Stephen Chow Sketches (2): I was quite a trouble-maker at school

September 16th, 2009 by Mei

When checking site traffic recently, I found that the “Stephen Chow Sketches” translation is the second most viewed post on this site (even though the overall traffic isn’t much yet). Since there are a few more chapters translated already, we might as well post them here for people to see. This is no classic literature, of course, just a special interested article for Stephen Chow fans. As the old Stephen Chow Forum closed last year, I’m going to move the translation gradually to this site.

Chapter 1: My grassroots origin
Chapter 2: I was quite a trouble-maker at school

Hong Kong’s Entertainment Weekly magazine once published several movie stars’ school transcripts. Carol Dodo Cheng, Jacky Cheung, and Karen Mok were all “A” students, but Stephen Chow was anything but.

One of Chow Sing Chi’s 4th grade classmates Ah Chen recalled: “Chow Sing Chi was quite a mischievous kid. He was a slightly built little boy who craved attention. As active and outgoing as he was, Sing Chi was quite shy in front of girls.” Chow was enrolled at the time in CCC Heep Woh Primary School, which was founded 1911 in Guangzhou. Its Hong Kong campus opened in 1947. Heep Woh is a Chinese Christian Coalition school, with an AM and a PM program, and very strict desciplines.

“At school, there were two bells at the end of each break. At the first bell, the students were to stop playing; at the second bell, they were to start walking back to classrooms. But Chow Sing Chi had to be different each time. When others stopped, he would keep walking; when others started walking, he would stop.”

Such mischievous behavior brought Chow Sing Chi much attention from classmates and teachers, and as much trouble. Ah Chen recalled, “the teachers were quite stern. They believed in corporal punishment. Most severe of all teachers was the Head of Discipline Yu (he was also the Chinese Language teacher). A lot of the material in Fight Back To School — such as throwing board erasers at students, pop quizes, time-outs in the hallway — were real scenes that happened in this school.”

Chow Sing Chi was frequently caught by Discipline Inspectors, mostly for what Ah Chen felt were trivial offenses. Ah Chen’s brother was once Head Inspector, and Ah Chen even pleaded to her brother for leniency on Sing Chi’s behalf. “Once Sing Chi got his palm slapped in front of the whole class during lunch prayer time. He just hang his head silently and helplessly.”

Chow Sing Chi was a tiny boy then, sitting on the first row in class. Like most boys, he preferred to play with other boys, and was not social with the girls. “Sometimes he stuttered when talking to girls.” Chow liked to play ping pong. At the end of one school term, Ah Chen played ping pong with Chow in one of the PE classes, an event that became a most wonderful memory for Ah Chen.

That afternoon, the PE teacher was busy training a few students in preparation for a sports competition, so the rest of the class was allowed free play time. Ah Chen saw the ping pong table available, and asked for a tame game (no spins or other fancy tricks) with Sing Chi.

During the game, the two started to chat about what they wanted to do in the future. Chow Sing Chi Said: “I don’t know what I’ll do. Look at all the punishments I am getting here …” Ah Chen said: “Sing Chi … Stars … Flying … You can become a movie star! And not just any ordinary star, but the highest and brightest one …” Sing Chi replied: “But my grades are poor.” “Don’t worry, when you have some achievement, you can find other talented people to help you!” Sing Chi asked curiously: “What about you? What do you want to become?” Ah Chen joked: “When you are a movie star, of course I’ll be the director to direct you!”

It is fortunate that Ah Chen could provide such precious recollection of Sing Chi’s primary school years — it is rare to find information and materials from this period of his.

“When I was in school … I was rather naughty. Grades? Of course poor! I was a fan of Bruce Lee, obsessed with kung fu, and that was where all my energy went. What were the teachers’ view of me? They probably tried to avoid viewing me altogether. One look at me would give them headaches.” Chow Sing Chi recalled in an interview for a Chinese magazine The New Weekly.

In one instance, Sing Chi did his Bruce Lee imitation in front of classmates, and with one swift kick dislodged the classroom door plaque, winning himself some swift punishment.

“At 10th grade, I suddenly grew responsible, and made a resolution to excel at the college entrance exam. For the two years of 10-11th grade, it was all studying all the time for me. When I went to the parks, it was for reading, not fighting. After two years of dedicated effort, my entrance exam results … were still miserable! However, these two years were a great experience for me. As with everything, what mattered most was the process, not necessarily the outcome. Different people have different talents. We go to school not to earn grades, but to understand the world, to learn right from wrong, to become a good person — someone who can give back to the world. Be a responsible person first, then worry about good grades! I was grateful for the revelation that came from those two years!”

