five Black Categories”.

That was a period when Hong Kong’s manufacturing industry was booming. However, a new immigrant would need a bond and a guarantor to be allowed to work, so life was not easy. Pearl Ling could not afford school after coming to Hong Kong. She soon married an immigrant from Shanghai, and had two daughters and one son. The family of 5 lived in a cramped wood shed, with bunk beds, in the poor Kowloon area. Even a meal of plain rice in soy paste was an indulgence.

Unfortunately Chow Sing Chi’s parents never got along with each other. They quarreled, and then fought physically. Pearl Ling was a woman with an independent character, and she finally sought a divorce. She won custody of all 3 children.

The son in the family was Chow Sing Chi, who was the second child. He was 7 when his parents divorced.

By Chow Sing Chi’s account, growing up in a single parent household was not a bitter experience. Instead, he had a rather cheerful childhood.

“I was so happy as a child. There were many fun things to do, such as going to the park and play kung fu … no time was left to despair.” Chow did remember being scolded for buying a toy robot, however.

“My parents were both very artistic people. Every movement of theirs was interesting; even their fights were entertaining to watch. My mom wasn’t a submissive woman, so their quarrels and fights often had surprising outcomes.”

Chow’s mother Pearl Ling was a woman of character and talents. Chow recalled that his mother had a favorite singer named Lam Cheung Yuen. Every day at meal times, she could be heard singing along with the record player. Her favorite song was “Butterflies Lingering in Flowers”, with lyrics by Mao Tse Tung. Listening to Mom’s songs became a part of life during Chow Sing Chi’s childhood, and influences him to this day: “I still like Mao Tse Tung’s poems, all because of Mom’s 3 singing sessions per day at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I didn’t read all of Mao’s poems, but I consider him to be a great poet!”

Pearl Ling also loved acting. “When I was a child, Mom used to participate in church drama, and forced all of us to go in as audience. I still don’t know what plays she acted in, but every time I saw her acting in all earnestness on stage, I couldn’t help laughing. She inspired me greatly.”

Growing up in such an environment, Chow Sing Chi loved acting even at a young age. He was not shy of performing in front of an andience.

After the divorce, Pearl Ling had to raise 3 children herself. She worked two jobs, one of which was in a restaurant as a front-desk clerk. She used to cook her son a bowl of noodle soup every day after he got home from school. Because of her busy work schedule, Chow Sing Chi and his younger sister were left with their grandmother for a period. Grandma made her living by peddling nailclippers on a street stand. Chow and his sister would help grandma with her business when they were there. Chow was a playful boy at the time, and often found excuses to escape and play elsewhere, leaving his grandma and little sister to watch the nailclipper stand.

For survival, Pearl Ling married again, but divorced again after giving birth to another daughter. (rest of paragraph omitted by

Chow Sing Chi’s father never talked to the media. Chow mentioned his father once or twice after he became famous: “I used to see my father very rarely, but recently we have met more often. I think my father is also a very humorous, funny man!” This is one of the very few comments from Chow Sing Chi about his father.

In his childhood years, Chow Sing Chi could not yet perceive how painful his mother’s bitter struggle for survival was. Like other children around him, he started an obsession with Japanese and Hong Kong comic books and cartoon series popular at that time.

“In elementary school I read Little Gangsters, then Heros of China. Earlier in Kindergarten, I was reading Leopard Head, about Japanese wrestling, which had a masked wrestler … Still earlier, there was Cat-eye Kid, very frightening, and Earth Pioneer. Yet another one was Mazinger-Z, which had the Bra Missiles, so powerful! The Venus Missiles were even better, with continuous shooting, unlike the Bra missiles, which had only a few shots and were a little disappointing … We didn’t have a TV at home, so I watched all of these in TV stores. Two dimes could buy admission to watch the shows, and one more could buy a cup of fruit jelly … Every kid loved watching the TV series; at dinner time moms wielding dusters had to round up the kids …”

Earth Pioneers was an old 1950s comic book by Hong Kong comic author Wong Ying. It was a fantasy sci-fi type comic inspired by the Japanese manga Ironman 28. Little Gangsters (later named Dragon and Tiger Gate) was famous Hong Kong comic author Tony Wong’s first hit series, very popular in the 1970s. It was about the good-vs-evil fights between a band of poor young men and the local gangsters. The main character was Tiger Wong, a “gangster for justice” street hero. The comic book depicted a lot of kung fu moves.

Speaking of Tiger Wong, a similar character design was used in Chow Sing Chi’s film Sixty Million Dollar Man. The thick “Nike swoosh” eyebrows also appeared on the face of Lee Kin-Yan — the actor who played the nose-picking “beauty” in many of Chow’s movies.

Around this time, Bruce Lee premiered his first movie made after he went back to Hong Kong (1971), and created a wave of passion for kung fu. These events were very important to the 9-year-old Chow Sing-Chi. Comic books and Bruce Lee, both of which had huge influences on Chow’s life and work, were reaching their peak popularity in this period.

“That year, Mom took me to a cinema for the very first time, when Bruce Lee’s Fists of Fury was showing. My family was poor then, without much money to spare. Mom took my sisters and me to a large and crowded theatre near our home.”

“The theatre was old and a little run down, but I was completely absorbed by the movie. My heart was about to leap out, of my chest;at one moment tears ran down my cheeks. Bruce Lee was utterly magical. He occuppied and commanded the whole screen, not only with his masterful kung fu moves, but also with his uplifting spirit. My dream of doing kung fu started right then.”

