Stephen Chow


Stephen Chow, the man, the legend.

Chow’s Kungfu Hustle trailer:

Here is an example of Stephen Chow’s dialogue humor:

Stephen Chow is one of China’s biggest super stars. Starting out as a popular actor in many Hong Kong movies, Chow really gained super stardom internationally when he began directing and starring in his own films. Using the style moleitau, making it his own and becoming the representative face of this subculture, Chow has created an art form that quite literally pushes limits, and has transformed not only the way the rest of the world views Chinese and Hong Kong film, but has also given the newest Hong Kong generations an identity in the face of a confusing past. Not only has Stephen Chow created a completely new, avant-garde type of humor, but he also beautifully interweaves both Easter and Western cultures together in his movies, and his humor is consequently able to mix with and entertain local, translocal, and international communities.

To understand the essence of moleitau, it is important to understand the people that have come to know and love it. Hong Kong was colonized by Britain in the mid 19th century, and though at the time the area was mostly an empty land with dispersed fishermen and their families, by the time the Communist vs. Nationalist uproar really began to take affect in the 20’s,   Chinese people began pouring in for the safety and security of Hong Kong that was quickly disappearing in China. As the war raged on in China, and Hong Kong continued to develop socially and economically, people continued to leave their homes and re-root themselves in Hong Kong. Once Mao Zedong and the Communist party took over in 1949 and things began to settle down in Mainland China, the immigration also calmed down in Hong Kong and there was finally a generation born that could consider themselves from Hong Kong. However, this first-born generation had trouble understanding to whom and where they belonged. With Mainland China so close, and mostly being ethnically Han Chinese, there was no doubt that they were Chinese, but because they were living under British rule, with a British government, these people had a stronger sense of freedom and individual rights, unlike their Communist counterpart. Not only that, but they were in constant confusion language-wise, because while Mainland China mostly spoke Mandarin, southern China and the majority of Hong Kong spoke Cantonese at home, and yet under British rule there was a strong English influence that affected all of Hong Kong even in their daily lives. There was a very obvious disconnect between Hong Kong and both China and Britain. Overall, there was ultimately a strong sense of confusion as to where their loyalties should lie and what language they should really consider their own. Hong Kong was experiencing a major lack of cultural identity on this island in between two worlds (Hui).

The Island of Hong Kong

Furthermore, during the 1930‘s, the Chinese film industry was also immigrating to Hong Kong. Though there was an interruption in the 1940‘s during the Japanese colonization of Hong Kong, overall Hong Kong was a place where cinema and film was able to grow, because “while the film industries in Mainland China and Taiwan went through nationalization and decolonization, the Hong Kong film industry became the only prospering place in the world that had the resources, talent, and freedom to make Chinese entertainment films” (Szeto, 17). Thus, moleitau was able to develop strongly without too much care for the outside world. Moleitau, in its idiosyncratic isolation, “mixes dizzying verbal wordplay, improvised dialogues and jumbled plotlines, (and) hilarious pratfalls and kung fu” (Hui). Stephen Chow epitomizes this style. He “has a reputation for combining, cross-referencing and parodying different kinds of film genres and cultures in his filmmaking, not only those of Hong Kong, but also internationally acclaimed movies” (Szeto, 309). Furthermore, he “deploys speech as a form of parody from the point of view of the “un-official” Cantonese language and culture” (Szeto, 314). Though moleitau really started to come about in the 70‘s and 80’s with the work of the Hui Brothers, it didn’t gain extreme popularity until Stephen Chow reinvented it in the 90’s (Garrison). Moleitau is known for going beyond logical physics and providing this type of slapstick comedy in which characters are often thrown about or experience extreme physical events but are still somehow unharmed. It also relies heavily on the puns and jokes that can be played in Cantonese, often making jokes that don’t make sense to many other people besides the native Hong Kong viewers. Furthermore, this type of untranslatable comedy has even become so popular that many phrases said in Chow’s movies have been taken out of context and said regularly, for example the phrase “你講嘢呀” meaning “you are talking!”, has become a common response to something said that is considered unimportant, unnecessary, or irrelevant. He “plays with the Cantonese words to twist them and give emphasis to references that pertain only to local Hong Kong audiences” (Szeto, 315).

