Arts and Culture
Wong Fei-hung (1847-1924), a Southern Chinese martial artist, has been reinvented as a popular hero in countless Hong Kong kung fu films. Breaking with the established understanding of this figure as inaugurating the kung fu genre, this paper argues that many of the films of the first Wong Fei-hung series, which ran from the late 1940s to the 1960s, can productively be read as proto-gangster films. Made at the height of the Cold War, the first Wong series avoided censorship by removing any reference to the reality of contemporary Hong Kong. This allowed them to stage tales structured around the violent conflict between a villain and his gang on one side, and Wong Fei-hung and his disciples on the other. This made Wong a precursor of the “good” gangster popularized in 1970s Hong Kong crime films. Not only the violence, but also its language use, rituals, hierarchy and patriarchal values mark the series as proto-gangster films in the Hong Kong context.
Building on Derrida’s (1992) insight that all texts “participate” in multiple genres, this paper will switch the generic lens through which the series is usually understood. This will enable a clearer view of how the centuries-old Chinese cultural trope of communal male heroism and values has shaped the development of both martial arts and crime genres in Greater China. Using film genre as an interpretive lens, this paper aims to demonstrate how shifting the emphasis from action to narrative and context can reveal neglected connections and structures of feeling.