Jan 19, 2006|
My parents were both famous Cantonese opera artists. My father, Chen Fei-nong, specialized in playing women. When I became a movie actor, my first roles were mostly male.
Although they were opera stars, we weren’t that wealthy. My mother would give me 30 cents a day, enough to buy a bottle of Coca-Cola. I loved going to banquets, because I could drink as much Coke as I wanted.
I was a child star. A friend of my father’s took me to my first sifu (teacher), who said I should play boys’ roles.
I was still in school when I started acting, but I took so many days off that I quit school in Form One. Unlike me, my good friend Josephine Siao Fong-fong had an English-speaking private tutor from Diocesan College.
Education wasn’t stressed in my childhood. My family was very conservative in that girls don’t really need to study. Besides, my family couldn’t afford a private tutor and I wasn’t too keen on studying.
I made more than 200 movies from 1959 to 1970. My typical role was as the eldest daughter - a gentle and docile girl who had to leave school and work as a “factory girl” to support her family.
The “factory girl” was a common phenomenon at that time: young women were a source of cheap labor when Hong Kong’s economy started to take off. Family always came first for the factory girls. My most popular song was “Long live factory girls.”
There wasn’t much entertainment in those days and movies were the most popular pastime. The factory girls related to my roles. They thought, “Hey, we’re not alone.” So they loved me madly.
In 1970, I went on tour in the US. I stayed to learn English, got married in 1974 and became a housewife. I retired from the screen. I didn’t miss it. In fact, I quite liked being a housewife and raising my only child, Yeung Tin-king. But my husband passed away almost 20 years ago.
Tin-king entered showbiz under the influence of my background, I believe. He loves acting. He’s 30 but he’s still a new kid on the block.
I don’t think he’s particularly talented. He’ll have to be very smart to survive in Hong Kong showbiz. He’ll learn from the mistakes he makes.
My fans and I have always had a very good relationship. They never left me even after I got married. Some became close friends. When I was in the US, they would keep my mother company, playing mahjong, so I wouldn’t worry about her.
Fong-fong and I were the biggest stars of the 60s, but our fans were not on good terms. They would shout and glare at each other. It is quite funny when I think about it now.
I grew up with my fans. When we were young, they would chase my car, just like the crazy fans today. When I got married, they got married too. Now I’m singing again, they come back to see me sing - and chase after my car again. But I always say to them, you’re not young girls anymore and can’t run like them. Despite my advice, they enjoy running after my car because it makes them feel young again.
I returned to the stage in 1999 in “Sentimental Journey,” in which I played the role of my sifu, Ren Jianhui. I was very nervous about this decision. Some of my friends worried I would destroy my career if the show failed.
Fame doesn’t really matter to me. Acting in “Sentimental Journey” was a new challenge as it was my first play. But if the audiences didn’t like me, there was nothing I could do. I could only try my best.
I was the only official protégé of Ren Jianhui. We had a very simple ceremony, in which I poured tea for her and her partner, Bai Xuexian [a legendary couple in Cantonese opera]. Ren was a loving sifu. She was always genuine and made you feel loved. She was a mother figure to me; I always wanted to hug her. Bai, on the other hand, was the stern one, unsmiling, strict and intimidating. But deep down, she was very kind too. That is why they made a great couple – yin and yang.
Ren didn’t give me any proper training. She took me to the studio and I learned acting skills by peeping from behind the crew. But she taught me the importance of being genuine, caring for others and being humble.
Many people regard me as part of Hong Kong's identity. I think that is a bit heavy. But I did leave a very deep impression with many people at a special time in Hong Kong’s history.