“Bruce Lee became everything for me; I decided to be like him. Being a kung fu master was my dearest wish – being an actor could only come second. I was filled with energy and spirit, and wanted to perform some kung fu moves right there and then. But I didn’t know how. So, I sought to learn kung fu. My attitude toward life became positive instantly.”

As a child, Chow Sing-Chi practised mostly Wing Chun style martial arts, and touched upon Iron Palm, though all of it was imitated from kung fu movies — an experience he later laughed about. He also learned some Thai boxing, again not from schools: “I am just an amateur practitioner of kung fu”. Of course, Chow loved Bruce Lee’s own style “Jeet Kune Do (JKD)”. He studied kung fu every day, and even practised fighting with other kids.

Hong Kong;s TV broadcasting business began to prosper in the 1970s. One of the early TVB programs since its establishment in November 1967 was “Tai Ping Foothill”, which included many classic short episodes about the life of Hong Kong residents. Aside from cartoons, Chow Sing-Chi’s other favourite show was TVB’s “Enjoy Yourself Tonight (EYT)” hosted by “Chubby” (沈殿霞). “I grew up with Chubby’s EYT.” Chow also liked operas and films by Sun Ma Sze-Tsang and Leung Sing-Bo, claiming that his own acting was similar to theirs.

In the eyes of Chow’s mother Pearl Ling, Sing-Chi was then a quiet and reserved child at home. “Sing Jai was naive about life, he had a very innocent heart, and was exceedingly kind, to the point of helplessness sometimes. He had no habit of confiding to others, so even I didn’t know many things about him.”

Chow Sing-Chi’s father was from Shanghai. His mother was from Canton. But his hometown is Ningbo. Like many immigrants, Chow Sing-Chi has always been a bit confused about his own origin:

“I was from Ningbo, but someone told me that was the same as coming from Shanghai. It was never clear to me how this could be so. But I do feel like my hometown was Shanghai. In any case, I like Shanghai, so don’t mind becoming a Shanghai native.”

“I could be Shanghainese, even though I don’t speak or understand Shanghai dialect. There must be many Shanghai elements in my genes, since I so love to eat Shanghai noodles, all varieties of them! I feel a natural affinity to Shanghai.”

In April 12, 2005, Chow Sing-Chi flew from Hong Kong to Ningbo to find his roots. Chow’s family had left Ningbo perhaps during his grandfather’s generation. Chow said he knew as a child he was from Ningbo, but always confused Ningbo with Shanghai. This was his second visit to Ningbo. The first visit was to attend the Golden Rooster and Hundred Flowers film festival. He arrived at night and left early next morning that time, and didn’t get a chance to see the city. This time, he took a ride on the streets of Ningbo, and felt that Ningbo was a lively town built on water, full of character and good karma. Water and bridges are the city’s culture. He saw the place his father used to live in downtown, and his first reaction was to call his father, “I saw where you used to live!” Chow learned one sentence in Ningbo dialect: “I am from Ningbo”, which sounded more like Mandarin in his version. He said he would try to learn Ningbo dialect in the future.

Chow Sing-Chi went to Tianyi Ge Library in Ningbo to look up his family genealogy. Tianyi Ge is China’s oldest library, known as “Southern China’s Book City”. It houses the most complete collection of Ningbo’s genealogical documents, including those of Chow Sing-Chi’s family. Genealogy research in the library had always been kept highly private. In the past 20 years, Chow was only the second person to have such special honor, after shipping magnate Bao Yugang, also from Ningbo, was allowed to look up his family documents in Tianyi Ge. Chow Sing-Chi was also named by Ningbo City as “Ningbo Tourism Spokesperson”.

(Paragraph of inane comments by internet fortune tellers skipped by Mei.)

“My mother gave me the name Sing-Chi. I asked her why she chose such an odd name. She replied that it was from a sentence in Wang Bo’s famous poetic prose in honor of Prince of Teng’s Tower: ‘Like mist rising up is the majestic land, like stars rushing by are the magnificent people ’.” Chow Sing-Chi explained. (Mei note: Literally, Sing means “star”, and Chi means “gallop, dash, or race”)

Chow’s English name Stephen was given by his Shanghai grandmother. In God of Cookery, his first movie as a lead director, Chow used the name “Stephen Chow” for the god of cookery himself. However, Chow’s own favourite English name had always been Lewis. One of his Japanese fans was famous writer Seishu Hase, author of Sleepless Town (later made into a movie starring Takeshi Kaneshiro). Seishu Hase loved Chow Sing Chi so much that his pen name actually means Chi Sing Chow. Once Seishu Hase asked Chow Sing-Chi to give him an English name, and Chow instantly offered the name Lewis. Chow said that he would have wanted the name Lewis himself, had Stephen not being a name given by his grandmother.

Translator’s notes:
Chow’s mother’s name, Pearl Ling, was an arbitrary translation, but should be close to a phonetic match. I couldn’t find an official translation for her name.

Most Chinese names, if translated phonetically, will be written in traditional Chinese order (family name first, given name second), as in Chow Sing Chi. If the English given name is used, then it is presented in the Western order (given name first, family name second), as in Stephen Chow. Depending on the context, both versions might be used.

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