** Disclaimer: The below is a review of one of the interviews in the book and is written from my perspective – it is not by any means a direct translation of the entire interview. For a detailed description of what this particular book is about, please refer to post #1.**
In continuing my book review series on 80s/90s HK artists, I decided it would be fitting to write about another one of my idols – an artist who I absolutely adore, admire, and respect: Chow Yun Fat (Fat Gor).
Introduction: (note: most of the ‘intro’ part below is my personal assessment of Chow Yun Fat and a lot of it is not in the book)
Fat Gor is definitely a cultural icon for us Hong Kongers – in fact, there are very few people in Asia who do not know who Chow Yun Fat is (and now, most people in Hollywood know him as well). Fat Gor was instrumental in shaping the HK television and movie industries in the 70s and 80s and even now, after being in the industry for 30+ years, he is still able to generate millions of dollars in revenue at the box office with his high quality acting (though he is no longer active in the HK movie industry and does most of his work in mainland China or in the U.S.). Fat Gor is one of the few artists who actually possess what I call the ‘entire package’ – looks and talent. (Even now, despite being in his 50s, Fat Gor is still very attractive – to me at least!)
With Fat Gor being such a big star / celebrity, it would be logical to think that perhaps he travels with an entourage or lives in a huge mansion with people waiting on him hand and foot? Or perhaps that he demands star treatment wherever he goes and has to be the center of attention? NOPE!!! Actually, Fat Gor is the complete OPPOSITE of all that – he is extremely down to earth and nice, he has a warm, friendly personality, an awesome sense of humor, and most important of all, a naturally revering, humble attitude…a man with excellent work ethics who is constantly looking out for his juniors, and an avid learner who – despite being away from the HK television and film industries for so many years already – is still constantly in tune with all things related to both industries!
I know that Fat Gor has an especially soft spot for TVB, as the TVB of the 70s and 80s helped shape his career and he still feels a connection to them. Fat Gor has mentioned in past interviews that whenever he is at home in HK, he would be sure to watch the latest TVB series that is on before he goes to bed (though he doesn’t watch the entire timeslot, since he has an early bedtime…lol). Oh and of course, in the rare opportunity when a TVB reporter gets to interview him (which always happens to be around TVB anniversary time...hmmm) and undoubtedly asks him who his ‘favorites’ are for TV King and Queen, he demonstrates through his (often humorous) responses that he definitely has a good grasp of which artists and series are popular right now!
Fat Gor has always said that he is not a big star, but rather, just an ordinary person like everyone else – indeed, the biggest ‘proof’ of his ‘ordinary-ness’ (is that a word?) is his sincerely humble attitude! Here are just a few examples (from my memory) of how Fat Gor demonstrates this trait:
-- Fat Gor attended a press conference in Asia (can’t remember if it was in China or Taiwan) to promote his latest movie. After the press conference was over, instead of getting up and heading off to the dressing room (as most ‘big stars’ probably would have done), he stands up and starts helping the crew fold up and put away chairs. When the MC / host of the event (Huang Zi Jiao) saw this, he quickly went over to Fat Gor and said: “Fat Gor, you’re putting away chairs for us? How could we have a famous star like you putting away chairs?” To which Fat Gor replies: “Why not? I need to make myself useful! Not an ‘old man’ yet!” (typical Chow Yun Fat humor – I love it!!!).
-- On any typical day, an ordinary HK citizen may bump into Fat Gor at the local street markets buying fresh groceries to cook for his wife and himself. He is usually ‘decked out’ in a flannel shirt and jeans, wearing a baseball cap on his head and carrying a backpack – indeed, he does ‘blend in’ with the crowd to some extent, but those handsome features of his (plus his height) usually give him away. But that’s ok – because if passers-by recognize him and ask for his autograph or – better yet, ask to take a picture with him – with his friendly personality, he will try to accommodate as much as possible, without causing a commotion.