Here is a few humorous scenes from Chow’s movies:

During a time of much anxiety, discontent, and uncertainty, this type of film was able to provide a little bit of comic relief, acting out in absurdist behavior based on the reality that the people of Hong Kong were seeing and feeling. “Never before was Hong Kong society so ingeniously– even fantastically– represented in a cultural mentality that syncretized prevailing cultural motifs and local consciousness into a creative style all its own, and that maintained a rigorous level of technical and dramaturgic craftsmanship in spite of its random, absurdist appearance” (Postiglione, 185). Moleitau reflects the confusion that the people of Hong Kong felt. Moleitau in Cantonese comes from the 4-word phrase or chengyu “mo lei tau gau”. This can roughly be literally translated to “can’t tell the head from the tail”, but the more common meaning is that something doesn’t make sense, or is nonsensical. However, “gau” is actually a vulgar term for “penis” in Cantonese, so it was cut from the official terminology in describing this form of cinema and now moleitau is more commonly interpreted as the term for this style of performance rather than as an inappropriate expression (Podvin). However this moleitau gave people more than comic relief; it has also given the people of Hong Kong a sense of belonging, giving them something that they can latch onto and claim to be strictly their own. Moleitau allows the people to, for the first time, feel like they understand something that no one else does. The random sentences and words that have been taken out of context from Chow’s films and used in daily life are in some ways a representative form of the unique and individual culture that has developed in Hong Kong, giving them a type of dialect that is for the most part only used and understood by locals.

Stephen Chow in Times Magazine

Stephen Chow is a great example of modern day avant-garde. An avant-garde performance is described as something that has been “consciously engaged with the various associations with idealogical struggle, existential alienation and socioeconomic modernity that typify avant-garde discourses globally” (Ferrari, xiv). Chow has taken the struggle felt by the people of Hong Kong and placed it into performance, expressing the distress felt by a whole people, and transforming it into something that can be artistically viewed and admired. It cannot be argued that Chow has not taken the struggle of a group of people and used it to successfully transform an art type; in this sense, Chow is avant-garde. However Chow is not an average example of what avant-garde is– in fact he takes it a step further. The typical avant-garde trend has been described as “the deliberate defacement of tradition and iconoclastic rejection of the past but also through hostility toward contemporary civilization and politics, defiant disdain for the status quo and contemptuous derision of the prevailing fashions and mainstream trends of the epoch” (Ferrari, 8). This shows the contempt that is often felt for avant-garde performance, which is only to be expected, and the reason that avant-garde is usually under greater judgement and scrutiny than other art forms. However, Chow has managed to avoid almost all criticism of his work in terms of style, and is in fact only criticized when his work does not reflect his usual absurdity (Hwang). The reason for this is because Chow has not only created a new art form to describe the anxieties of an entire people, but he has in fact created an entire culture for these people to identify with and is the first to give them the opportunity to finally call something their own.

Stephen Chow’s movies have become international hits, but he has actually done more than simply make his movies internationally successful. By making his movies comprehensible and understandable to the East and West, his moleitau style is also able to represent the bridge that Hong Kong stands on between these two sides of the world, and reach out and offer a sense of guidance and reassurance to the new, somewhat lost generations of Hong Kong. Chow’s performances lie “between a conception of culture as supporter or bastion of a cultural identity, and a conception of a culture of heterogeneity and collage” (Pavlin, 13). What is unique about Chow’s intercultural performance is that he is not purposefully trying to fuse the cultures of East and West to educate members of the Eastern and Western worlds, but rather he is trying to point out the distinctions of the multi-cultural existence that are found in Hong Kong in an effort to legitimize the already heterogenous society and culture. However, support from the Hong Kong community would not be enough to pay for these high quality, modern day box office films. Chow, though making such a great contribution to the Hong Kong community and gaining so much popularity, undoubtedly needed something that would allow the world outside the island of Hong Kong to find interest in his movies as well, and therefore provide a stronger profit. “The drumming up of comic consciousness implies that, once beyond a certain threshold of idiosyncrasy– as in the case of the moleitau— the capacity for exogenous cultural communication would be greatly curtailed” (Postiglione, 190). The specificity of the humor in moleitau was what made it so popular, and yet was also what could potentially restrict the popularity. The intercultural theme that is found in moleitau represents the culture that was already alive in Hong Kong, and yet it needed something even more appealing and relatable to the West to really allow for international success. A major theme that brought this great universal hilarity and interest was martial arts. Stephen Chow was a huge fan of martial arts, even being an amateur martial artist himself, and Chow took the already present idea of slapstick comedy in moleitau and further specified it to be martial arts. Stephen Chow has said that he has been majorly inspired by Bruce Lee, and has even gone so far as to make one of his characters in Shaolin Soccer both look and act like Bruce Lee (Brett). The universal recognition of martial arts is able to keep the “Asian” factor within his movies, while at the same time allowing other viewers to recognize and enjoy the familiar theme.

