MP Weekly recently published a 2 part series (of articles) dedicated to veteran actress So Hang Suen (who passed away on June ). Suen Jeh (Sister Suen) was a great actress and definitely a favorite veteran of mine whom I grew up watching in the 80s and early 90s. She was most famous for her ‘benevolent mother’ roles and rightfully so, as she portrayed the character so well that I would dare to say it was near perfection. I, for one, remember majority of her motherly characters from many of TVB’s most classic series and to this day, I don’t feel that any other actress could have portrayed those roles as ‘perfectly’ as she did. Even though Suen Jeh was known for her ‘benevolent mother’ roles, it doesn’t mean she wasn’t good at other roles – in reality, she excelled at every role she played and her superb acting always left a deep impression on audiences (even audiences like me who watched many of her series when I was only a child and probably didn’t even understand completely everything that went on) – the affinity that audiences felt with her were akin to that of a relative or close family member (yes, she was THAT GOOD in her acting). Throughout the years, Suen Jeh always had a special place in my heart (as a lot of the veterans I grew up watching in the 80s did), so of course when I heard about her passing last month, I was absolutely devastated, especially since she was relatively ‘young’ too by today’s standards (she was 64 when she passed).
Of course, in my opinion, each of Suen Jeh’s performances were superb and memorable, to the point that I feel listing out only a few of those roles here really doesn’t do justice to her illustrious career. Therefore, I will let the article do the talking and through that, recount the memories I have of Suen Jeh’s great performances.
The below is part 2 of the tribute article that MP did – I decided to translate this part only because part 1 delves more into Suen Jeh’s early career, which audiences might be less familiar with. Part 2 of the article is the one that actually starts with Suen Jeh’s career in the 80s and going into the 90s, which was truly the era where Suen Jeh had most of her representative works.
Of course, being a ‘fan’ of TVB’s older series from the 80s and 90s, I definitely enjoyed reading the below article – not only is it a fitting tribute to Suen Jeh told from the perspective of those who had the opportunity to work with her most (in terms of her onscreen ‘children’, Felix Wong and Michael Tao were definitely the ones who collaborated with her the most as far as I can remember), it also brings back many fond memories of some of TVB’s most classic series (i.e. Police Cadet, Looking Back in Anger, Files of Justice, Detective Investigation Files, etc.). Just to show how ‘classic’ these series were -- I actually remember every scene from the above series that were described in the article as well as captioned in the pictures…..to the point that I actually had those particular scenes in my head as I was reading (I guess when you watch and re-watch those series as many times as I have, certain scenes start to become etched into memory….).
Anyway….once again, great ‘special feature’ article from Mingpao! Hope that reading the article brings back the same fond memories of Suen Jeh and the mentioned series for you as it did for me!
Mingpao Weekly’s Special Tribute to So Hang Suen: Felix Wong and Michael Tao recount working with their ‘benevolent mother’
Entering the 1980s era, So Hang Suen (蘇杏璇) started taking on ‘motherly’ roles and almost every character she played was more than 10 years older than her real age. Being the professional actress that she was, Suen Jeh took her work seriously and shined in each of her roles – however, she also made it part of her job to guide and support the younger artists she worked with.
Having played Suen Jeh’s son in 1983’s Legend of the Condor Heroes (射鵰英雄傳) as well as 1989’s Looking Back in Anger (義不容情), Felix Wong (黃日華) expressed: “Suen Jeh would constantly ‘put money in my pocket’! When people say that I acted well in those series, the credit should really be given to Suen Jeh and the rest of the senior actors I worked with!”
