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Under “Western Eyes”: The Personal Odyssey of
Huang Fei-Hong in Once upon a Time in China by Tony Williams

Rather than being read in exclusively postmodernist terms, Tsui Hark’s series Once upon a Time in China may be understood as a new version of a Hong Kong cinematic discourse involving historical “interflow.” It deals with dispersion, China’s relationship to the outside world, and strategic forms of reintegration designed to strengthen national identity.
In Sammo Hung’s Wong Fei Hung Ji Saam (West Territory Mighty Lion/Once upon a Time in China and America, 1997), Master Huang Fei-hong (Jet Li Linjie) travels to the Wild West to visit an American branch of the Po Chi Lam Clinic set up by his student Sol. During the journey, he bangs his head against a rock in a turbulent stream and loses his memory. He is rescued by a friendly tribe of Indians. Moments before we see Huang again, an Indian emerges from a tepee proudly announcing the birth of a child. When Huang recovers, he stumbles around in the
Indian camp wearing an Indian costume, and his loose unbraided hair is flowing like an Indian’s. After using his martial arts prowess to defeat a hostile Indian, who ironically mouths racist American platitudes against the outsider—”His clothing is different, his skin color is different, his speech is different”—Huang is adopted into the tribe and given the name “Yellow.” Before this, he attempts to remember events of the recent past. But his vague recollections reveal images reproducing culturally blurred boundaries paralleling his sense of ethnic and geographic displacement. During the recent past of his stagecoach journey through America,
Aunt Yee/Thirteenth Aunt/Shishanyi (Rosamund Kwan Chi-lam) had taught him
English while Seven/Club Foot (Xong Xin-xin) watched Huang. Club Foot then expresses his yearning for a traditional bowl of Chinese rice rather than Western diarrhea-inducing beans. Huang’s memory returns in images that mix his actual national memory with the new experiences he encounters in his unfamiliar new environment. While Yee and Seven repeat their earlier lines, their Indian counterparts inhabit their bodies. The Indian princess (Chrysta Bell Eucht) wears Yee’s
Western costume and asks Huang, “What is your name?” Her brother takes Club
Foot’s position on the stagecoach. Stranded traveler Billy (Jeff Wolfe) is now an
Indian, and Huang finally falls from the coach pierced by an Indian lance.
These images form minor incidents in the entire narrative structure of Once upon a Time in China and America (1997), the sixth part of Tsui Hark’s epic series.
Tony Williams is a professor and area head of Film Studies in the Department of English,
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He has written numerous articles on film and literature and several books, including Larry Cohen: Radical Allegories of an American
Filmmaker (1997).
© 2000 by the University of Texas Press, P.O. Box 7819, Austin, TX 78713-7819

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However, as Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang) once remarked, if historical issues may
“be found in life’s irrelevances,”1 significant structures of feeling may appear in visual and sound motifs seemingly marginal to the main narrative. In Once upon a
Time in China and America, these motifs echo themes that dominate the entire series produced by Tsui Hark, namely, the continuing challenges of historical change and geographic relocation and the need for constant adaptation whenever the
Chinese hero finds himself in new situations.
The Once upon a Time in China series represents one of the major achievements of 1990s Hong Kong cinema. Focusing on the character of legendary martial artist Huang Fei-hong, the series differs from its predecessors by dealing with issues central to contemporary Hong Kong as it reached the end of one historical epoch and moved toward another. In 1997, Hong Kong lost its status as a British crown colony and became reunified with mainland China.
Although the series is set in the historical past, like most Hong Kong New
Wave films, it also looks with foreboding at the implications of reunification as each film was made increasingly closer to the date of that event. By casting mainland Chinese actor Jet Li Lian-jie (who had relocated to Hong Kong) in a role popularly associated from 1949 to 1983 with Cantonese veteran film and television actor Kwan Tak-hing, the series raised questions of continuity and change.
Like their fictional counterparts in the series, Hong Kong inhabitants faced problems associated with the new historical era that raised questions about their formerly secure sense of identity. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Chinese people underwent a turbulent series of changes in cultural perspectives and political realignments, increased their contact with Western powers, and were confronted with new technologies. Because of its status as a crown colony, Hong Kong remained relatively free from the challenges facing the motherland. However, this changed in the 1980s and 1990s, when the colony faced a different form of challenge. By focusing on issues faced by the mainland in the historical past, the Once upon a Time in China series raised questions that were also relevant to the contemporary population of Hong Kong. Would old values suffice any longer? How would people cope with change and possible loss of identity? Would another form of diaspora, whether mental or geographic, be possible?
The series indirectly suggests some possible resolutions, albeit in a fictional manner. It also works on two levels. First, it deals with the perennial problem of
China’s relationship to the Western world as perceived by its traditional-minded hero, Huang Fei-hong, who adapts to the turbulent circumstances around him in each part of the series. But, second, it functions as an allegory for the changes the
Hong Kong population faced as it moved toward 1997.
Because of censorship, Hong Kong films generally avoided direct representations of political issues, especially one as explosive as reunification. In the light of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Tsui Hark’s series attempted to address issues of change, adaptability, and the possible diaspora facing Hong Kong’s people, who were known for settling in different parts of the globe, as well as for being identified with their national homeland. Since the series gradually sees its hero moving in a Western, rather than an Eastern, direction, Part Six naturally locates