-- So how does Fat Gor ‘travel’ around HK? No, he does NOT have a chauffeur and no, he does NOT drive his own car. Instead, he either walks or takes the bus / subway / train. Now which other famous ‘superstar’ out there do you know of who takes public transportation to and from places? I challenge you to give me one name! LOL!
Is it any surprise then, that Chow Yun Fat is so respected / loved / revered by so many people (both ‘ordinary’ citizens and fellow colleagues alike) all around the world?
The below quote from the book is one of the best descriptions of Chow Yun Fat that I’ve come across so far:
Coming from a ‘grassroots’ background, Chow Yun Fat indeed still has that ‘grassroots’ nature in his bones. Even now, what he chases after is simply encountering a good acting role rather than living a luxurious life or indulging in extravagance: “Being ‘ordinary’ is a blessing – one’s passion and love towards work has nothing to do with how much wealth that person has. For me, what type of car to drive no longer has any meaning – in fact, I like riding the bus and taking the subway the most, as it’s more practical. I enjoy being an ‘ordinary’ person.”
He [Fat Gor] often dresses casually and personally goes to the local street market in Kowloon City for groceries – when the street vendors see him, they do not look at him with an awestruck, surprised expression. Yes, he is a superstar, but everyone has pretty much accepted that he is also an ‘ordinary’ person amongst us…an ‘old friend’ of ours whom we may bump into occasionally and greet each other with a quick ‘Hello’ – there is no fanfare nor overcrowding him to the point that he cannot move – thereby allowing him to enjoy a privilege that most other superstar idols may never have: freedom and space.
Chow Yun Fat was born into a poor family in the fishing village of Lamma Island in the 1950s. His father was a fisherman who was constantly out at sea and only returned home once a year to see the family (Fat Gor has 3 brothers and sisters). Growing up in the village, majority of Fat Gor’s time during childhood was spent working the fields, tending the animals that lived in the pastures, and playing in the village square with the other kids. Indeed, Fat Gor is a self-proclaimed ‘village boy’: “As soon as I opened my eyes [as a baby], the first thing I came into contact with was nature.”
Fat Gor had a very close relationship with his mother and as a child, he would follow behind her as she made various snacks to sell, then he would help her carry the baskets of goodies across the hills to the markets. After a day’s toil, the family would come home and have dinner – usually a simple meal of rice and lard with salty turnips. Even though village life was difficult, Fat Gor never had any complaints – his family was poor, but they were happy. Fat Gor entered school when he was 8 years old, but unfortunately, he was never ‘student’ material – he didn’t like school and never excelled in it. In order to give her children a better life, Fat Gor’s mother went to work in the city, cleaning houses for families, washing dishes at local restaurants, etc. and often times she would take her 2 youngest children (Fat Gor and his little sister) with her, leaving them at a relative’s house nearby until she was done. Even during the 1960s, village life was extremely different from city life and recounting those times now, Fat Gor admitted that it was difficult to adjust to life in the city due to his strong connection with nature in the village.
Fat’s Gor’s love for his mother is both admirable and extremely moving – he admits that he is a “Mama’s boy” and when he had to attend boarding school for a few years when he was 11, he cried for 1 week at the thought of having to leave his mother! Indeed, Fat Gor has always been known for being a filial son, but he’s that way not just because of obligation or responsibility. Fat Gor states it best when he describes his relationship with his mother and life in the village this way:
“My mom and I are the best partners. Back when she was a street vendor in Lamma Island, she would carry a big basket and I would carry a small one; later, when she went to the restaurants to wash dishes, I would substitute for her when she didn’t have time to do it. She is a great example for me – her ability to work hard in the midst of hardship and overcome adversity is an inspiration to me….she is the one who had the biggest effect on me. I treasure those days from the past – bearing hardship was a lesson in endurance and the memories were good ones. Without the past, I wouldn’t be who I am today.”