Looking Back in Anger has been hailed as one of the most outstanding series to come out of the 1980s era. The series’ famous ‘open ending’-style final scene where a ‘mystery woman’ leaves a note for Felix’s character Ting Yau Kin in a chapel and wipes tears from his face has been a subject of ‘debate’ for more than 2 decades: so was the ‘mystery woman’ truly Felix’s wife in the series Carina Lau (劉嘉玲), or was it his sister in the series, Carrie Ho (何嘉麗)? Felix personally reveals the truth behind that much-talked about ending scene…
Helena Law doesn’t feel being ‘fierce’ is exhaustive; Felix Wong gladly endures being scolded
Most of us who grew up watching So Hang Suen in TV series during the 1980s era most likely share the same general misconception: the thought that Suen Jeh must already be at least 50 years old – this was ‘reasonable’ given the motherly figures [with grown children] that she constantly portrayed onscreen. With this ‘misconception’ in mind, in August 1988, [Mingpao’s reporter] was shocked to read a headline in the entertainment section of the local paper: ‘So Hang Suen gives birth to a Dragon boy’. With her mature, ‘benevolent mother with grown children’ image so deeply ingrained in our hearts, how is it possible that in real life, she had ‘just given birth’ for the first time?
When she was alive, Suen Jeh always used to laugh about the ‘misconception’ towards her age. She would fondly recount how actress Maggie Cheung (張曼玉) once questioned her ‘early maturity’ while they were filming 1984’s Police Cadet (新紮師兄) together: “Age-wise, I’m actually not that old -- at the time [while filming Police Cadet], I was only 32 years old. Maggie and I were in the restroom together one day when she told me: ‘Suen Jeh, with your age, having you play Tony’s [Tony Leung (梁朝偉)] older sister is already a stretch! How is it possible to play his mother?’ I told her: ‘As long as the end result that comes out is believable, then it’s fine.’”
For us audiences to have such a ‘misconception’ about Suen Jeh’s age and maturity is of course a testament to her superb acting skills – at the same time though, collaborating with other remarkable and talented artists is also a huge bonus. In Police Cadet, Suen Jeh’s ability to establish her character Hui Chau Ping’s ‘status’ as the ultimate ‘benevolent mother’ can partly be attributed to being contrasted with her ‘love rival’ in the series, the ‘fierce second wife’ character Lee Lai Kuen played by Helena Law (羅蘭). It’s actually a bit ironic because in real life, Helena is one of the nicest, most affable senior actresses you’ll ever meet – for her to play such a fierce character who does nothing but scold people all day, was it exhaustive? “No, not exhaustive at all! Actually, back then, practically all my roles were ‘noisy’ characters – like in Return of the Condor Heroes (神鵰俠侶) with the character of Kau Chin Chak, I also had to scream alot.”
Suen Jeh and Helena had many opportunities to work together and so on a personal level, they became close friends, despite their opposite religious backgrounds (Helena is a devout Catholic while Suen Jeh is very dedicated to Buddhism). Helena expressed that the difference in religions did not affect their friendship in any way: “Actually, all religions guide people to be charitable, emphasize tolerance and forgiveness, love one another, don’t be stubborn and yell at people for no reason, etc. Suen Jeh and I are very close – I remember one time when I visited her vegetarian restaurant, we even chatted until closing time!”
As the saying goes: ‘A peony flower may be good in and of itself, but still requires its green leaves to support it.’ The ‘green leaf’ veteran artists in the past were very willing to mentor their juniors and did so happily in the hopes that these young ‘flowers’ would one day blossom and flourish. A young Felix Wong – merely a ‘newbie’ at the time – had the privilege of receiving ‘mentorship’ from Suen Jeh as well as other senior artists back in the day: “The seniors back then were very willing to guide and support newcomers! To be honest, back when I filmed Legend of the Condor Heroes [TN: abbreviated LOTCH going forward], I basically didn’t have to do much – just listen to the seniors and I was all set! Barbara Yung (翁美玲) actually excelled in this area [listening to the senior artists] – she was very smart and had high comprehension skills, so she was able to learn a lot from the seniors; I was a lot slower in comparisons.” But isn’t that exactly the type of ‘not very smart’ temperament that [his character in LOTCH] Kwok Jing should have? In response, Felix laughed and expressed: “Perhaps Uncle Tin Lam [the series’ producer Wong Tin Lam (王天林)] had seen me before and felt that I had the same ‘simplistic’ and ‘honest’ personality that Kwok Jing had, so he felt that it would be easier for me to grasp my character.”