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him in America. Once again, issues concerning the relationship between traditional and modern Western values come to the forefront in Tsui Hark’s contribution to this perennial cultural debate.
Many features of the Once upon a Time in China series are thus not entirely divorced from the present: dispersion, China’s relationship to the outside world, and strategic forms of reintegration designed to strengthen national identity. This latter aspect is crucially important throughout the series. Parts Two and Four argue against xenophobic, isolationist tendencies, which hampered Chinese development in the twentieth century from the Boxer riots (1900) to the mainland
Chinese cultural revolution (1965–1968). Throughout the series, Hark implicitly argues for a realistic, open-minded appraisal of issues affecting Chinese national identity and the need for change and compromise. It is a message as relevant to the pre-1997 population of Hong Kong as it is to Hark’s own fictional reconstruction of Huang Fei-hong, who moves from a position of cultural certainty to confront twentieth-century encroachments affecting his previously secure sense of
Chinese identity. In reuniting with the motherland, the formerly lost orphan of
Hong Kong faces similar issues of cultural readjustment. Hark attempts to negotiate these problems both allegorically and cinematically by using the figure of Huang
Fei-hong as a cultural focus who represents the problematic aspects of cultural identity and the necessity for continual readaptation.
Historical “Interflow” versus Postmodernist Strategies. Mingyu Yang sees the Once upon a Time in China series as a contemporary mythic and allegorical response to the 1997 crisis that marked Hong Kong’s return to mainland China.2
Although Yang notes the historical background that structures each film, he believes each work reflects an ironic carnivalesque postmodernist strategy that blurs history, politics, and fiction and that parodies the traditional concept of the hero played by Jet Li-Lian-jie. Yang notes that several historical, literary, and cultural codes have determined several of the representations of the real Huang Fei-hong
(1847–1924), whose actual historical significance has become clouded by myth and legend.3 Although Yang makes a plausible case for his particular interpretation, the series may be read quite differently. As Stephen Teo has pointed out, certain Hong Kong films might be defined as postmodernist; however, Hong Kong cinema displays its own particular form of postmodernism, which may not parallel
Western models regarding the supposedly relative and redundant nature of history. Indeed, it is a postmodernism fully cognizant of the important roles of cultural, historical, and political questions.
Seeing Tsui Hark as one example of this special Hong Kong phenomenon. Teo points out that many causes and effects influenced it, such as “new wave aesthetics mixed with Cinema City-style slapstick, anxiety over 1997 and the China syndrome, the assertion of Hong Kong’s own identity as different from China, and a new sexual awakening arising from an increasing awareness of women’s human rights and the decriminalization of homosexuality.”4 Even the diversely opposite postmodernist films of comedian Stephen Chaio exhibit social and historical features, such as criticism of “Hongkie” snobbery against mainlanders and the recognition that Hong
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Kong society “has successfully sidestepped or leapt over stages of orthodox development.”5 The version of postmodernity presented in Hong Kong cinema may be more concretely grounded in culturally understood real issues and more historically grounded than its Western counterparts. Indeed, what is regarded as postmodernism in Western terms is not really applicable to the Chinese cultural situation at all.
As Raymond Williams notes in The Politics of Modernism, what may appear novel or “postmodernist” often belongs to familiar patterns of a particular culture or history mistakenly regarded by scholars from another generation as a new theoretical discovery.6 This is also the case with certain postmodernist definitions of the series Once upon a Time in China. As Law Kar notes, from the very beginning of its history, Hong Kong cinema has always engaged in a culturally significant form of “interflow” between the two geographic locations of America and China. This particular “interflow” involved several interesting cultural mergers. During the 1930s and 1940s, Chinese personnel worked on Grandview productions in America for exhibition to Chinese audiences.
Other aspects of “interflow” involved figures such as the original cinematic Huang Feihong, Kwan Tak-hing (1906–1996). Law Kar points out that Kwan regularly performed on the West Coast during the 1930s. He returned to America shortly before the SinoJapanese War and toured with the Dai Guang Ming company. “In his autobiography,
Kwan says that he was taught archery and the use of the whip by Native Americans. He adored Western films and their costumes and remained fond of togging up as a cowboy even into his 70s and 80s.” By incorporating elements of different cultures, Hong Kong cinema exhibits an “ever-changing identity,” appearing as “open-minded, eager to experiment in various topics and genres never in a fixed pattern, never stopping.”7
Thus, cinematic experiments dealing with pastiche and reintegration were already occurring in the pre-postmodernist era in the recent historical past. Rather than defining Hark’s series exclusively according to Western postmodernist parameters involving the blurring of boundaries and pastiche, it is perhaps better to recognize the series as one that takes history seriously. As a work involving “historical interflow,” the series takes its version of history seriously and does not regard it as a redundant “grand narrative” according to Jean-François Lyotard’s understanding in The Postmodern Condition. The series may not be historically accurate, but it does take history seriously within its various fictional structures so as to present messages to audiences facing new historical challenges within their own era. In fact, the series may thus best be seen as a new version of what Law Kar understands to be a significant cultural and historical “interflow” cinematic discourse characteristic of Hong Kong cinema.
By relating the dilemmas faced by Huang Fei-hong in his various encounters with the Western world to the realization that old conservative traditions are now redundant, Hark uses his reconstruction of a fictional past to comment on contemporary problems. He urges audiences to remember previous past dilemmas and to engage in those specific concepts of adaptability and flexibility so as to cope with new situations, even if it means radical personal change and geographic relocation. Although set in the historical past, the series offers a response to contemporary issues that is not entirely postmodernist in nature but related to Hong Kong’s earlier cinematic strategies.


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Jet Li as Huang Fei-hong. Tsui Hark commented on Huang Fei-hong that he was a hero who “had a hard time being a folk hero,” who found it “painful to carry such a heavy load,” and whose standards “weren’t necessarily correct.”8 Thus, rather than defining Huang Fei-hong as a postmodernist parody, Hark presents him as a complicated, flawed individual who has to learn from each situation he encounters and discard any traditional “baggage” that hinders his self-development. When asked about the first film in the series, Hark commented on the complex historical issues facing Huang that the Master’s traditional training failed to supply him with appropriate answers to the new cultural, political, and technological problems facing him.
For Hark, “The difference between this film and the others is that there is more emphasis on the Chinese coming to terms with foreign things. In a situation when you must accept something new and you have no idea what that is, you’d be dying for a standard to measure it against.”9 Unlike Kwan Tak-hing’s traditional prototype,
Hark’s version finds no reliable standards on which Huang Fei-hong may conduct his everyday existence in relation to issues involving Western values.10
Hark’s conception of Huang Fei-hong is similar to—as well as significantly different from—the original series featuring Kwan Tak-hing. As Héctor Rodriguez has shown, “Huang’s evolution as a cinematic hero was rooted in the convictions and preferences of the groups and individuals producing and consuming the films, as well as in the institutional context and historical circumstances of their creation and dissemination.”11 The character played by Jet Li Lian-jie operates according to similar circumstances, several generations later; however, differences between the original series and Hark’s conception involve not just the choice of actors but authentic historical concerns. As Rodriguez notes, the original films’s “self-imposed mission was to protect the traditional sources of Cantonese cultural identity from the ravages of time and circumstance,”12 according to Confucian principles. Kwan
Tak-hing’s Huang Fei-hong also dominated the original series by virtue of his strong, controlling character:
Social harmony invariably depended on Huang Fei-hong’s capacity to thus educate those around him through the sheer exemplary force of his upright behavior. By illustrating the power of virtue, the plots reaffirmed Confucian conceptions of harmony, civility, and self-containment that marked the protagonist as a civic-minded guardian of the
Chinese nation’s moral stature and an instrument of social reform.13

Several changes occurred in the 1990s. The setting of Hark’s series was less local and more international as Western powers threatened Chinese national identity.
Furthermore, although historical and industrial factors resulted in the original series having more internal concerns since filming in mainland China was impossible,
Hark’s series operates on a much broader geographic canvas, with the hero moving throughout China and eventually traveling to America. For example, Part Three uses
Forbidden City locations that were off limits to both American and Hong Kong directors until after the Cultural Revolution. Outside historical influences now make remaining in a local community impossible. Jet Li Lian-jie’s hero has to move with the times—mentally and geographically—and hence does not have the advantage his predecessor (Kwan Tak-hing) did of relying on a secure sense of cultural stability.
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Hark’s choice of an actor is also important. Jet Li Lian-jie’s Huang is much younger and more adaptable than his predecessor. Kwan usually played Huang as a venerable stern patriarch whose judgment was unquestionable. Student obedience was obligatory—at least during the 1940s and 1950s. In the Once upon a Time in
China series, Huang often learns from others, such as the Western-educated Aunt
Yee, and his students help him out in difficult situations. The only time this ever happened before was in Yuen Woo-ping’s Yung Je Mo Gai (Brave No Fear/Dreadnought, 1981) when naughty devotee Mousy (Yuen Biao) saves Kwan’s Huang from the villain by practicing his own kind of laundry kung-fu, which he did not learn from the venerable master. Furthermore, in Yuen Woo-ping’s Lam Sai Wing (Benevolent No Enemies/The Magnificent Butcher, 1979), mischievous student Sammo
Hung even mimics his revered teacher, something his more reverent predecessors would have found unthinkable during the 1950s and 1960s. Kwan Tak-hing was associated with Cantonese culture from the beginning of his film career in the 1930s to his final performance in Clifton Ko’s Daa Foo Ji Ga (Big Rich Family/It’s a Wonderful Life, 1994). Although Kwan plays the grandfather in a modern family, both his traditional costume and the musical leitmotif associated with his most well known character identify him with Huang Fei-hong.
In contrast, Jet Li Lian-jie is a more flexible and adaptable actor whose persona crosses more cultural and geographic boundaries. Born in mainland China,
Jet Li Lian-jie first came to fame when he starred in the first martial arts movie filmed in the People’s Republic of China, Siu Lam Ji (Shaolin Temple, 1982). However, although he had traveled abroad and visited America, his film career did not really take off until Tsui Hark cast him in Once upon a Time in China. Jet Li’s star persona is thus more adaptable to changing historical and industrial circumstances than Kwan Tak-hing’s, as his debut appearance as the villain in Lethal Weapon 4
(1998) demonstrates. Such a change in role would have been unimaginable for
Kwan Tak-hing. Already undergoing a process of cinematic and cultural transformation in the early 1990s, Li was the ideal actor to embody a fictional character coping with serious historical challenges to his screen character than Kwan Takhing, who always remained rooted in the traditional values of Confucius.14

