The Glorious Modernity of Kong Ngee


Wong Ain-ling 

Recently, I chatted with a veteran film person. She reminisced about the late 1950s and early 1960s when she was a student at St Stephen's Girls' College. That happened to be the golden age of Kong Ngee Company, whose films were all released at the Tai Wan theatre circuit. Whenever there was a film starring celebrated silver screen lovers Patrick Tse Yin and Patsy Kar Ling, she would flock to Tai Ping Theatre with her classmates. So Kong Ngee's productions even appealed to a girl with an Anglophone education! 'Of course,' she was quick to justify her taste: 'The screen couple was very hot at the time!' 

What made Kong Ngee productions fascinating was its urban touch. Whenever this topic came up in conversation among friends, everyone concurred that Kong Ngee was the Motion Picture and General Investment Co Ltd (MP & GI ) of Cantonese cinema. However as a film company, the former fared better than the latter. After MP & GI's President Loke Wan-tho and senior executives died in a plane crash in 1964, the once active company tumbled from its summit. Kong Ngee, on the other hand, enjoyed relatively stable development, chugging along smoothly despite some internal shake-ups like Chun Kim's move to Shaw Brothers in 1965. The company was initially formed through the tutelage of The Union Film Enterprise Limited veterans, who acted as mentors for a new generation of actors, in works like the company's founding film The Rouge Tigress (1955), Mother's BoyParts One and Two (1956), Blood Is Thicker (1956), etc. The company then proceeded to make films on location in Malaysia and Singapore, which led to the 'Nanyang Trilogy' - Blood Stains the Valley of Love (1957), China Wife (1957) , Moon over Malaya (1957). These films turned newcomers Patrick Tse, Nam Hung and Kar Ling into stars, and gradually fashioned a studio style that set Kong Ngee apart from other Cantonese productions of the time. 

Kong Ngee was founded by the Ho brothers - Ho Khee-yong and Ho Khee-siang - from Singapore. Last year, during an interview with second-generation member Ho Kian-ngiap in Singapore , we asked why the company only made black-and-white films. He answered: 'Kong Ngee made contemporary films almost exclusively because renowned Cantonese opera players were much sought-after. Even though we had our own studio, it was not feasible to have a set constructed and standing by for the cast to show up. That's why we produced so few costume dramas over the years.... Kong Ngee films catered to middle-class tastes of the growing band of nouveaux riches. Contemporary dramas attracted a young audience and going to the cinema had become a popular pastime for young lovers. Opera films, on the other hand, appealed to older audience who revelled in weepy melodrama. A filmmaker needed to understand the market trend and we naturally targeted consumers who had an extra dollar to spend.... The repertoires of Kong Ngee and its subsidiaries comprised mainly of black-and-white Cantonese films...having our own studio and processing laboratory also meant absolute control over the filming process.... Colour films, on the other hand, had to be sent to Japan for processing which took a month's time back and fro...and the subsequent month spent on editing also added a prohibitive amount of time to an already lengthy post-production period. For this reason, we avoided making colour pictures.' It was under clear and unequivocal market considerations and the abovementioned production environment that urban films with a distinctly middle class flavour made its mark on Hong Kong cinema.

Rummaging through Mr Ho's book collection, I found some 'three-dime novels' popular in those days, as well as the Chinese translation of Cameron Hawley's Executive Suite (adapted for the screen by Robert Wise in 1954). One must not overlook Hollywood's influence on Kong Ngee. For instance, a nightclub scene with a cool Big Band ensemble in Sisters in Crime (1958) ha s shades of the 1940s and 1950s psychological thriller; To Catch the Thief (1958) retained the humanistic spirit of the Union while openly sporting the voyeuristic interest of Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954). Whereas the jealous cousin played by Kar Ling in The Shadow Strikes Again (1962) is a screen sister of Hollywood's iron butterfly Bette Davis, Patrick Tse's dandy in The Beau (1964) is every bit as irresistible as Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk (1959). If you ever came across Chase (1961) on late night TV, you'd be surprised by the way director Chun Kim plays with Kar Ling's star status and Kong Ngee's studio image. This type of self-parody was unheard of in Hong Kong cinema, and rarely found even elsewhere. 

