A History Of Traditional Hong Kong Cinema (1913-1970)

Yam Kim-fai and Pak Suet-sin/Wikimedia Commons
Yam Kim-fai and Pak Suet-sin/Wikimedia Commons
Sally Gao

Hong Kong cinema was born long before the stardom of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, or the arthouse films of Wong Kar-Wai and Ann Hui. Instead, the story of Hong Kong’s film industry begins back in the early 20th century. Read on to follow the developments of the first era of Hong Kong cinema up until the 1970s.

The Silent Era

The story of Hong Kong’s film industry begins during the silent film era with Lai Man-Wai, the ‘Father of Hong Kong Cinema’. Lai produced Hong Kong’s first feature film, Zhuangzi Tests His Wife (1913), with an American businessman named Benjamin Brodsky. The story centers around Taoist scholar Zhuangzi, who decides to test his wife’s loyalty to him by faking his own death, with Lai himself playing the role of the wife. Curiously, because Brodsky took the film to America with him, this Hong Kong first was screened in the States but not in the colony itself.

Lai Man-Wai in Zhuangzi Tests His Wife/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Twelve years later, Lai produced the romantic drama Rouge (1925), which was shot in Guangzhou. Rouge was well-received, but the outbreak of anti-imperialist protests caused most cinemas in the city to close down.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that the film industry picked itself up again with the rise of Cantonese-language talkies. The first of these talkies was White Gold Dragon (1933), produced by a Shanghai studio named Tianyi, the predecessor of the Shaw Studios film empire. The film’s success convinced the Shaw brothers to relocate to Hong Kong.

The buildup to and outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 reoriented Hong Kong filmmakers, who began to make patriotic, anti-Japanese films. The first of these was Lifeline (1935), with war dramas like Behind the Shanghai Front (1938) following. At the same time, Shanghai’s film industry suffered because of the war, and as a result Shanghai’s filmmakers began to move to Hong Kong, then a British colony. This influx of talent was a huge boon to Hong Kong’s film scene, and an astonishing number of cinema houses were built in the colony around this time.

However, in December 1941 the Japanese invaded, halting the burgeoning film scene in its tracks. Studios were bombed, American films were banned and theaters could only show Japanese movies. The occupation affected the film industry so significantly that Hong Kong’s first postwar feature film, Flames of Passion (1946), was released a whole year after the city was liberated.

The Postwar Boom

Postwar Hong Kong cinema boomed from the 1940s to the mid-1960s, with Cantonese opera rising to the forefront. In the 1950s, over 500 opera films were made, and the actors that performed in them were the colony’s biggest stars.

Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Of particular note is the masterpiece The Purple Hairpin (1959), directed by Lee Tit and written by celebrated librettist Tong Tik-Sang. The film follows the story of a courtesan in ancient China who loses her hairpin. The jeweled trinket is found by a scholar, and the two enter into a romance. The film starred Yam Kim-Fai and Pak Suet-Sin – two of the most revered performers in Cantonese opera history – as the romantic duo. Yam, who was a woman, was known for her ability to play both male and female roles thanks to her talent for singing in a lower register, and remains one of Hong Kong cinema’s most intriguing historical figures.

Around the same period, Hong Kong-produced Mandarin movies also proliferated, leading to hits like Between Fire and Water (1955) and big-budget spectacles like Soul of China (1948), which was directed, scripted and acted by Shanghai talent, and put Hong Kong on the map of Mandarin film production.

The Rise Of The Superstar

Between 1960 and 1970, Cantonese movie studios churned out almost a thousand feature films. However, by the mid-1960s traditional Hong Kong movies had fallen sharply in popularity. Having stuck to the same formula for decades, they failed to resonate with a younger generation raised on the Beatles and Mandarin pop hits from the mainland. Instead, the appearance of Taiwanese romantic films and kung-fu movies from Bruce Lee took center stage. It marked the end of an era in Cantonese cinema, and the beginning of a new one.

landscape with balloons floating in the air

KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?

Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

Winter Sale Offers on Our Trips

Incredible Savings

X
Edit article