Once upon a Time in China as Hark’s Version of Historical “Interflow.”
Producer-director Tsui Hark sees the series as embodying a particular type of historical “interflow” that differs from earlier versions. As a talent educated in America who, like John Woo in Hard Target (1993), has recently suffered from the “curse of Van Damme” in his recent Hollywood cinematic excursions, Hark has also faced problems of cultural diaspora similar to those of his screen hero. Nonetheless, his films take the challenges of historical factors more seriously than the previous films in the series, such as Yuen Woo-ping’s Jui Kuen (Drunk Fist/Drunken Monkey in the Tiger’s Eyes/Drunken Master, 1978), which starred Kwan and other figures such as Jackie Chan.15
Unlike the earlier films, external historical issues intervene more directly. Parts
Two and Three of the series introduce actual historical figures Sun Yat-sen, Lu Haodong, Dowager Empress Ci Xi, and Premier Li Hong-zhang, albeit in fictionalized


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Figure 1. The first installment of the series Once upon a Time in China (Tsui
Hark, 1991) established the stardom of Jet Li as the heroic Huang-Fei-hong. The series represents one of the major achievements of 1990s Hong Kong cinema.
Video jacket courtesy of Frank Djeng, Tai Seng Video Marketing. situations. Their roles, however, occupy minor positions in a text that deals with the development of a hero whose progress involves integrating features of Western culture into his persona. Throughout the series, the plot details represent important aspects of Hark’s own version of the “historical interflow” represented by the different era in which he works. They form necessary features of any thorough interpretation of this highly significant series.
The first film raises problems that the other five answer in their own ways.
Wong Fei-Hung (Once upon a Time in China, 1991) begins with a Lion Dance, characteristic of entries belonging to the original Kwan Tak-hing series (1949–1970) and to later versions, such as Dreadnought. The prologue begins in 1875 with Huang and the actual historical figure of General Liu Yong-fu of the Black Flag Corps watching a Lion Dance performance on his ship, which is anchored off the coast of
Fushan. Several ships of different nationalities are nearby. Disturbed by the sound of firecrackers, some French soldiers shoot at the Lion Dance performers before they realize their mistake. The incident prompts Huang to retrieve the lion head before it falls in humiliation. Prior to being sent to Viet Nam to fight the French,
General Liu appoints Huang as the martial arts trainer of his corps—a reference to one of the few historical facts we know about the real Huang Fei-hong. Liu says to
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Huang, “Foreign ships are anchoring in our docks. Britain has Hong Kong. Portugal has Macao. Russia, Hei long jian.” General Liu also orders his men to dismantle a plaque that reads “Our Land, Our People.” He now finds the plague disturbing and presents Huang with a fan inscribed with the insulting terms of the Unequal Treaties the Western powers forced on the weak Manchu government as an encouragement to vigilance. After General Liu comments, “When I return I hope the treaties will be ended,” the film’s credits appear and the main narrative begins.
Thus far, the film appears to resemble later mainland nationalistic epics such as
Xie Jin’s Yapian Shanzheng (The Opium War, 1997), which was designed to encourage Chinese feelings of solidarity against the Western invaders. As Sam Ho notes, the film “is marked by a one-dimensional characterization of Westerners,” including
“greedy American slave traders, trigger-happy French soldiers, haughty officials, and hypocritical missionaries.”16 Of course, not all the Chinese characters are entirely virtuous, either. As Rey Chow points out, there is a danger of reading the problematic question of Chinese identity in a one-dimensional manner. The film does a great disservice to the issue’s inherent complexity, as well as to China’s relationship to the imperialist West. According to Chow, this relationship is “seldom purely ‘oppositional’ ideologically; on the contrary, the point has always been for China to become as strong as the West, to become the West’s equal.”17 This strategy not only characterizes Law Kar’s inclusive definition of Hong Kong cinema but also Tsui Hark’s project as a director from the moment he employed George Lucas’s Industrial Light and
Magic technicians in Zu, Warriors of the Magic Mountain (1980).
One of the recurrent characteristics of the first three films is Yee’s competence in operating Western technological apparatuses such as a still camera and a primitive movie camera. The series not only develops a romantic relationship between Huang and Aunt Yee, in contrast to the earlier Kwan Tak-hing films, but it also depicts the hero’s involvement with a Western-educated heroine who believes in a different set of values and technology. Frequently dressed in Western costume, Yee speaks fluent English as well as Chinese. After living in England for two years, she tells Huang that her heart was always with her people in China. She begins the process of educating Huang about Western technology such as steam engines: “If we don’t learn we’ll fall behind,” she says. Eventually, Huang agrees with her ideas: “Everything will change. China will change with the world.”
Although still affirming his Chinese identity by the end of the film, Huang realizes the need for adaptability—unlike the hypocritical Chinese theater owner who curses Yee behind her back as a “Chinese pretending to be a gweilo.”18 As
Kwai-Cheung Lo remarks, “She is the embodiment of a dazzling kind of knowledge (that I would like to term as techne, not exactly equivalent to technology, though it is always translated as such) that keeps presenting and opening itself to
Huang and soliciting him to respond in kind.”19 Although sometimes deferring to
Huang’s patriarchal status as a traditional male master, throughout the series Aunt
Yee also educates him subtly about the values of Western culture and technology.
In addition to helping Huang realize the superior nature of Western firepower, she introduces him to Western cuisine and cutlery during the introductory train sequence in Part Two. Unlike her female predecessors in the original


