From Mob to Malaise: The Hong Kong Film Industry For decades Hong Kong was behind only Hollywood & Bollywood as the world's third largest producer of film, but now the number of Hong Kong films is down, revenue has plummeted and critical acclaim has become a mythical notion. Here’s the motion picture worthy story of Hong Kong cinema, an industry once run by triads and now in the doldrums.


It begins with Sir Run Run Shaw, the founding father of the Hong Kong movie industry. Born in Shanghai in 1907, he left 20 years later for Singapore and swiftly opened a chain of cinemas in Malaysia. Three days before Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1941, Shaw and his brothers buried their gold, jewellery and currency in their garden. After the war they dug it up. "The pearls were no good; never bury pearls," Shaw explained to Newsweek. "But everything else was okay: the jade, the diamonds, the paper money." In 1959, he came to Hong Kong where he would go on to make a fortune in film running Clearwater Bay Studios, particularly in martial arts.

Shaw was the lynchpin of the Hong Kong film industry during its boom years from the 60s to the mid-90s including the absolute peak between 1986 - 1992 when roughly 200 films were made each year. It was a period when the majority of Asian nations (Japan aside) didn’t have the resources to import American films, and because Hong Kong films boasted a higher production value than films from other countries in the region, they soared to the top of the Asian charts. In 1992 Hong Kong movies raked in a record US$1.5 billion. It was a lucrative business.

Triads were drawn to the industry by the lure of money. Their most basic ruse was to demand payment for 'allowing' production companies to film on the city's streets. Scriptwriter Philip Chan (formerly a superintendent in Hong Kong CID) told the BBC: "In the day-to-day filming, we were being extorted in the streets; they would demand anything from US$50 to $2,000. Sometimes you would get two or three groups coming at different times. They would try to tamper with the equipment, they would obstruct filming, sometimes they would intimidate the actors. And it was very difficult to get police protection."

Stories of harassment, intimidation and rape have circled the industry for years, but perhaps the most infamous mob-related incidents occurred in 1992 (a peak year) when two big producers, Wong Long Lai and Jimmy Choi Chi Ming, were murdered.

The gangster stories are staggering: Andy Lau said his manager was once held at gunpoint to force him to appear in films over a period of three years; a leading actress said she was gang raped on the instruction of a producer whose advances she had spurned; another said she had been held by force until filming was finished. Later, when she pulled out of a film contract, she was made to withdraw US$200,000 and watch while the triad leader burnt it.


Career criminals originally got into film to turn a quick profit but several individuals developed genuine cinematic careers. Charles Heung, a former actor and son of the leader of the Sun Yee On triad, became president of one of Hong Kong's largest entertainment companies - Win's Entertainment. He has been lauded in the filmmaking industry for being "one of the good gangsters," an intriguing point of view mirrored by the famous director Wong Kar-wai, who once said: "It's better to deal with a godfather than an accountant."

"We used to joke that these films were made by gangsters, with gangsters and for gangsters," revealed actor, director and producer Bey Logan. "There was money coming into the film world that had been generated through various, apparently illegal activities. In the 80s the film industry was a no-lose business; you could make money, you could launder cash very quickly."

But it didn't last forever. Actors began to publicly campaign against the widespread violence, leading to a marked increase in police protection. More importantly, profits started to wane for a multitude of reasons.

Firstly, plenty of the biggest talents in Hong Kong film such as John Woo (director of Face/Off) made their way towards the bright lights of Hollywood while few people stepped up to take their place.

Secondly, when Hong Kong was handed back to China, local films began to lose their identity. After the hand over, Hong Kong filmmakers started operating with Chinese studios and became subject to new constraints. For instance, before a movie can be shot in China, government censors must approve the contents of the script. As a result, the new wave of Hong Kong film lacked potency and failed to inspire the public.

On top of that, the rise in video piracy hit producers hard, while the final nail in the coffin came from abroad and in the shape of dinosaurs. In 1993 Jurassic Park bounced into Hong Kong cinemas and was a huge success. It marked the birth of an influx of foreign films which surged in popularity and usurped their local counterparts. Before 1996 the top 10 annual box-office triumphs included eight to ten local productions. Last year there were just two.


When the industry began to slide and the easy money disappeared, so did most of the triads although some (albeit to a much lesser degree) are still involved today. One of the gangsters who moved from the criminal underworld to show business permanently was Michael Chan Wai-man. The 65 year old veteran has famously admitted to his former life as a triad but has also become a legend in Hong Kong film, ironically, best known for playing triads. Critics haven’t failed to notice his authenticity.

It’s also poignant that Hong Kong film has been nearly as obsessed with triads as triads have been obsessed with Hong Kong film. The greatest Hong Kong movies have nearly always focused on the mob, the most recent of which, Internal Affairs (2002) was the blockbuster that inspired the Oscar winning picture, The Departed (2008). 
The Hong Kong film industry is still trying to pick itself up off the floor after the damage of the mid-90s and whilst production levels have been low in recent years, some critics believe the quality of films is beginning to rise again, epitomised by Echoes of the Rainbow, a winner at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival. It is a sign that Hong Kong can still produce great movies but it’s unlikely the industry will recapture any of its former greatness.

It’s also improbable that its famed former financiers, the mobsters, are going to jump on board any time soon. You can blame the lack of returns. What is certain, however, is that gangsters and Hong Kong film will always be viewed in the same breadth. Triads have left a lasting legacy in Hong Kong film, not least their presence in most of Hong Kong’s greatest movies. You can't help but smile when you realise the key subject matter of Hong Kong film has been the reality of the industry itself.


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