Almost every Hong Kong household in the 1990s was served this dinner dish called “television over rice,” a joke about how much TV entertainment Hongkongers consumed every day. As a Hongkonger who grew up in the ‘90s myself, I remember literal tears rolling down from my face into my bowl of white rice as I watched a very emotional TV episode. I was six years old and thought I knew every human emotion there was in the world.
On weekends, aside from everyone’s favorite Japanese cartoons like Sailor Moon and Pokémon, I devoured comedy films by Stephen Chow, the iconic Hong Kong actor-director. Chow’s Cantonese comedies became an integral part of the Hong Kong identity in the 90s; our local sense of humor flourished in the atmosphere of his nonsensical jokes.
Chow was the acknowledged master of a type of lowbrow Cantonese humor known as as “mo lei tau,” which loosely translates into something like “nonsense,” or “silly talk” as British film critic and comedian Jonathan Ross once called it. Many of Chow’s ‘90s films were set during the Ming dynasty in China between 1368 and 1644, though the characters’ dialogue often included modern Cantonese slang that would never have been used at the time. This ridiculous dissonance was the backbone of Chow-style humor, enhanced by illogical twists and exaggerated delivery.
In an iconic scene from “Flirting Scholar” (1993), for example, the Ming scholar Tang Bohu (played by Chow), having pretended to be severely ill, is subsequently caught eating grilled chicken wings. Confronted with the question of why he is well enough to eat chicken wings (“But your mom said you are going to die!“), Tang slowly stands up and abruptly begins dancing and singing a ridiculous song about his love for grilled chicken wings (which happen to be the real Chow’s favorite childhood food, appearing frequently in his films.)
I have to confess: that addictive tune, however silly it was, was my mobile ringtone for as long as flip phones lasted.
The crude and often vulgar humor in Chow’s ‘90s films comes with a straightforward plot: The protagonist starts off as a flippant character or someone vowing to become a villain, but he always fails hysterically and turns into a hero after falling in love or experiencing some life-changing event.
In the “The God of Cookery” (1996), Chow plays an arrogant celebrity chef who builds his reputation by cheating customers and rigging culinary competitions. He is ousted by an underling, and then rescued by a street hawker named Turkey (Karen Mok), whose face is distorted from a stab wound. At the very end, our hero learns what it means to love, and Turkey is transformed into a beauty via plastic surgery; Chow never fails to cast an attractive actress as his love interest.
The story arc is reprised in “Kung Fu Hustle” (2004). Sing (played by Chow) begins by attempting to rob someone in a slum; the would-be gangster winds up becoming a kung fu master, saving the entire village, and eventually reuniting with his childhood crush. The theme of redemption recurs in nearly every Chow film.
Perhaps Hongkongers needed the great laughs and uplifted feelings of his ‘90s classics as an escape from the darkness of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. When Chinese troops crushed student protesters with rifles and tanks in Beijing, it was a chilling reminder to Hongkongers, with the 1997 handover looming, that they too would face the same oppression and the loss of their freedoms. Every year, tens of thousands attend the memorial vigil in Hong Kong on June 4 to commemorate the victims of Tiananmen. Yet, while we reminded one another of the atrocities committed by the Communist Party, we could carry on with our sense of “mo lei tau” humor and the belief that goodness will eventually triumph.
The decade following the Tiananmen Massacre was one of escapism in Hong Kong, both literally and metaphorically. Some moved abroad before 1997 after losing faith in the city’s future; others who stayed still enjoyed some years of prosperity. Hong Kong’s pop culture also peaked in the 1990s, with Jackie Chan making his big break in Hollywood and director Wong Kar-wai cementing his global status as a celebrated art-house filmmaker.
Chow owed his ‘90s success in part to his longtime sidekick, Hong Kong actor Ng Man-tat. If Chow played a genius lawyer, Ng was the corrupt judge. When Chow played the Monkey King, Ng was the second disciple — Pigsy. And although Ng is nine years older than Chow and appears obviously older, he unapologetically played roles as Chow’s nephew or godson, subtly inflating the comic effect. The duo became so well-liked and respected that many still refer to Chow as “Grandpa Sing” (Sing is his Cantonese middle name) and Ng as “Uncle Ng.”
However, Uncle Ng has not been involved in any Chow productions since his appearance in “Shaolin Soccer” (2001). Ng was said to have a role reserved but did not actually seal the deal in “Kung Fu Hustle” (2004), widely considered by Hong Kong fans to be Chow’s last great comedy, an end to his era of greatness, though some have argued that Chow’s talent had run its course with “Shaolin Soccer.”
“Kung Fu Hustle” was the first and the last of Chow’s films to earn numerous international awards outside of Asia. Its elements of Chinese martial arts, along with the refreshing mo lei tau humor that’s strikingly different from traditional Kung Fu films, successfully attracted a wide range of audiences in the West. Chow breathed life into his main characters and delivered fascinating action sequences. How can anyone forget the landlady’s headful of hair rollers, and the cigarette that’s always hanging by her lips? Her character has become such a lasting influence that, if we simply Google “landlady” in Chinese right now, the image of the landlady from “Kung Fu Hustle” appears first.
These films are enjoyable even without understanding Cantonese, thanks to the exaggerated physical performance and the comical special effects. But Chow’s mo lei tau humor is largely untranslatable, depending as it does on the clever use of the Cantonese language.