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series, Aunt Yee plays a highly significant role in helping Huang accommodate his
Chinese character to the new challenges of the Western world. She never resembles the usual Hong Kong female cinematic character, who is transplanted back to a past world whose patriarchal values would never allow her presence in the first place; Aunt Yee is much more realistic. Frequently seen in Western costume and operating modern technology, she represents the series’ idea of a “New
Woman.” Nevertheless, Aunt Yee also recognizes the restraining nature of the various cultural, historical, and sexual boundaries surrounding her. For example, although she cannot openly express her love for Master Huang like a modern woman, she does lead him away from his rigid patterns of behavior toward more flexible postures much as her classical Hollywood prototypes did for their husbands in films such as Life with Father (1947).
Since the entire Once upon a Time in China series involves movement from one geographic location to another, it also posits a particular definition of diaspora related to questions of national and cultural identity. Chow defines her project of “writing diaspora” as “to unlearn that submission to one’s ethnicity such as ‘Chineseness’ as the ultimate signified,” as well as negotiating new forms of cultural identity.20
Such negotiations characterize Huang’s development throughout the series. Ugly one-dimensional Westerners certainly appear, but for each such negative character, such as the American slave trader Jackson and the intrusive missionaries of the opening scenes, there are others who contradict the tendency toward overt stereotyping.
Indeed, Jackson’s Westernized Chinese agents eagerly recruit their unwary countrymen for slave labor in America. Although Huang finds that no Chinese (on whose behalf he actively intervened) will testify against the Shaho gang leader, the Jesuit missionary he earlier spurned saves him from jail by testifying on his behalf. Ironically, during the later attack, the missionary takes the bullet meant for Huang, the bullet fired by Jackson’s associate Tiger, in a manner reminiscent of the “bad” dance hall girl in Hollywood Western movies. Not all gweilos are bad!
Problems concerning national identity are brought out in the characters of
Huang’s students. Butcher Lang/Lin Shirong/Porky (Kent Cheng Juk-si) initially criticizes American-educated, non-Chinese-speaking Bucktooth/Sol (Jackie Cheung
Hok-yau) for his lack of ethnic identity, urging him to “go back to America.” Despite his difficulty in speaking Chinese, however, Sol eventually learns to warn
Huang after meticulously practicing his speech beforehand. Although Huang temporarily relapses into anti-Western tirades against both Yee (“Just like a gweilo, coming along for trivia”) and Sol (“Speak Chinese, you infidel”), he eventually benefits from their help. He learns from Yee that kung-fu is no defense against a bullet and avoids the fate of Master Yim (Wang Yu). Similarly, by rapidly giving alternative coordinate instructions in English, non-martial artist Sol deflects the cannon of Jackson’s ship so it doesn’t fire on Huang. Sol confuses the American soldiers so much that they end up destroying British Captain Wickens’s ship! Neither revered masters nor martial arts experts, the Westernized Yee and Sol intervene during significant moments and use their Western expertise to aid a hero who benefits from that knowledge. After the theater massacre, Huang contemplates a Western gun and bullet. He remarks to Yee, “You’re right. Chinese must
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change. Fists can’t fight guns,” and fires the bullet with his fingers, foreshadowing the strategy he will use against Jackson at the film’s climax. Although nationalistic
Master Yim realizes this lesson too late—”We can’t fight guns with martial arts”—
Huang survives by integrating Western technology into his martial arts repertoire.
Master Yim represents an alter-ego to Huang in several ways. Unlike Huang,
Yim stubbornly clings to traditional heroic values that have no relevance in the changing world he inhabits. He never listens to any of the helpful advice Leung
Fu offers but ruthlessly dominates his devoted student. His final downfall is both tragic and a warning to any Chinese who refuses to acknowledge signs of changing times. The contrast between these two actors, who represent the different eras of
Hong Kong martial arts cinema, is deliberate on director Hark’s part. Not only is
Master Yim a noble martial artist who compromises himself by joining the Shaho gangsters for money but he also evokes images of earlier cinematic heroes played by Wang Yu (Duk Bei Do [Only Arm Sword/One-Armed Swordsman, 1967], Gam
Yin Ji [Golden Swallow/aka The Girl with the Thunderbolt Kick, 1968], Wong Hu
Men [Hammer of God/The Chinese Boxer, 1970], Dop Bey Kuan Wan [The Chinese Professionals/One-Armed Boxer, 1971]), who are now anachronistic in the changed universe of Once upon a Time in China.
Rumors concerning Wang Yu’s supposed links with contemporary Triad gangsters may have inspired this particular casting. Yim tells prospective student Leung
Fu/Liang Kuan (Yuen Biao) that it is impossible to make a living as a martial artist.
Unlike Huang and Leung, Yim has no secondary profession to support himself.
After being fired from his menial theater job, Fu becomes Yim’s student until he realizes the extent of his master’s corruption. Despite Yim’s admonitions of compromise—”Nothing in this world is justified. Virtue is often found among the lowly.
Once we found the school then we can think about justice”—the spectacle of Yim again performing for money in front of a gangster audience finally turns student against master. Both Huang and Yim compromise in certain ways. But Yim’s methods reproduce the worst aspects of Western society. Aspiring to be the numberone martial artist in Fushan, Yim dies a miserable death by Western bullets. By contrast, Huang survives and at the climax even wears a Western suit Yee measured for him. Yee even envisages Huang eventually visiting the West, a goal he accomplishes in Part Six of the series.
Wong Fei-Hung Ji Yi (Man Should Be Self-Sufficient, Once upon a Time in
China, Part Two, 1992) continues the critique of isolationist, nationalistic tendencies. Although Thomas Weisser and Joey O’Bryan tend to see Huang’s struggle against the xenophobic White Lotus sect as “apolitical” and motivated by a “simplistic (humane?) assist the underdog”21 credo, the film is more complex. It opens on the White Lotus sect’s secret ceremony affirming hostility to foreign influence. Priest Jiugong (Xong Xin-xin) demonstrates his imperviousness to Western bullets, thus seemingly succeeding where Master Yim failed. We later discover, however, that Jiugong’s supposed prowess relies on underhanded methods similar to the hidden razor in Yim’s pigtail during his second fight with Huang. If Yim counters Huang’s affronted comment concerning fair play with “The world is full of surprises. I must take precautions,” Jiugong appropriates Clint Eastwood’s body


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Figure 2. Once upon a Time in China, Part Two (Tsui Hark, 1992) critiques China’s isolationist, nationalistic tendencies. Martial arts master Huang Fei-hong (Jet Li) even befriends Western-educated Dr. Sun Yat-sen and encounters other historical figures. Video jacket courtesy of Frank Djeng, Tai Seng Video Marketing. armor strategy in the climax of A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Both Master Yim and
Jiugong represent negative directions for any Chinese seeking to cope with the new demands of a highly technological twentieth century and the dangerous results of the one-dimensional thought pattern criticized by Rey Chow. Unlike Huang, neither character will ever “unlearn” the problematic nature of submission to ethnicity and realize the importance of negotiating new forms of cultural identity in a changing and challenging world.
Ultimately, Hark regards cultural and nationalistic xenophobia as false, underhanded, and retrograde in terms of China’s real interests. When Jiugong orders a bonfire of Western artifacts that includes a large clock, an oil painting, a piano, and a Dalmatian, the scene foreshadows the sect’s later demonstration outside the British embassy, during which they burn Western-costumed Aunt Yee and her camera in effigy. As Yang notes, the clock becomes a recurrent visual motif throughout the film, contrasting the regressive feelings of the White Lotus sect with a hero who first appears in the film enjoying the benefits of advanced modern technology.22
Sun Yat-sen and Lu also frequently look at their watches to synchronize their strategy. However, the motif has other meanings in addition to representing the urgent countdown leading to 1997. It both makes a self-reflexive reference to the most
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meticulously edited film of the series and contrasts the sect’s backward desires with Huang’s culturally progressive movements, which attempt to reintegrate opposite values. Timing is thus important in more senses than one.
Yang likens the prologue’s end dissolve to the speeding train of the credit sequences. When Huang takes Yee’s “steam engine” on a journey to Guangzhou in 1895, the dissolve from the burning clock to the speeding train serves to connect the Boxers and the hero, both of whom are superb martial artists. What distinguishes these two is their varying attitudes toward Western culture. The dashed clock in the previous scene implies that the Boxers tend to move backward to the time before the introduction of
Western technology and culture into Western society. The hero, on the other hand, is associated with the ever forward progress of Western technology, as he is enjoying the breeze and twilight scenery in the train that also saves him a lot of travel time.23