As stated earlier, Fat Gor was never a good student and disliked school – so before he even graduated from high school, he decided he would quit school and get a job. His first job was as a bellboy at a hotel, helping guests with their luggage, then after that he worked at the post office and later as a delivery boy for a photography shop.
In 1975, when Fat Gor was 20 years old, TVB was doing recruitments for their 5th Acting Class. Interestingly, Fat Gor almost didn’t make it into the class, as his reading of some dialogue during the interview portion was not very fluent and majority of the judges gave him non-passing scores. Luckily, TVB’s acting classes instructor Chung King Fai (Fat Gor’s future mentor) saw potential in Fat Gor and felt that with his tall, handsome features, he could be future star material – so he gave Fat Gor a chance and accepted him into the class. (Thank you to King Sir for making the right decision – he is truly the one who should receive credit for helping to create a Hong Kong icon!)
During his Acting Class days, Fat Gor received mainly small, ‘kelefe’ roles – it wasn’t until after he graduated from Acting class in (in 1976) that he began to get ‘meatier’ roles in big productions such as “Hotel”, “The Celebration”, “Tycoon”, “Conflict”, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”, etc. By 1980, Fat Gor was already TVB’s top-rated ‘siu sang’, however it was the popular series “The Bund” that really made him a household name. With his popularity, Fat Gor made 10x more money that he did when he started (he only made 500 HKD a month when he started), but during that era, the amount he made was way less than a lot of the big name artists from outside that TVB would sometimes invite to participate in their series.
Almost from the start (when he graduated in 1976), Fat Gor was already ‘dabbling’ in movies and throughout the time he was at TVB, he also filmed a few movies a year….needless to say, he was definitely a busy man, participating in both TV series and movies as well as being invited to perform at various venues by commercial sponsors. His career grew from there and soon, he was even doing some hosting of TVB’s anniversary galas (of course, he would be paired with Dodo Cheng, who was pretty much the only female who could ‘match’ him at that time in terms of physical appearance and chemistry). In 1985, Fat Gor participated in his last TV series, “Police Cadet 1985” (his fourth TV collaboration with Tony Leung) and left TVB shortly after that to concentrate on his film career (another great decision!). Lucky for those of us who actively followed TVB in the 1980s, Fat Gor continued to maintain a good relationship with TVB even after he left and actually returned a few times to help host or even just participate in their anniversary galas!
As we all know, Fat Gor went on to build an illustrious, successful career for himself in HK’s film industry and received many acting awards along the way. I am actually not going to go into detail about his film career, since that would take several posts to do (LOL)! I do want to talk a little bit about Fat Gor’s venture into Hollywood though, which officially occurred in 1997 when he filmed his first Hollywood movie, “The Replacement Killers” with Mira Sorvino. One of Fat Gor’s biggest obstacles in ‘conquering’ Hollywood was, of course, the English language – so starting from the time that he made the decision to enter that industry, he started to diligently learn English. Luckily, he had a 24 hour instructor (his wife Jasmine, who is from Singapore and knows the language) and also hired an additional instructor to work with him for 2 hours a day. As with everything he does, Fat Gor persevered and put his complete effort into learning English – even his wife Jasmine couldn’t help complimenting her husband’s efforts: “He is very hard-working, when we first started, except for eating, he would stay in the room the entire time and practice over and over again."
Even after Fat Gor became popular in Hollywood (though most of his movies didn’t do well at the box office), his easygoing nature and humble personality did not change – whenever fans asked him for his signature or pose for a picture, he would patiently satisfy them. He would also treat the cast and crew to dinner occasionally and share his infectious humor with them. When reporters from HK flew to the U.S. to interview one of the directors who worked with Fat Gor, he praised Fat Gor in this way: “His preparation for filming is excellent! From the beginning when we started working with him, we’ve praised his work ethic! He is able to handle the English language portion without a problem – he even volunteered to lose weight in order to match his role more. Whether he’s onscreen or behind the scenes, Chow Yun Fat definitely has elegance and grace.”