Chinese language was by far Chow Sing Chi’s best subject at school. His other subjects were uniformly poor. His first career choice then was being a life guard, his second choice was teaching kung fu, and third choice was being a scientist. He wanted to make a science fiction movie, so he could fulfill his wish to become a scientist. “Young people are like that, when they are into swimming they want to become life guards, when they are into kung fu they want to teach martial arts.” Chow admitted that he never aspired to any of the “proper” careers such as medicine or law.

Chow’s middle school classmate Lee Kin-Yan said, “we were not just classmates, but deskmates, sitting next to each other. Chow Sing Chi was obsessed with kung fu even then. He practise regularly, often using me as a human target. Sometimes it really hurted, but I never complained. The day he could punch me to tears, would be the day he mastered kung fu.”

The two buddies used to work odd jobs together in a piano bar. “That is why every time Sing Jai goes to karaoke, he only chooses old songs like Flying Dagger Lee. Those were the songs that accompanied us while we worked away many nights in the bar.”

Lee Kin-Yan is among the select few who has kept a close friendship with Sing Chi for more than 20 years. He is also a classic supporting character in Sing’s movies. In 1992, Chow presented Lee Kin Yan for the first time in the movie King of Beggars, with a role that lasted only 3 seconds — a woman with a crush on So Chan’s father (Ng Man Tat). Lee was then getting a little burnt out from his own restaurant business. He took some time off, and went to Beijing to watch Chow make a movie, and do a little sightseeing on the side. This trip ended up changing his life, and created an irreplaceable movie character “Rosie” (the nose-picking “beauty”). Lee is currently managing a brand-name clothing boutique in Hong Kong.

At the age of 16, Chow Sing Chi worked a summer job in New World Restaurant as a dim sum waitor. He pushed around carts of shrimp dumplings and siu-mais, to finance his hobby of collecting Bruce Lee sourvenirs. The second year, his family moved to To Kwa Wan, where he worked in a metal shop as an operator. He also sold newspapers from a bicyle in the Tsim Sha Tsui area.

“I did several summer jobs, sold eyeglasses and electronics. By far the most memorable experience for me was serving dim sum in a restaurant. My monthly salary was about 600 Hong Kong Dollars. Working in a restaurant, one gets to meet all kinds of strange people. Quick wits and good manners were definitely essential for the job, or customer complaints would come swiftly.”

Making money after school to help support his family and to earn spending money for himself, buying manga, going to the movies, practising kung fu, break dancing … these were Chow’s memories from his adolescent years. He said, “I was not the type to sit at home and read.”

The 1970s were the peak of Bruce Lee’s influence, when kung fu heros were all the rage in Hong Kong. Local TV stations, such as Commercial Television (CTV) and Rediffusion Television Limited (RTV, later became Cable TV), each started their own martial arts series. CTV in particular became the pioneer in adapting Kam Yung’s novels. TVB followed with “The Book And The Sword” and “Luk Siu Fung” in 1976, “Flying Dagger Lee” and “Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre” in 1978, and “Chor Lau Heung”, “The Legendary Twins”, and “Sabre God” in 1979.

On March 10, 1980, Chow Yun Fat’s “Shanghai Beach” began to air. His character Hui Man Keung, who mesmerized tens of thousands of people, also became Chow Sing Chi’s idol.

These TV series were an important part of Chow Sing Chi’s high school life, and sparkled his desire to become an actor. In an interview for “City Entertainment” in July 1992, Chow said, “my high school years coincided with the golden times of TV series, with classics such as ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly’, ‘Shanghai Beach’, and ‘Bund’. They gave me an instant urge to try something in acting, to become a part of this profession.”

Sing Chi favored Spielberg’s movies too. He still remembered watching Jaws, “… The movie was so terrifying, I became scared of getting into the bathtub at home. I bought many books about sharks, and learned that sharks could attack even in shallow water. What would I do then, when swimming in Repulse Bay?”

After high school, Chow did not go to college. “In one very idle year, I ended up working in a shipping company as an assistant, basically as an office boy. It was so boring!”