Huang also benefits from the linguistic skills of Sun Yat-sen, who translates a lecture on acupuncture for a group of Western doctors. Although the British ambassador later refuses Huang’s offer to tend the wounded Western victims of the sect, Western-educated Sun Yat-sen requests Huang’s help when he runs out of anesthetic. Succeeding scenes show Sun’s scalpels and Huang’s needles jointly undergoing sterilization. Yee then translates Huang’s message to the initially reluctant monolingual British ambassador, “Dr. Huang says nothing is more important than saving lives.”
Although Huang never actively supports the failed revolt by Sun and Lu, he realizes the importance of these Western-educated Chinese to the future development of China. Furthermore, the patriotic Huang never approves of genocidal activities against foreigners and missionary-educated Chinese Christian children.
In fact, he saves both and elicits a promise from Manchu official Nalan Yuanshu
(Donnie Yen Ji-dan) that ensures the children’s future safety. Master Huang thus uses Kwan Tak-hing’s Confucian principles of fair mindedness and morality for the benefit of individuals outside his Cantonese community group. As in the first film, he uses a Western umbrella against the villains. Huang also ensures that Lu’s secret list of rebels will never fall into Manchu hands.
Like Wang Yu, David Chiang Dai-wai’s performance as Lu evokes the 1970s era of Hong Kong cinema, when he was a major star of Shaw Brothers films directed by Chang Che. However, although Chiang’s character is more positive than
Yim’s, he does not die a heroic death as in earlier films such as Chang Che’s Bo Sau
(Kung Fu Vengeance/Vengeance, 1970), Chi Ma (Dynasty of Blood/Blood Brothers, 1973), and the Hammer–Shaw Brothers production The Legend of the Seven
Golden Vampires (1974). Times have changed, and Huang has to ensure Westerneducated Sun Yat-sen’s safety for his country’s future. He has to engage in another climactic battle with yet another alter-ego, Nalan Yuanshu, who also represents a false path for the Chinese people to follow in an increasingly complex world. Although equal in fighting prowess to Huang, Nalan becomes contaminated like
Yim. He not only abides by the letter of the law in adhering to a declining Manchu political system but corruptly uses the extremist White Lotus sect to violate the
British embassy’s diplomatic immunity and cause further bloodshed. Nalan is thus


Cinema Journal 40, No. 1, Fall 2000

another version of the unacceptable Chinese hero for the twentieth century and reveals both the challenging wider world to the formerly closed society and the different values with which the hero must come to terms. Naturally, racism and xenophobia are impossible values for Master Huang to follow. Huang Fei-hong not only is patriotic but also is a savior figure for both Westerners and the missionary-educated Chinese children threatened by the White Lotus sect. Although Kwan
Tak-hing’s character had little if any involvement with the wider Western world,
Hark’s version reveals the hero as both compassionate and generous toward victims of other racial and cultural groups as well as toward his own people.
Wong Fei-Hung Ji Saam (Lion King Struggle for Supremacy/Once upon a
Time in China, Part Three, 1993) opens with the Empress Dowager and Premier Li Hong-zhong (a figure condemned by later historians for weakening China by losing territories such as Taiwan) discussing the strategy of using a Lion Dance
“to play off one foreign power against another.” As in the first film’s opening prologue, Kwan Tak-hing’s beloved Lion Dance now becomes contaminated in a world of political corruption. Yang notes that despite the empress’s approval of the use of the Lion Dance to devour the foreigners, “as the Boxer rebellion broke out in 1900 and the allied troops of eight countries invaded Beijing, it was
China that was . . . devoured by eight hungry lions.”24 Far from uniting the Chinese, the Lion Dance causes disunity, which results in the intervention of Western powers in the next film. Despite Huang’s attempt to persuade Premier Li to stop the dance, Li refuses to see him because of his lowly class status and delegates the task to a minor bureaucrat. After the prologue’s plot between the claw-ringed empress and the premier, Hark repeats the same transitional device seen in the previous film. The image rapidly changes to show Huang’s train traveling to Beijing, suggesting that the corrupt Manchu authorities are as backward as the White Lotus sect.
Part Three shows Yee’s affirmative “steam engine” principle now adopted by
Huang’s father, Huang Kei-ying, who uses a steam engine “for more efficient production of medicine” in his Beijing clinic. By this time in the series, Huang Fei-hong realizes the need to learn English, “to speed up communication with the foreigners.”
Although he addresses Yee by her English name, “Peony,” he faces a rival in the person of Cantonese-speaking Russian consul official Tomansky, who presents her with a movie camera. Tomansky’s role in the film combines romantic, historical, and political elements. He is part of a Russian assassination plot to prevent Premier Li from signing away more territory to the Japanese. When he repairs the clinic’s steam engine, he argues with Huang over the need for technological developments and his version of historical determinism: “We cannot escape the changes of history.”
Yee becomes Tomansky’s chief antagonist. She prefers Huang and uses the steam vapor from the clinic’s engine to take the initiative in kissing her lover, who later breaks with tradition to openly embrace her in front of his associates. Yee also uses Tomansky’s gift of a movie camera to photograph Huang’s performance. This could be seen as an indirect reference to the future role of movie technology in preserving ancient martial arts techniques. As budding “director” Fu (Max Mok
Siu-chung) comments, “She can teach others kung fu by movies in the future.” In
Cinema Journal 40, No. 1, Fall 2000


Figure 3. Once upon a Time in China, Part Three (Tsui Hark, 1993) reinforces the idea of “historical overflow,” through characters representing the Dowager Empress Ci Xi and Premier Li Hong-zhang. Video jacket courtesy of Frank Djeng, Tai
Seng Video Marketing. a scene reversing the traditional master-student relationship, Huang performs for the camera under Fu’s direction.
Yee’s character also develops added resilience in each part of the series. After becoming a Western-educated damsel in distress in the first film, she uses one of
Huang’s techniques to throw an assailant off the boat at the end of the second. In
Part Six, she rides on horseback and uses Huang’s triple shadow-kick technique against hostile Indians. Yee rebuts Tomansky’s oppressive historical materialism—
”We can’t escape historical changes. The Hans got used to being ruled by the
Manchus. You’ll find out later that you’ll get used to being ruled by Russians”—by articulating statements usually voiced by the hero: “The Hans will decide our own future.” Her speech complements Huang’s condemnation of Premier Li in the concluding scenes. Yee is certainly not Yang’s idea of a heroine because she is “still marginalized by the patriarchal discourse” and simply serves “the function of perpetuating male heroism” and being “the object of male looks.”25
Part Three also shows Huang reproducing character traits of his predecessor,
Kwan Tak-hing. He appeals to corrupt capitalist Chiu Tin Bai by invoking the
Confucian values of friendship and politeness, but the gesture is as futile as Kwan’s earlier attempts in Wong Fei-Hung Siu Lam Kuen/Wong Fei-Hung Shaolin Fist


Cinema Journal 40, No. 1, Fall 2000

(The Skyhawk, 1974). Chiu and his men sarcastically satirize Huang as they leave.
By healing Chiu’s injured henchman Club Foot (Xong Xin-xin), Huang wins over his opponent through kindness, thus evoking Kwan Tak-hing’s earlier gestures toward his usual antagonist, played by Shek Kin. In contrast, the film ends with
Huang’s openly non-Confucian condemnation of the Manchu government’s abuse of the Lion Dance. As Yang notes, his action in tossing back his gold medal is certainly unfilial and an open breach with traditional customs:
Instead of conforming to the traditional Confucian teaching of hierarchical compliance when a subject should always show obedience to the superior, and the young to the elderly, Huang Feihong courageously speaks to Li Hongzhang. Huang is no more a subject of the Qing Empire since a regime maintained by an older generation has become corrupt and untrustworthy. What makes Huang a real hero now is not his winning of the gold medal for defeating so many competitors with his superb martial arts, as in the old Huang Feihong series, but his will to defy Li Hongzhang and question the purpose of the whole game.26