After entering the entertainment industry, Fat Gor did have a few very famous (though not necessarily public) relationships. Here’s a recap of the most famous ones that were mentioned in the book….
Cora Miao: Love on the set
When we think of ‘legendary’ on-screen couples in HK entertainment, Chow Yun Fat and Dodo Cheng undoubtedly come to mind, as their collaborations in the late 70s/early 80s have been deeply etched in most audience’s minds….but in reality, they were never a couple in real life (just good friends and partners at work). Prior to 1980, Chow Yun Fat’s on-screen partner was former Miss HK Cora Miao – the two of them not only collaborated on series, but also hosted shows together and performed together in other venues. During the filming of “Hotel” in 1976, Fat Gor admitted that he and Cora were dating in real life (in his words, he was “in love with her, completely mesmerized by her….”). Unfortunately though, their relationship only lasted a short time, ending almost before it truly began: “…She and I once had 15 days of happiness, but once the news of our relationship was revealed, her family objected to us being together – she cried when she told me. Actually, our personalities don’t match at all….” Even after they broke up though, they continued to work together in television and movies, though not as often as previously. Cora eventually married film director Wayne Wang and is no longer active in the industry.
Idy Chan: a love / hate relationship
Fat Gor’s relationship with Idy Chan started around 1977 and ended 5 years later – interestingly, in the 5 years that they were together, they were rarely seen together in public and were photographed together only once, in 1979, when they did a television special together (that’s also when their relationship was revealed).
Throughout the time they were together, Fat Gor and Idy had a rocky relationship – Idy had a strong personality and Fat Gor’s mother was not very fond of her at all (which probably put added pressure to the relationship, knowing how filial Fat Gor is towards his mom). However, Fat Gor’s busy schedule definitely got in the way too, as he was often not able to spend a lot of time with Idy. Also, due to their busy schedules, there were times when they would spend months away from each other, which definitely impacted the relationship. In fact, even Idy herself did not have much confidence that her relationship with Fat Gor would last and rumors of their breakup persisted almost throughout the entire 5 years that they were together.
The rumors of a breakup was strongest in mid 1982 – coincidentally, in October of that year, Fat Gor was rushed to the hospital due to food poisoning, however due to the rumors of his breakup with Idy, the Media spun the story into ‘Chow Yun Fat attempts suicide over breakup with Idy Chan’. (sorry, but I have to say that the Media is just plain stupid….Fat Gor was at Idy’s sister house when the incident occurred and when he was at the hospital, Idy was by his side the entire time, bawling like crazy….even if there was something going on between the 2 of them at that time, I don’t see how that has anything to do with ‘suicide’). Not long after the incident, Fat Gor returned to work and filmed the series “The Radio Tycoon” with Angie Chiu. It turns out that Idy Chan was also supposed to participate in this series back then (1982), however after Fat Gor’s hospital incident, she withdrew from filming the series. (that’s interesting – I actually never knew that Idy was originally slated to be part of “The Radio Tycoon” cast).
Though the exact date is not mentioned in the book, I sort of figured that Fat Gor and Idy’s relationship ended around November/December 1982 (based on his announcement of marriage to Candy Yu in January 1983 – more on this later). Their relationship actually did not end on good terms, as there were ‘rumors’ and ‘suspicions’ between them about ‘third parties’ in the relationship. We will probably never know for sure how and why the relationship ended, but I think that the below 2 quotes from the book gives pretty good insight as to what may have occurred (both Fat Gor and Idy have different opinions about the relationship, so I’m not going to even attempt to figure out the reason – after reading the below, you may interpret as you wish…).
--- From Idy’s perspective: “We have been threatening to ‘break up’ for 2 years already – it’s been going on for too long. Each time, I’m the one who suggests parting ways because I feel that the 2 of us have no way of being together forever. Fat Jai (Chow Yun Fat) doesn’t want to break up, but honestly, our relationship can’t continue on this way – having a boyfriend is the same as not having one. I admit that I am not able to ‘get used to’ Fat Jai.”