In LOTCH, Suen Jeh played another character named ‘Ah Ping’ – this time, she played the role of Kwok Jing’s mother Lee Ping, which meant that she had a lot of scenes together with Felix: “Our scenes together were more focused in the earlier half of the series when the story was about our lives in the desert.” (Real filming in the desert? That’s so expensive!) “No, it was actually Lantau Island [in HK] – we filmed there for about 2 to 3 weeks.” Since all the artists were usually very busy during filming and also outside of work, Felix would take advantage of rehearsal time to ‘do his homework’ [TN: get mentorship from the seniors]: “Suen Jeh would always study the script diligently in advance, so she always had a very thorough understanding of the storyline, characters, relationship lines, etc. Therefore, during rehearsals, she always asked us if there was anything we didn’t understand or needed help with. The advice she usually gave me was to try not to be too ‘deliberate’ with my acting and also to work on my facial expressions.” For artists who are slow learners and therefore might have a lot of NGs [aka outtakes], did they often get scolded by the seniors? “Back then, being scolded was actually a good thing because when the senior artists scold you, they are actually ‘putting money in your pocket’. Whenever a mistake was made, it would be addressed and rectified right away – it helped us to learn and improve quicker. When filming LOTCH, I was actually scolded the most by Kenneth Tsang (曾江) – his standards were very high and if you weren’t able to meet them, he had no problem scolding: ‘Hey kid, can’t you do it any better?’ If the seniors are willing to scold you, that means they are willing to teach you!”
Felix recalls that back during his ‘newbie’ days, the hardest thing was restraining himself from bursting out in laughter, especially in front of such fun and playful seniors as Lau Dan (劉丹) and Chun Wong (秦煌) for example: “During rehearsals, the seniors often don’t show their skills completely, instead, they wait until the cameras officially roll to come at you with full force, so for newbies like us, it was easy to get nervous and have a lot of outtakes.” Back in 1981 when he filmed the series Come Rain, Come Shine (風雨晴), Felix set a new ‘personal record’ when he NG’ed 50 times straight in one scene – luckily, he hasn’t broken that record since: “I remember that was a night scene that we were filming on location and I had to argue heatedly with someone in the scene. At the time, I didn’t understand a thing about acting and also couldn’t articulate myself clearly, so I got really nervous – the more nervous I got, the more NGs I had. The other artists present at the time were Kam Jeh [Lee Heung Kam (李香琴)], Uncle Sun [late veteran actor Wong Sun (黃新)], brother Shek Sau (石修), and Shirley Yim (雪梨)…they kept trying to calm me and encouraged me to slow down and not push myself so hard – unfortunately, I was a huge mess at the time.”
Almost did not get the part of ‘Ting Yau Kin’; the truth about Looking Back in Anger’s ‘mystery’ ending
8 years after LOTCH, Suen Jeh and Felix got the chance to continue their mother/son relationship in the series Looking Back in Anger [TN: abbreviated LBIA going forward] – however, truth be told, this ‘affinity’ almost didn’t happen. Suen Jeh once revealed that she had thought about turning down the series: “I definitely have to thank Felix and [producer] Wai Ka Fai! At the time, I had just given birth to my eldest son and was already back at work filming another series when I was invited to film LBIA– I didn’t know if I’d be able to handle both series, so I thought about turning it down. Then one day, Felix came to the makeup room and told me ‘Suen Jeh, if you’re not going to film it, then I won’t either!’”