The next two parts of the series reinforce elements in the preceding films.
Now played by Zhao Wen-zhou, Huang reverses his geographic direction from south to north by returning to Fushan and (possibly) Hong Kong at the end of Part
Five. In Huang Fei-Hung Ji Sei (Once upon a Time in China, Part Four, 1993), the
Western powers, personified by German General Heinlintak, decide to appropriate the Lion Dance for their own purposes. The credit sequences in Part Four show a lion’s head on fire as if in homage to Ringo Lam’s “Fire” films. This time not just any city will be “on fire,” but Beijing. An honest Manchu official persuades
Huang to represent his nation in the new Lion Dance contest. In addition, a female version of the White Lotus sect attacks innocent foreigners. Yee’s younger sister, Aunt May/Shisyi (Jean Wong Ching-ying), attempts to protect them, just as
Huang did in Part Two. After suffering a racially motivated rebuff by a German female, she appeals to a consoling Father Thomas, a new version of the honest
Jesuit missionary from Part One: “Father, I hope there is a real God to stop the hatred between nations. Otherwise, we cannot escape from the coming disaster.”
Later, Father Thomas actively intervenes by helping Huang escape from prison.
His example also influences Red Lotus sect member Su to free herself from xenophobia. She later dies after protecting Westerners, ironically commenting, “I never imagined I’d die protecting foreigners.”
Although Huang wins the Lion Dance, he receives news that Western armies have invaded Beijing and that the Dowager Empress has fled. After again throwing away his gold medal trophy, Huang draws the same conclusion he did in Part
Three: “We won the competition but lost our country.” He decides to retreat southward “and prepare for the fight back.”
Although more stylistically and thematically confused than its predecessors,
Wong Fei-Hung Ji Ng Lung Sing Chin Ba (Dragon City’s Exterminating Tyrant/
Once upon a Time in China, Part Five, 1994) appropriately reproduces changed historical circumstances. Chaos and turmoil dominate China, and fortunate survivors seek passage to Hong Kong. The prologue deals with a confrontation between a
Cinema Journal 40, No. 1, Fall 2000


petty thief outside South China’s Si Kur village and pirate chief Cheng Yuk-lun. Although the thief wards off Cheng with a gun, the pirate uses a spear-and-gun apparatus to kill his adversary. The prologue again sets up a narrative situation that the film must resolve. This time it involves Huang’s recourse to Western firearms against a pirate adversary, who represents the final depths of corruption in Chinese society.
Huang and his entourage reach Si Kur, intending to travel to Hong Kong with
Yee and Lang. However, they discover a destabilized situation that involves not only pirate terrorism but also court constables, who are reduced to stealing food
“due to government disruption involving nonpayment of salaries after the Allied victory in Beijing.” Pirate chief Cheung Yuk-lun and his sister Ying (Elaine Lui) are the descendants of the one-hundred-year-old former Manchu official, Cheung, who rules the pirate lair like an active version of Grandpa from The Texas Chainsaw
Massacre (1974). When Huang eventually confronts his aged opponent, he learns that he represents the final degeneration of the Ching Dynasty. Cheung is no longer
“interested in being a magistrate” since “all the emperors are selfish.” Huang also has to confront a disunited community attempting to come to terms with recent history. Although he decides to work legitimately with the constables, he hears various suggestions ranging from forming an alliance against the foreigners to noninvolvement. Huang cautions, “We can’t hinder the development of history.” Part
Five thus views old institutional and traditional values as completely bankrupt and futile in dealing with a chaotic historical situation.
Under Western Eyes: Cultural and Geographic Diaspora. The series now explicitly begins to consider questions involving diaspora. It has moved from one
Chinese location to another, but now it envisages the hero’s eventual relocation not only to Hong Kong but also to a wider world beyond China. The series thus acknowledges a changed Chinese world from the one represented in Parts One,
Two, and Three. Whereas previously the Western world operated as an intrusive element in a nationalistic homeland, by Part Five several characters seriously discuss the possibility of relocating elsewhere. Their knowledge of different locations in America, shared by the film’s audience—whether in China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan—represents twentieth-century Chinese familiarity with the outside world.
The world outside is no longer as threatening as before, thus revealing a different understanding of diaspora than before.
Now, the homeland appears more unstable. When Huang and his men infiltrate the pirate headquarters, they hear comments about an increasingly desirable outside world: “San Francisco is a nice place,” “I have property in New
York,” and “Paris is better.” For both heroes and villains, China is increasingly corrupt. Si Kur businessman Tang hoards rice and keeps prices artificially high even after Huang returns the pirate loot. Huang criticizes Tang’s speculation as
“more damaging than the pirates. Raised prices will contribute to inflation.” Like his predecessor Chiu Tin Bai in Part Three, Tang is a menace to Chinese community values. Despite his disgust with Tang, Huang saves his life when the hoarded rice goes up in flames. In Part Three, Huang refrained from killing
Chiu to save his men from unemployment. Eventually, Huang and his associates


Cinema Journal 40, No. 1, Fall 2000

decide to leave after they find that the government has sent two warring militia forces to restore law and order.
Several scenes in Part Four show Huang, Fu, Club Foot, and Lang practicing with Western six-guns. This is less a trivial reference to the Western genre than an anticipation of themes to come in Part Six. Huang and his men use Western firepower to defeat the pirates and enter their lair. Although this sequence appears jokey, it reveals a different picture of Master Huang from that of the first film in the series. By now it appears that Huang Fei-hong has listened to Aunt Yee’s ideas about the values of Western technology and has appropriated them into his repertoire. Although still the Chinese hero, he now uses modern devices to pursue his traditional goals of justice.
Once upon a Time in China and America (1997) appears to be a gimmicky attempt to revive a series that waned after its third part, when Jet Li left following a dispute with producer-director-scenarist Tsui Hark. After Hark produced two more films with Zhao Wen-zhao as Huang, the series moved to television before
Li and Hark reunited to make a new film helmed by veteran actor, martial arts choreographer, and director Sammo Hung. This film was shot entirely in America.
Indeed, John Ford’s Monument Valley appears in the opening. However, the decision to move Master Huang to America was not made entirely for commercial or postmodernist pastiche reasons. Nor was it exclusively a veiled reference to the ominous date of July 1, 1997, suggesting that Huang decided to go Hollywood along with John Woo, Chow Yun-Fat, and Michelle Yeoh. In fact, Once upon a
Time in China and America represents the logical culmination of themes in the preceding film versions but also tackles traditional cultural and historical issues concerning China’s involvement with the Western world.
In Once upon a Time in China and America, Huang visits Sol’s Po Chi Lam clinic in a Western town and encounters problems affecting Chinese communities of the diaspora. The world of Fort Stockton represents another version of the corrupt Western values evident throughout the series. Run by a racially and politically corrupt mayor and a repressive sheriff, Fort Stockton is a town where the
Chinese are marginalized, so that it resembles their counterparts’ villages in Part
One. As in Part One, there are traitors ready to betray the Chinese to corrupt
Westerners. However, not all the Westerners are racist. Other marginalized figures extend gestures of friendship, such as the dance hall girls, Sue and Lola, who buy beers for the Chinese before racist forces intervene. Gunfighter Billy represents another version of positive Westerners, similar to the sacrificial Jesuit missionary of Part One and Father Thomas of Part Four, who oppose their society’s corrupt values and actively aid the Chinese. In Huang’s memory fantasy, Billy’s identity becomes racially blurred along with those of Yee and Seven. As Huang develops Western techniques, Billy not only learns martial arts but later joins the
Chinese on the gallows as a sacrificial victim of Western racism.
The series charts Huang’s development from patriotic, monolingual Chinese hero to a figure who realizes the need for reintegration in the wider world of the twentieth century. Before Huang develops amnesia, he sees Billy about to commit suicide in the desert and moves to rescue him following an English lesson
Cinema Journal 40, No. 1, Fall 2000