--- From Fat Gor’s perspective: “In the entertainment industry, I have never encountered as good a woman as her [Idy] – out of all the girlfriends I’ve had in the past, she is the most simple and obedient one…but she has a strong personality and at that time, I did not have a whole lot of patience – she would stand firm and I would stand even firmer. She had to ‘endure’ me for 5 years – I was not good to her and I entirely did not understand how to treasure her. After she refused my marriage proposal, I realized only then how much I truly loved her.”
Candice Yu: doomed relationship from the start?
In January 1983, Fat Gor made an announcement that rattled the entire HK entertainment industry at that time – he was marrying actress Candice Yu On-On. I use the word ‘rattled’ because this was indeed big news at the time, considering how Fat Gor and Idy never officially announced breaking up, so the public still thought that the 2 of them were together. Indeed, for those unfamiliar with ‘old’ HK entertainment history, this announcement may sound like it came out of left field, but after looking at this ‘history’, it actually makes sense: you see, Candice Yu was actually one of Fat Gor’s former girlfriends. They had dated briefly in 1976 (his second girlfriend after entering the industry), but broke up after a few months. The 2 of them married about a month after the announcement (in February 1983), but unfortunately, the marriage did not last – in November that same year (9 months after they married), the couple separated (though the divorce was not actually finalized until 2 years later).
Jasmine Chan: partner for life
In 1984, it was rumored that Fat Gor had a new girlfriend – a woman from Singapore who was also a college graduate and a business woman. The ‘rumors’ proved to be true, as the author of the book (longtime Mingpao contributor and editor Wong Lee Ling) was a also a close friend of the Chow family and at the time, she had personally called Jasmine to confirm the information. They officially married in New York in October 1986 (during a break from filming a movie) but in March 1987, they decided to hold an ‘official’ wedding ceremony in Singapore for family and friends. The interesting thing about the wedding ceremony is that Fat Gor used a ‘fake’ Chinese name on the wedding invitation (which was released to the media shortly after the ceremony), though his English name was real (not many people know his real English name) – he probably did that in order to avoid ‘harassment’ from the Media (as we all know how HK paparazzi can be) – plus the invitation didn’t matter much anyway, since Fat Gor and Jasmine were technically already married back in 1986.
The story of Fat Gor and Jasmine’s relationship and marriage is very heartwarming (and a little bit humorous at times) and throughout the 24 years that they’ve been married so far, they have been (and still are) known in the industry as a ‘golden couple’….but it wasn’t exactly ‘smooth sailing’ for them all these years. In 1992, the couple endured a tragic loss: Jasmine became pregnant, but 2 weeks before the baby was to be born, she felt stomach pains and was afraid that something was possibly wrong with the baby (a girl), so Fat Gor rushed her to the hospital. They found out that the baby had died in the womb (the umbilical cord had accidentally wrapped around the baby’s neck and suffocated her), so doctors had to deliver the baby stillborn. Both Fat Gor and Jasmine were devastated (especially since both of them love kids and had been happily preparing for the birth). Just reading the account of what happened (it was quite detailed in the book) brought tears to my eyes, even though I had already heard about the situation back in the 90s through news reports and such. The difference is that this particular account (in the book) was written from the perspective of a family friend (as well as partially via interviews), so there was a certain ‘personal’ level to it that no other news report could ever deliver, so it made the story even more heartwrenching.
As I stated earlier, this ‘review’ is simply an effort by me to share memories about some of my favorite artists from the 80s and 90s. It is NOT meant to be a comprehensive biography about the artists’ lives or careers.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this post about Chow Yun Fat – he is certainly one of the most popular and well-known icons of the HK entertainment industry, and so it is only fitting that I dedicate a longer post to his story.
Lastly, my apologies for the LONG post….I greatly appreciate whoever takes the time to read through this post!