For example, “Kung Fu Hustle” opens with Axe Gang leader Brother Sum going after a rival gang leader, who’s Shanghainese. Having circled his enemy, Brother Sum tells him that “your folks have all gone to study Cantonese,” implying they’ve either been killed or converted. Neither the Mandarin nor the English translation could capture the essence of that one simple line. Hongkongers don’t have to think twice about a witty remark or rapid-fire banter; growing up with Chow’s films, our brains were wired with mo lei tau humor. I mean it: every Hongkonger has the potential to be the next king of comedy.
After the record-breaking box office success of “Kung Fu Hustle,” Chow came out with “CJ7” (2008) and “The Mermaid” (2016), but he had lost his mojo.
He secured an enormous investment of $60.72 million from mainland Chinese producers for “The Mermaid”—triple the budget of “Kung Fu Hustle.” “The Mermaid”’s celebrity cast, elaborate costumes, and underwater 3D elements were evidence of the film’s gigantic budget. Chow stayed behind the camera as the director, screenwriter, and producer, and cast highly recognized actors from mainland China and Taiwan to star. He had been absent from the Hong Kong cinema for eight years, and multitudes of longtime fans, including myself, were excited for the film. It turned out to be a huge letdown.
Firstly, “The Mermaid” was filmed in Mandarin rather than Cantonese—though a dubbed Cantonese version was released, Chow’s mo lei tau humor had lost its roots and original appeal. Perhaps the absence of Chow onscreen also made it less attractive. But the biggest disappointment lay in the film’s mainland-Chinese-style conventionality: extravagant, but lacking in substance. Diehard fans can still recite Chow’s long funny quotes from 20 years ago, but none of the punchlines from “The Mermaid” made any lasting impression. Although the lush production provided a fine visual experience, it felt as if the special effects had been brought in to make up for the lost humor.
The subtlest threat to the Hong Kong identity is China’s steady effort to replace the city’s local language with Mandarin. The Chinese Communist Party can easily suppress the Cantonese language by changing early education curriculums, allowing mass immigration from the mainland, and converting well-known celebrities like Stephen Chow and Jackie Chan into cultural ambassadors—not for Hong Kong, but for China.
While both Mandarin and Cantonese are used in China and are tonal languages, they are not mutually intelligible. The strange quality or “otherness” of “The Mermaid” seemed to portend something grim for Hongkongers: a loss of common language and collective memory. Chow’s absolute mastery of the Cantonese language had made his early films precious in a particular way. Mandarin words tend to sound softer and always end in a vowel, while Cantonese is often thought of as a rougher language, distinguished by frequent sharp endings on a consonant—a partial explanation for Hongkongers’ reputation for bluntness and sharp wit. With his 2016 comeback, Chow targeted the more lucrative mainland Chinese market, in the midst of Hong Kong’s increasing frustration with the CCP.
The scheduled release date of “The Mermaid” on Chinese New Year also happened to coincide with the anniversary of Hong Kong’s 2016 Mong Kok civil unrest, when violent clashes had broken out between riot police and localist protesters angry at the police’s unusual sweeping of unlicensed street food vendors on Chinese New Year—enjoying street food on the New Year being a longstanding Hong Kong cultural tradition. Edward Leung Tin-kai, a prominent activist arrested that night, is now serving a six-year prison sentence on the charge of rioting. Leung coined the slogan, “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times,” which emerged as the most-chanted protest slogan in the city’s pro-democracy movement this year.
When Leung was running in the legislative council by-election in 2016, he said that anti-Chinese sentiment in Hong Kong was the result of the city’s lack of rights to its own self-governance. Although Hong Kong has remained a financial hub since the handover, residents are still struggling with one of the worst housing crises in the world, and a host of other serious problems. Can we still find refuge in “TV over rice” when the inequalities and uncertainties are no longer merely looming, but staring us down directly?
In 2013, Chow was appointed as a committee member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a political advisory body without legislative power. Chow has said he was unaware of the appointment when it was made, and he has been either showing up late to the meetings or leaving within 10 minutes. But he has stayed on the committee every year since 2013, and said his voice could “contribute to the development of Chinese cinema.”
The term “Chinese cinema,” however, is specific to mainland Chinese productions and does not embody all Sinophone cinema. Hong Kong cinema has already lost much of its cultural sway over the years. Can we even name one influential Hong Kong film since the early aughts, beyond Wong Kar-wai’s “2046” and Andrew Lau’s “Infernal Affairs”? The reason is not far to seek. If a local film borders on political commentary or criticism, it’s guaranteed to be barred from major theaters—and the consequences may extend far beyond a screening ban. The political anthology “Ten Years” (2015), which speculates on Hong Kong’s diminishing freedoms in 2025, was banned from theaters and media outlets despite winning local film awards.
As a filmmaker, Stephen Chow is not responsible for the helplessness that has permeated Hong Kong, but he is the symbol of a nostalgic era. The king of comedy, who shaped and represented Hong Kong’s culture, was the cultural compass for a generation that grew up and thrived at the intersection of British colonialism and the Chinese authoritarian regime.
To think of Chow and his oeuvre as a collective memory suggests that he’s something of the past, like our childhood, our decaying sense of belonging, our idea of home. What has kept the Hong Kong protesters on the streets for the past seven months, despite police brutality and government suppression, may be, in part, a desperate yearning for a past that we can feel slipping away.
In the “The God of Cookery,” Chow bounces back from rock bottom despite being stripped of his title and fortune. When he proudly reappears before his enemies, he says of his redemption, “It’s like a dream, and it proves Hong Kong to be a miraculous place. If you work hard here, dreams do come true.” This optimistic view would sadly tug at many Hongkongers’ heartstrings today, as it no longer reflects the world they see around them.