Figure 4. In Once upon a Time in China and America (Sammo Hung, 1997), Huang
(again played by Jet Li) travels to the Wild West, visits Monument Valley, is adopted by an Indian tribe, befriends dance hall girls and gunfighters, and regains his ethnic Chinese identity by moving beyond constricting definitions and geographic boundaries. The hero ultimately conjoins his national identity and the need to accommodate himself to a wider world. Video jacket courtesy of Frank Djeng, Tai
Seng Video Marketing. from Yee. To everyone’s surprise, Huang leaves the stagecoach interior after spontaneously uttering the word “Climbing,” which Yee supposedly never taught him.
Unlike the earlier films, Huang loses both his identity and his memory until he finally regains it with Seven’s aid.
Boundaries become blurred in the series in more than one sense. When Huang rides with Fierce Eagle after his adoption into the tribe, both speak about their respective national identities. Fierce Eagle tells Huang about his tribe’s forcible relocation from its original home and his people’s desire to return. The still-amnesiac Huang replies, “At least you know where your roots are. I don’t know where I came from.” However, until his memory returns, Huang is at home with a minority group whose cultural and geographic dislocation parallels his own. Huang’s involvement with the Indians also parallels Jackie Chan Sing-lung’s amnesiac association with a native tribe in Benny Chan’s Ngoh Si Siu (Who Am I?, 1998), as well as his sympathy toward a multiethnic street gang in Stanley Tong’s Hung Faan Kui
(Red Savage Territory/Red Indian Territory/Rumble in the Bronx, 1995). Indeed, it is not unusual for exiled groups to identify with other minorities.27


Cinema Journal 40, No. 1, Fall 2000

When Huang eventually regains his memory and identity, the process of blurring and diffusion is similar to when he tried to remember the past in the Indian camp. Faced with an amnesiac master, Seven restores Huang’s memory by reenacting the fighting techniques of his earlier opponents, Master Yim and Nalan
Yuanshu, who represent compromised versions of a Chinese hero Huang previously fought against. Thus, Seven’s strategy is not just to restore Huang’s memory but to evoke knowledge of the limited nationalistic models of Chinese heroism he once successfully overcame mentally and physically.
The strategy works. As Huang’s memory returns, he says, “This trip to America is just like a dream.” Huang also twice repeats an important speech that emphasizes the importance of integrating Chinese values and learning from the West in this particular diaspora:
“You’re a long way from home living in a foreign place. The Po Chi Lam was opened for this reason. It is important for people to know who they are. Good healing, strong body, not business. Goods often are worth more than people who become worthless. You must remember who you are. Copy the merits of the foreign people. Compensate for our shortcomings, and shine for the Chinese people. Simply put, you must remember who you are.”

Although Huang affirms essential Chinese values here, he does not approve of rapacious tiger economy capitalism as practiced by Chiu Tin Bai and Tang.
Jet Li’s Huang Fei-hong is a younger but more developed version of Kwan
Tak-hing’s hero. He realizes the importance of integrating opposites in a world affected by both Western capitalism and Chinese diaspora at home and abroad.
By moving to America for Part Six, the series not only affirms Law Kar’s definition of Hong Kong cinema’s characteristic “interflow” philosophy but it also introduces Rey Chow’s “boundary-crossing” concepts involving the interrogation of
Chinese identity and literature. Chow sees a movement from nationalistic to ethnic terms: “Ethnicity signifies the social experience which is not completed once and for all but which is constituted by a continual, often conflictual, working-out of its grounds . . . it is ethnicity understood in this sense of an unfinished social field that should provide the new terms of criticism as well as reference.”28
In its own cinematic way, the Once upon a Time in China series attempts to construct a new version of an ethnic Chinese identity by moving beyond constricting definitions of nationhood and geographic boundaries and suggesting new ways to define a Chinese hero. This hero contrasts dramatically with earlier incarnations by Kwan Tak-hing, Jackie Chan, Chan Kwun-tai, Lau Ka-fai, and others. The hero gradually moves from his geographic territory to confront a wider Western world that encroaches on his homeland. He finally visits America, where he reencounters familiar issues of identity, diaspora, and reintegration that appear both in real life and in Hong Kong cinematic representations. Although it features different narrative and geographic situations, the Once upon a Time in China series deserves to be viewed as a whole for its examination of the need for cultural change and relocation under changing historical circumstances. Despite the fact that Jet Li’s Master Huang visits a country that his venerated predecessor, played by Kwan Tak-hing, never did
Cinema Journal 40, No. 1, Fall 2000


(at least not in the classic Huang Fei-hong film series), the hero is ultimately at home with both his national identity and the idea that he needs to accommodate himself to a wider world beyond his original homeland.
I wish to thank David Desser, Steve Fore, Ange Hwang of the Asian Media Access Center, and the anonymous readers of Cinema Journal for their helpful contributions.
1. Zhang Ailing, “From the Ashes,” trans. Oliver Stunt, Renditions 45 (spring 1996): 47.
Zhang’s actual lines are “Regardless of whether they are political or philosophical, world views that are too clear-cut are bound to provoke antipathy. Man’s joie de vivre is solely to be found in life’s irrelevancies.”
2. Mingyu Yang, “China: Once upon a Time/Hong Kong: 1997: A Critical Study of Contemporary Hong Kong Martial Arts Films,” Ph.D. diss., University of Maryland, 1995.
3. See Yu Mo-Wan, “The Prodigious Cinema of Huang Fei-Hong: An Introduction,” in
Lau Shing-hon, ed., A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film (Hong Kong: Urban
Council, 1980), 79–90, and Gene Ching, “The Kung Fu of Wong Fei-Hong: Hung
Gar,” Hong Kong Film Magazine 3 (1995): 7–11.
4. Stephen Teo, Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions (London: British Film Institute, 1997), 246.
5. Ibid.
6. Raymond Williams, The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists (London: Verso, 1989), 4, 23–24, 35, 130, 134.
7. Law Kar, “The American Connection in Early Hong Kong Cinema,” paper presented at Hong Kong Cinema: History, Arts, Identity, 1900–1997, Conference, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, October 11, 1997. See also Héctor Rodríguez, “Hong
Kong Popular Culture as an Interpretive Arena: The Huang Feihong Film Series,”
Screen 38, no. 1 (spring 1997): 1–24. Rodriguez states that the original series starring Kwan Tak-hing was “partly a response to the peripheral predicament of modern
China in an international arena” (14) and also involved the incorporation of “narrative norms and situations from popular Hollywood films, especially the Saloon fight characteristic of countless Westerns, transplanted in various Huang Feihong installments to the more indigenous setting of a dim sum restaurant” (3). The previous page contains a photo of Kwan Tak-hing wearing a stylish costume and holding a western bullwhip. Hong Kong involvement in America thus encompasses the past and present. The late actor Roy Chiao (Kiu Wong), well known for his portrayals of
Buddhist monks and honest government officials in King Hu films such as Hap Nui
(Chivalrous Woman/A Touch of Zen, 1971), Ying Chun Gok Ji Fung Bo (Welcome
Spring Corner: Storm/The Fate of Lee Khan, 1974), and Jung Lit To (Righteous Honor
Painting/The Valiant Ones, 1975) frequently undertook missionary work in America.
I am grateful to Law Kar for this information.
8. Tsui Hark, “Once upon a Time in China,” in Sixteenth International Hong Kong Film
Festival Catalog (Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1992), 117. For Ng Ho, the Once upon a
Time in China series represents the third stage in the heroic transformation of Huang
Fei-hong. The former scriptwriter for the 1977 television series now sees him as a “mock hero” who is “imbued with a postmodernist predicament . . . faced with the city’s corruption and decadence, he is disgusted yet feels impotent to do anything, and even begins to question his own existence.” Ng Ho, “The Three Heroic Transformations of Huang
Feihong,” in Wong Fei Hung: The Invincible Master (Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1996),