“My first job was quite ‘rotten’. But this I want to say: Not everyone will have perfect opportunities right away. Everyone needs patience and perseverance. I always believed that opportunity would visit me one day, and that I would be able to seize it.”

In high school, Chow Sing Chi met an important friend — Leung Chiu Wai. There are several versions to the story of how they met. The first version is almost straight out of a movie: Sing Chi, while riding a bicyle to the movie theater, collided with Leung Chiu Wai. Thus they met, became friends, and later worked summer jobs together selling eyeglasses and electronics on the street; Another version had Chow Sing Chi meeting Leung Chiu Wai through Chow’s sister. The latter version seems to be more realistic –Chow’s mother Pearl Ling once mentioned as such, and director Wong Jing’s father Wong Tin Lam also told the same story in one of his articles. As a producer for TVB’s series, Wong Tin Lam used to work with Leung Chiu Wai, who mentioned his close friendship with Chow’s sister.

Leung is only 5 days older than Chow. He had a similar family background as Chow: from divorced parents, and living with mother and sister. Leung didn’t even bother with college entrance exams after high shcool. He went straight to his aunt’s supermarket to work as a delivery driver. Later he also worked as a sales clerk in department stores and electronic stores.

By Leung’s recollection of that period, Chow Sing Chi was perpetually day-dreaming of going to TVB’s Actor Training School to become a movie star. Leung ended up applying for the Training School after much prodding from Chow. “Sing Chi gave me the impression that we could learn a whole lot from the Actors Training School, so we applied together.”

Getting admission to the Training School was quite a challenge. Applicants had to get past three obstacles: first interview, second interview, and audition. Those who could make it to the audition stage were considered halfway to success. The first interview was relatively easy. A few managers would meet the candidates, who were asked to read some scripts. Due to the large number of applicants, these were conducted over a period of a week, with about 500 candidates interviewed each day. Leung Chiu Wai and Chow Sing Chi was asked to go to Hong Kong Baptist University for their first interviews.

Leung Chiu Wai recalled that he almost walked away after seeing so many people waiting for interview at the Baptist University. He was halfway out when he turned back again, deciding that he should at least get the worth of his 10 HK dollar application fee. Chow Sing Chi, on the other hand, never had any second thoughts.

Leung Chiu Wai said that even before he and Chow Sing Chi went to TVB’s Training School, they already made an 8-minute short film of their own. “It was all Sing Chi’s idea. I wasn’t into acting at that time. He was the director and actor for that short piece, I was just an actor. The story was about a good guy and a bad guy fighting on a hill. In the end the good guy won. He assigned me the role of the bad guy, who was mercilessly killed by his good guy … It was a movie made for the two of us for fun. I was just supporting him.”

Sing Chi also won the support of his mother, “I should thank my mom, really. When I first told her about my acting ambition, she gave me this long look from head to toe, but didn’t say anything. I thought, great! Silence is consent. I went happily to apply for TVB’s training class.” He recalled.

The TVB training class was then a good first step toward stardom. Every class had a number of graduates who later became TVB’s leading actors or actresses, or even “Brother No.1” and “Sister No.1” in Hong Kong entertainment industry.

The admission notices came — they accepted Leung Chiu Wai, but not Chow Sing Chi. Sing Chi was devastated.

Later, after both Leung Chiu Wai and Chow Sing Chi became superstars, the story of the “unintended consequences” in their application process also got twisted into multiple versions.

Taiwan’s famous entertainment show “Eggs Meet Rocks” (鸡蛋碰石头) once had Leung Chiu Wai as a guest, and showed a “mini-drama” of Leung and Chow’s application process for TVB acting class: Leung accompanied Chow to the exam. Chow was so nervous he had to run to the washroom just when his turn came up, so Leung went in with the interviewer instead. Chow came out of the washroom only to find that it would be Leung, not himself, who was going to the TVB class …

In another variation of the story, Chow Sing Chi knew his 1.73 meter height might be a disadvantage, so he spent a good amount of money on a pair of elevator shoes. However, the interviewer just gave him one brief glance before sending him home. On these stories, Chow commented: “I was just an average guy. The acting class required a height of 5 feet 10, while I was only 5 feet 8, so of course I wasn’t admitted.” “In those years, people thought of movie stars as towering big guys like Chow Yun Fat. It was un-imaginable for someone like me to appear on either the big screen or the small screen.”