Kong Ngee made its name with modern romance, both tragic and comic. Tragedies like Madame Dao (1958), Suddenly in May, Parts One and Two (1960) and Of Love and Hate (1964) revealed the fragility of love and the compromise involved in marriage. Spring Obsession (1965) and Ungratefulness (1965) depicted repressed female desire and its release through materialism. Between Hate and Love (1963) and The Happy Bride (1963) portray the warped and twisted male psyche. Although these films fail to transcend their sentimental framework, at least they attempt to handle the emotional complexity of modern men and women, avoiding the pitfalls of black-and-white moral judgement traditional to Cantonese films. As for romantic comedies like Chase Leading the Wolf into the House (1963), Lady's Husband (1965) and The Secret of Marriage (1965), their main characters are young white-collar married couples. Plot-wise, they are storms-in-a-teacup but their observations on gender relations in a transforming society are unusually acute. Compared to the later youth films starring Connie Chan Po-chu or Josephine Siao, Kong Ngee's works appear to lack that vivacious youthful energy. Nevertheless, they make up for it with an exquisite contemporary urban sophistication.

Genre-wise, Kong Ngee's 'odd couple' series are worthy of note. From the Union-influenced realist drama The Seventh Heaven (1956) to Let's Be Happy (1959), followed by romantic courtship comedies like My Intimate Partners (1960), Spring Appears (1963), and then the shift to realist action films The Dreadnaught (1966) and Story of a Discharged Prisoner (Dir: Patrick Lung Kong, 1967), one could fairly say that the company cast prototypes for 1980s and 1990s Hong Kong cinema.

Reviewing the history of Kong Ngee, from its smooth beginning to its disappointing end, the company started out in the footsteps of the Union tradition but effortlessly moved on from the cultural milieu of the May Fourth Movement to cultivate a modern urban bourgeois sensibility. Regrettably, towards the end of the 1960s, it was thrown off course by the restless pulse of that era and had since fallen on the wayside. To this day, we have not been able to revive this urbane cosmopolitan drama that what was once part of Hong Kong cinema. Writers in this volume have put together their efforts for a multifaceted study on Kong Ngee, encompassing subjects from star image to urban media, from genre development to literary adaptation, alongside comparisons between creative talents and individual companies. Last but not least, the complex relations between Hong Kong cinema and its Singapore-Malaysian financers.

Oral History has made up an integral part in this book. Despite the early decease of Chun Kim, the very soul of Kong Ngee, in 1969, we are blessed with the liberty to interview his longtime partner Chan Man, director Lung Kong, screenwriters Tam Ning, Woo Mei-ping, and the company's major actors Patrick Tse, Kar Ling and Nam Hung. Not to be missed is a fascinating dialogue with Chor Yuen, another famed director in the Kong Ngee stable, whose artistic accomplishments were showcased in our recent release entitled Oral History Series (3): Chor Yuen. A more comprehensive roundup on the Kong Ngee oeuvre has long been our target, only that the timing had yet to come. Thanks to Bede Cheng of the Programming team, at long last we had the opportunity to talk face-to-face with Mr Ho Kian-ngiap. Bede Cheng, Grace Ng, Sam Ho, Angel Shing and I went over to Singapore to meet with him twice last year, accompanied by Professor Yung Sai-shing and Miss Grace Mak of the National University of Singapore. Kong Ngee was a cherished treasure to Mr Ho. Items from business documents, handbills and film stills, far-fetched enough to a collection of Yuan Ming Zaju Chinese Theatre in Yuan-Ming Times ) - reference material upon the production of the Chaozhou-dialect series - were all lovingly preserved years after the company had closed. We are immensely indebted to Mr Ho who donated many of these invaluable items to the Archive without a second thought. Geared up for the interviews, Mr Ho shared with us everything in the fullest possible detail. Yet whenever it came to certain personnel issues, he exuded a sense of restraint and accommodation carried down from the senior generations - a living exemplar for us to learn. Sadly, Mr Ho passed away in Singapore on 5 January 2006, missing out on the chance to witness the birth of this publication and recapture Kong Ngee's glory days alongside his many business associates and friends in Hong Kong. However, he might have had the foresight that life is never meant to be perfect - he has bestowed on us the precious souvenirs and his priceless recollections of Kong Ngee just in time. This has rendered our encounter barely incidental and, all the more meaningful. Heartfelt thanks to our revered Mr Ho.