Asked about this, Felix’s memory of the situation started to come back: “Now that you mention it, the memory is coming back….yes, when I first heard Wai Ka Fai read me the plot summary, I had felt that Suen Jeh was perfect for the role of ‘Auntie Wan’. To tell you the truth though, I actually almost didn’t get to play the role of ‘Ting Yau Kin’ either. At the time, TVB’s higher ups didn’t want to use me because earlier in 1987, I had already expressed to them that I wouldn’t be renewing my contract once it expired in 1990. It was Wai Ka Fai who insisted on using me – he told the bosses that if he can’t cast Felix Wong in the series, then he’s not going to produce the series…the higher ups had no choice but to give in.”
Unlike the later trend of ‘flying paper’ scripts, LBIA actually had a 100% complete script ready prior to filming – as soon as Felix read through the script, he already knew that this would be a great series: “Receiving such an awesome script in your hands, of course you will naturally want to pour in all your effort to do a great job! There were a lot of intense scenes that we had to film and it definitely took its toll both physically and mentally – I would get headaches every day from the lack of sleep due to the intensity of filming.” Felix had already taken up the habit of smoking back then and with the hectic filming schedules and lack of sleep, he admits that smoking helped keep him more awake and alert: “Whenever I felt exhausted, I would go have a cigarette or two with Carina and immediately would feel better!” Back then, Suen Jeh would often encourage Felix to quit smoking and adopt healthier eating habits: “Aiye…I wanted to [quit smoking], but it was easier said than done! Suen Jeh also constantly reminded me that not everyone is as lucky as I am with the opportunities I had gotten and so I should value them and work even harder – this advice has been engraved in my heart!”
With such a highly acclaimed series, there are bound to be many memorable scenes. One particular segment that touched Felix the most was the scene that talked about how Ting Yau Kin (Felix), Ngai Chor Kwan (Carina Lau), and Yeung Pak Cho (Gilbert Lam) were asked to film a special program for a TV station because the 3 of them happened to be born on exactly the same date – in that scene, Ting Yau Kin ends up crying because he had just lost 2 jobs and was under a lot of stress: “That segment was filmed halfway through the series – by that time, I was already very familiar with the character of ‘Ting Yau Kin’, so even though the scene involved several pages of dialogue, it didn’t take too much time to film. After we successfully finished filming that segment, everyone in the studio clapped.” Looking out into the crowd after filming that scene, Felix noticed someone standing there who wasn’t part of the LBIA production team: “That night, Paul Chun (秦沛) was filming next door and when he heard that I would be filming this particular scene, he especially came over to watch – I didn’t know he was there until after I had finished that scene. When he saw me, he gave me a thumbs up – for me, getting praise from seniors is especially gratifying.”
For LBIA’s ending, producer Wai Ka Fai chose to utilize an ‘open-ending’ style – in the final scene, Ting Yau Kin waits for his beloved wife Chor Kwan to return to the chapel to fulfill their 10 year reunion promise; after he falls asleep, a ‘mystery woman’ walks in, wipes tears from his face, and leaves a note with the simple words ‘Kwan is [already] dead, please forget [her]’. Over the years, there has been much ‘debate’ over the identity of the ‘mystery woman’ in the ending scene – it has been said that the woman is Ting Yau Kin’s sister Chan Siu Ling (played by Carrie Ho), however the woman’s legs in the scene closely resembled Carina’s. Towards this, Felix laughed and revealed that the script itself actually did not specify who the ‘mystery woman’ was: “The script did not state who the woman was – perhaps they wanted to maintain a sense of mystery. However, I did ask the producer (Wai Ka Fai) later on about the identity of the ‘mystery’ woman – was she my wife Chor Kwan (Carina) or my sister Siu Ling (Carrie)? He very clearly responded: ‘She [the mystery woman] was truly your sister (Siu Ling), as Ah Kwan had already died.’” But a ‘question’ still remained – Carrie Ho has a petite, smaller stature and judging by the size and shape of the woman’s legs in that scene, it didn’t look like her at all….Felix goes on to reveal ‘the truth’ behind that scene: “Carina was actually the one who filmed that scene – those legs are hers! At the time, both the director and producer felt that Carina’s legs were prettier, so they had her film it, since the face isn’t shown anyway -- besides, the ‘illusionary’ feeling of that scene would give audiences something to talk about.” [TN: Haha…smart move! The ending scene to LBIA has been a topic of discussion for the past 25 years!]