Chow’s mother Pearl Ling also related in an interview about Chow’s application for TVB training class: “Leung Chiu Wai was a friend of Sing Jai’s sister. Sing Jai wanted to apply for the training class, and dragged Chiu Wai along. Yet Wai Jai got in unexpectedly, and Sing Jai did not. Sing Jai came home that day totally miserable, and shut himself in his room. I didn’t even know what happened, and couldn’t ask. Later, Chic Mei Chun (Jamie Chic) came to the rescue, and persuaded the principal Liu Fang Gang to accept Sing Chi. Chic Mei Chun’s brother was my neighbor of many years, so they were glad to help Sing Jai.”

Liu Fang Gang was then the principal of TVB’s actor training school. He was born in Taiwan. After graduating from the Department of Journalism in National Chengchi University, he worked as a journalist for some time, then went to Italy to study film making. In 1969, he joined Hong Kong’s Cathay as a director, then went to Shaw Brothers to make “Strangers in Hong Kong”. After that, he joined TVB as a writer and director, and then as principal of its actor training class. During his time as principal, the class graduated many superstars, including Chow Sing Chi (Stephen Chow), Lau Tak Wah (Andy Lau), and Leung Chiu Wai (Tony Leung). In addition, Wong Kar Wai and Lau Ka Ling (Carina Lau) were also trained directly by Liu.

In 1982, after a second attempt, Chow Sing Chi finally made it into TVB’s training class. He was in the 11th night class, the same class as Leung Chiu Wai. This class graduated many other stars, such as Ng Chan Yue (Francis Ng), Au-yeung Chun Wah (Bobby Au-yeung), Kwan Lai Kit (Eddie Kwan), and Waise Lee. Ng Chan Yue had even less luck than Sing Chi — he failed 3 auditions in a row before finally getting into the training class. In an August 1992 interview for “City Entertainment”, Chow Sing Chi told the reporter in rather definite terms, “If I had failed again, I would keep applying until success, because this was what I loved to do.”

Chic Mei Chun, who introduced Sing Chi to Liu Fang Gang, was in the 10th class, one class more senior than Sing Chi. She later married Miu Kiu Wai (Michael Miu), one of the “Five Tigers” (Michael Miu, Andy Lau, Tony Leung, Ken Tong, Felix Wong). Andy Lau was also from Chi Mei Chun’s class. He recalled in one of his books: “The training class had a one year curriculum. Every 3 months there was one test. Those who fail would be asked to drop out. Therefore, everyone faced the tests with diligence and quite some level of anxiety. The teach always told us: ‘For our profession, the most important traits are confidence and self-assurance. No matter how talented you are, without confidence your talent would not have a chance to be presented, or to be discovered!’ Hearing this, those who were already confident became 100 times more so; those who were not, had to tell themselves: I can! I will become tomorrow’s bright star!”

“On the eve of one such test, everyone’s confidence was tested: Even before the test, the teacher had already decided to fail one of the classmates due to his look, which was deemed inadequate for a future on the big screen. At this stage, we realized that confidence was not everything. Many other factors mattered — timing, location, and relations. Talent must be accompanied by good looks, plus good rapport with the audience. Not a single factor can be missing.”

With his admission to the training class, Chow Sing Chi finally made his first step toward stardom.

“I am generally quite shy, the type who would act before I speak. Some people like to talk loudly, to attract attention to themselves, but they shrink back when asked to do something facing a crowd. I am the opposite. I am always the listener, the one who pays attention to the guy who talks loudly. But when acting in front of an audience, I will give my all to do it properly. For example, I don’t do well in shows like EYT (Enjoy Yourself Tonight), or any other live shows. I am scared of talking while others watch … but if you give me a script to act out, then I can immerse myself in it, get into character and act with all my heart — that is the way I like. I can completely forget myself, and become capable of doing any and everything, except maybe intimate bedroom scenes (laughs). I can feel a joy in acting. Even though I am not a loud talker, if I act earnestly, and according to proper training, then it can be done very well. This is why I decided to apply for the TVB training class. Somethings one just knows intuitively — it was hard to tell if I had talent, but I could at least tell I had interest!”

Translator’s notes:
Sing Jai: basically “Sing Kid”, common expression used in Hong Kong to refer to a young person. It is used quite often by friends and media to refer to Sing Chi. “Wai Jai” would be “Wai Kid”, aka Leung Chiu Wai, and “Wah Jai” is “Wah Kid”, aka Andy Lau.

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