Cinema Journal 40, No. 1, Fall 2000





15. Although parodies certainly exist elsewhere, as in Lee Lik Chi’s Once upon a Time a
Hero in China (1992) and Wong Jing’s Last Hero in China (1993), Ho’s emphasis on the supposed impotence of Hark’s hero may be too extreme. Certainly, Huang Fei-hong experiences personal and cultural situations of crisis, but he is always resilient and able to overcome them.
Law Kar takes a different perspective. Although admitting the redundant nature of the original Confucian spirit of Kwan Tak-hing’s Huang Fei-hong in a “self-centered and mercenary society,” Kar makes the following observation: “The films’ moral vision and self-contained patriarchal world are also anathema to modern society’s seeming preoccupation with freedom and deconstruction. However, one only has to consider their inspirational power on Tsui Hark’s radical Huang Fei-hong series of the nineties, or take note of the praise heaped on Kwan Tak Hing when he passed away, to see the enduring power of traditional exemplary models.” Kar, “Huang Feihong’s Family Tree,” in Wong Feihung: The Invincible Master, 11.
In this light, it may be premature to close the book on this hero’s extraordinary cultural resilience by ending any essay, “So, Huang Feihong, rest in peace” (15) as Ng
Ho does. Finally, Ho sees irony in the scene in which the hero’s paper fan bearing the calligraphy “unfair treaty” becomes damaged in the fire at Baozhilin as expressing a sense of Huang’s postmodernist ideological confusion. “With the fan burnt away, the character for ‘un’ is gone, leaving only the words ‘fair treaty’” (15). However, the ironic nature of the film may reflect the series’ sense of “historical interflow,” particularly in regard to how treaties are often rewritten by the winning side. The scene evokes ironic parallels to both breaches by the American government of its many treaties with Native Americans as well as unfair treaties imposed by Western governments on China that were “fair” according to the perspective of the winners.
Hark, “Once upon a Time in China,” 117.
Such uncertainty begins to appear in the last films featuring Kwan Tak-hing as Huang.
See Tony Williams, “Kwan Tak-hing and the New Generation,” Asian Cinema 10, no.
1 (fall 1998): 71–77.
Rodriguez, “Hong Kong Popular Culture,” 2.
Ibid., 8.
Ibid., 17.
For an excellent analysis that takes seriously the treatment of Chinese identity and
Western values in the Once upon a Time in China series, see Lisa Odham Stokes and
Michael Hoover, City on Fire: Hong Kong Cinema (London: Verso, 1999), 93–99. For
Li’s understanding of the flexible nature of his various roles, see Martin Wong and Eric
Nakamura, “Jet Li: The International Weapon,” Giant Robot 12 (1998): 46–53.
For an informative overview of the entire Wong Fei-hong series, see Kar, Wong Fei
Hung: The Invincible Master. It contains a filmography of the ninety-nine films that appeared from 1949 to 1995. Unfortunately, not many of the early Kwan Tak-hing films have survived,
Sam Ho, “Equaling the Unequal: Accepting the 1997 Reunion in Once upon a Time in
China,” unpublished paper, 8.
Rey Chow, Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 8.
The term gweilo is a derogatory Cantonese expression for white people that is generally translated as “white devil.” The term is also used to refer to anyone having mixed
American-Chinese parentage, such as Michael Fitzgerald Wong’s city cop character in
Jamie Luk’s The Case of the Cold Fish (1995).

Cinema Journal 40, No. 1, Fall 2000


19. Kwai-Cheung Lo, “Once upon a Time: Technology Comes to Presence in China,” Modern Chinese Literature 7 (1993): 83.
20. Chow, Writing Diaspora, 25.
21. Thomas Weisser, Asian Trash Cinema: The Book (Kingwood, Tex.: ATC/ETC Publications, 1994), 114–15. Joey O’Bryan makes a similar comment in the rough-cut version of the Asian Media Access documentary The Irresistible Hong Kong Movie Series of
Once upon a Time in China, screened at the Asian Cinema Studies Conference, Trent
University, Peterborough, Canada, August 21, 1997.
22. Yang, “China: Once upon a Time/Hong Kong,” 82.
23. Ibid.
24. Ibid., 89.
25. Ibid., 167.
26. Ibid., 90.
27. The second alternative Cantonese translation of Hung Faan Kui draws attention to the
American film Fort Apache, the Bronx (Daniel Petrie, 1981), whose title deliberately refers to John Ford’s classic Western Fort Apache (1948). The film obviously sees the multiethnic urban street gang as the modern equivalent of savage Indians who need to recognize their affinities with other minorities to unite against a common oppressor.
Historical and cinematic precedents do exist for Hong Kong cinema’s interest in the Wild West. During 1974, Italian Western actor Lee Van Cleef and Shaw Brothers star Lo Lieh appeared together in Antonio Margheriti’s The Stranger and the Gunfighter. Chen Lee and Klaus Kinski also starred in Mario Caiano’s My Name Is Shanghai
Joe (1973) and in Bitto Albertini’s The Return of Shanghai Joe (1974). In 1973, Hong
Kong actors Jason Pai-Pico and Po Chih Leo costarred with Italian Western stalwarts
William Berger and Donald O’Brien in Yeo Ban Yee’s Golden Harvest production, Kung
Fu Brothers in the Wild West. For an interesting location report from the Bracketville,
Texas, set of Once upon a Time in China and America, involving crews from Hong Kong,
New York, Los Angeles, and Texas, see Clyde V. Gentry III, “Once upon a Time in China and America,” Hong Kong Film Connection 5, no. 1 (1997): 3–8. Gentry reported spotting a number of Westerns in Sammo Hung’s location video collection, such as For a
Few Dollars More (1965) and Once upon a Time in the West (1968).
The film’s treatment of Native Americans deserves a separate study in itself. For relevant information concerning previous cinematic treatments, see Gretchen M.
Bataille, Images of American Indians on Film: An Annotated Bibliography (New York:
Garland, 1985); Michael Hilger, The American Indian in Film (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1986); From Savage to Nobleman: Images of Native Americans in Film
(Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1995); and Ward Churchill, Fantasies of the Master
Race: Literature, Cinema, and the Colonization of American Indians (San Francisco:
City Lights Books, 1998). For problematic issues concerning the representation of
Native Americans in Once upon a Time in China and America, see Stokes and Hoover,
City on Fire, 97–98.
28. Chow, Writing Diaspora, 143.


Cinema Journal 40, No. 1, Fall 2000

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