A ‘serious’ actress with ‘zero’ outtakes
A similar ‘benevolent mother’ character can have a different ‘feel’ to it. In 1992, So Hang Suen participated in the lawyer-themed series Files of Justice (壹號皇庭) [which later went on to became a popular 5 installment franchise]. In the series, Suen Jeh plays a famed barrister who also happened to be a benevolent single mother with 2 grown children played by Michael Tao (陶大宇) and Eugenia Lau (劉美娟). “[The series producer] Gary Tang (鄧特希) took a less ‘deliberate’ approach when it came to describing the family relationships – for example, it’s known that we didn’t have a father, but doesn’t go into detail on our background and such.” Michael Tao’s memory of Suen Jeh is that of a very serious, strict, and highly revered senior actress – when she was present, no one dared to fool around: “We were a fun-loving bunch who liked to play and joke around a lot, but whenever Suen Jeh was present, we didn’t dare mess around – it wasn’t until Suen Jeh took the initiative to joke with us that we dared to joke back. Later on though, I think the chemistry of the team started to rub off on her, as she started joking with us more. Suen Jeh isn’t one of those rigid, inflexible artists who wants things done only one way – she’s very flexible and willing to adjust her acting style based on the environment she is in and the atmosphere. She’s a serious actress, but not inflexible.” After thinking some more, Michael added: “I’m not exaggerating – as far as I remember, Suen Jeh rarely has outtakes...my feeling is that she has zero outtakes!”
When he heard the news of Suen Jeh’s passing, Michael expressed that the memories of their experience filming together immediately came back into his mind – the various scenes that they had together all started to reappear: “There was a scene where I had just gotten into an argument with my girlfriend in the series [played by Iwanbeo Leung (梁婉靜)] and so she ran off to Singapore to avoid me, leaving me behind in HK debating whether I should go find her. Gary Tang wrote a lot of dialogue between Suen Jeh and myself in that scene and even though it was obvious that the scene focused on my character and Suen Jeh’s character wouldn’t have much development, she still put more than her best effort into that scene and helped me finish that scene comfortably. It also gave audiences a good feel toward our mother/son relationship in the series. Suen Jeh was truly a great actress!”
After Files of Justice, the next series that Suen Jeh and Michael collaborated in was Detective Investigation Files (刑事偵緝檔案) – except in that series, they no longer played mother and son: “She played Kenix Kwok’s (郭可盈) mother in the series and because the background of her character is that her husband used to be a cop who died in the line of duty, she was very opposed to my character (a cop) dating her daughter. As a professional actress, Suen Jeh was very much into her character at the time and ‘hated’ my character to the point that even after the cameras stopped rolling, she would still react coldly towards me as though she was mad at me.” In one particular scene, Michael, Kenix, and Suen Jeh had to work together on a case that involved pulling back a metal screen and breaking open the door to get inside a house – Michael was so much into the scene that he accidentally hurt his finger when pulling open the screen. When Suen Jeh saw what happened, she immediately scolded him for not being careful and injuring himself – towards this, Michael didn’t get angry at all: “To others, it might seem like I got hurt and she’s still scolding me, but I know that she did it out of concern for me, she just expresses it in a different way.”
One time, Michael and Bobby AuYeung (歐陽震華) visited Suen Jeh at her vegetarian restaurant and her reaction left a deep impression on them: “Bobby and I went there to eat as a way to silently support Suen Jeh – we weren’t expecting any special treatment or anything. Without mentioning it, Suen Jeh seemed to already understand us -- when she saw us, she greeted us and showed us to our table, then continued to go about her business.” This special relationship that they had will always remain in Michael’s heart: “Suen Jeh was truly a great teacher and senior – in her presence, I will forever be a little kid.”