[In this extract from Poshek Fu’s edited collection on the films of Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers Studios, actress Cheng Pei-Pei, best known as the fierce warrior at the heart of King Hu’s Come Drink With Me (1966), describes some of the living and working conditions at the most famous and productive studios in the world.]
“The martial arts film hero Ti Lung in an interview once said: “The Shaw Brothers Movietown was my paradise.” In fact, the Shaw studio was not just Ti Lung’s paradise but was the paradise of each and every young person who found themselves there in the 1960s. It was at that studio that each of us lived out our dreams.
In 1961, I immigrated to Hong Kong from Shanghai. In order to find a group of friends who shared my passion for performance, I enrolled, in 1962, in the Performing Arts Training classes at the Shaw Brothers South China Experimental Drama Center … When we entered the Center, our paradise still seemed a long way off. Little did we know that we were entering through its main gates.Immediately after graduation from the Center in 1963, I signed the basic seven-year actor’s contract with the Shaw Brothers. Shortly afterward, South China moved to the newly constructed Movietown at Clear Water Bay. It was then that I moved into the Shaw Brothers studio dormitory. I am in full agreement with actress Ching-Li‘s oft-stated claim that “It was there that I spent the most beautiful times of my youth.”
Whenever there is discussion about how we all lived together in the Shaw Brothers dormitory, many people, especially Americans, look at me with a very awkward expression and ask: “Is it really true that Shaw Brothers actors were all locked up in the company’s dormitory and completely cut off from the outside world?” Indeed, it is true that we were almost entirely ignorant of what went on outside of the Shaw studio. Unlike today’s young stars, whose lives are constantly displayed in front of the cameras, without even a bit of privacy, however, we most definitely benefited from protection from this sort of harsh media frenzy.
The company often worried that what went on in our private lives might influence box office results. For instance, we were forbidden to date at too young of an age … Still, the experiences of today’s generation of rising stars do not appear in any way better than ours. They, too, do not have freedom, nor do they have the power to choose whom to love. Every one of their gestures is constantly under the surveillance of the paparrazzi.
Compared with today’s young actors, we were fortunate not only because of the cloistered protection provided by the Shaw Brothers, but also because of the studio’s investment of resources toward our continued training. When the Center moved into Movietown at Clear Water Bay, it was like having a classroom in our own homes. Any one of us who wanted to continue learning in order to develop our acting potential was allowed to take courses. Where can we find a manager today that would possess the perseverance and audacity to groom a star in the face of endless challenges? Nowadays, as soon as a fledgling star shows his or her potential for market success, their manager quickly jumps at the chance to get a stranglehold on the young talent, working it until every living breath of the young star is squeezed out.
Back in those early years, we frequently spent all of the twenty-four-hour day in our paradise. We had no reason to step outside of the studio campus. When we had movies to make or notices of upcoming film projects, we would receive coupons for our meals. With these, our food-catering amah would prepare for us home-style meals. […]
When I was young, I never enjoyed going out to have fun. Kang Wei later confessed to me that everyone thought I was a very strange person. How could there exist a young actress such as myself who would behave so seriously all day long? Even when I did not have movies to make, I would do voice-dubbing or give dance lessons in order to make a little extra money. I also studied dress-making and took English and ballet lessons. Today, my former dance teacher still uses me as an example of a studious dancer that all her students should follow as a role model.
Although I was making movies, for a living, my favourite pastime remained going to the movies. I could easily watch four or five movies in a single day. On occasion, I would even write movie reviews. Perhaps because of the environment of the Shaw Brothers Studio, I felt that my entire life belonged to the world of movies. […]
I remember that back in the early days of the Shaw studio, actors rarely had to shoot two films at a time, especially if they were lead actors. If we had to be in two films at the same time, it was a very big deal. When I made Xu Zhenghong’s martial arts film The Thundering Sword (1967) and Xue Qun’s musical Blue Skies, the production schedules of the two movies would sometimes overlap. On occasion, I needed to work for both these films in a single day. At that time, I was still young and did not feel tired whatsoever … Yet my mother would not stand for this. She would come to the studio office to complain that the company did not treat me like a human being, that they abused and exploited me. Because I was not yet twenty-one, not yet an adult, I could not sign my own contracts. Thus, the company finally had to give in to my mother’s demands. They once even agreed with her demand that I be sent to Japan for further training. Without a doubt, the reason they willingly submitted to the whims of my mother was because they wanted to be able to keep me at their studio until I was able to make my own decisions.
When I interviewed martial arts actress Hui Ying-hung, who joined the Shaw Brothers in the 1980s, I found that her acting experience at Shaw Brothers was completely different to mine. She told me how she sometimes had to shoot several films a day. Luckily, most of her films were martial arts films. Therefore, all she needed to do was change her headpiece, and she would instantly become a different character from another martial arts film. Sometimes, she played the main character; other times, she had only cameo roles. There even were some films in which she appeared without ever knowing their titles. Of course, many of her films she never watched, and she confessed that at times she could not even remember which films she had made.
The actor Anthony Lau Wing was even more amazing. He told me that he would say to the company’s chief executive officer Wong Kar-hei, “I am made of steel anyway, you can assign me to whichever and however many films you please.” As a result, he would work from morning to afternoon, afternoon to night, and night to morning. Oftentimes, it would be days before he could lie down on his bed.
I feel very fortunate. When I was at Shaw Brothers, it was truly the best of times for the company.“
Cheng Pei-Pei (trans. Jing Jing Chang & Jeff McClain), “Reminiscences of the Life of an Actress in Shaw Brothers’ Movietown” in Poshek Fu (ed.) China Forever: The Shaw Brothers and Diasporic Cinema. University of Illinois Press, 2008. pp.246 – 254.