Here is a trailer for Shaolin Soccer:

Shaolin Soccer is a great example of one of his films and of both the moleitau style, and the intercultural aspects that are littered within his films. In the movie he stars as a poor martial artist who desperately wants to spread the word about Shaolin Kung Fu in a modern day China that has all but forgotten martial arts. He meets up with a famous but retired soccer player, and rounds up his friends that studied Shaolin Kung Fu under the same master. Since their master has died, they have all taken up day jobs, from stockbrokers to supermarket workers. Since they have stopped practicing their kung fu, they have clearly lost meaning in life and are caught up in minor day to day activities. After much convincing, they agree to form a soccer team, (which is already a theme that is inclusive of the international community and inviting of the transnational market. The movie follows them as they try to learn how to play soccer, reconnect with Shaolin Kung Fu, and compete against other teams. When they play their biggest rival, they find themselves struggling to win against this team that has been taking “American drugs”. Their team is shaken and injured, and the goalie that is dressed as and acts like Bruce Lee from Game of Death is even injured and taken off the field. He is replaced by a girl that has also studied Shaolin Kung Fu, and bravely volunteers to take his place. The intercultural themes that surround this movie are comical and almost painfully obvious. “Bruce Lee is the transcultural icon that brings Hong Kong martial arts films to international recognition”, and the movie’s Shaolin Kung Fu somewhat represents Bruce Lee’s martial arts form, Jeet Kune Do, with the most major factor being the idea of non-violence (Szeto, 316). By using Bruce Lee, “Shaolin Soccer draws upon multiple film genres and texts that takes the transnational intertextuality of martial arts cinema beyond the local as its referent” (Szeto, 315). A great example of the intercultural theme is shown when Chow’s character is talking to the girl that replaces the “Bruce Lee” goalie. She arrives dressed as a monk with her head shaved because he told her to get her hair out of her eyes. However, he makes fun of her by referencing the Western movie E.T. and telling her to “phone home”, because she “is not needed on Earth”. Chow’s references and parodies of popular films, themes, and hobbies has created a genre that so ingeniously allows the international community to understand the moleitau style on different levels. “The witty self-repetition and self-mimicry of popular film traditions, particularly martial arts films, playfully reveal and amalgamation of multiple layers of consciousness about Hong Kong and its cultural identity that has always blended local cultures and traditions with those beyond the geographical locale of Hong Kong” (Szeto, 52). He makes use of themes and references that have already been well loved and widely accepted and re-uses them to target a world-wide market.

The “Bruce Lee” goalie from Shaolin Soccer on the left, vs. the real Bruce Lee in his movie Game of Death on the right.

Stephen Chow has taken a style that was popular among Hong Kong and adopted it into something that can be defined as specifically his. Even more impressively, he created an identity for a culture that had felt lost and confused before. His style of performance has allowed the people of Hong Kong to identify with a particular art form, and have a stronger sense of uniqueness and individuality. Furthermore, “Stephen Chow’s films constitute a shared horizon that addresses anxiety over the possible disintegration of Hong Kong’s cultural identity beyond 1997”, after the Annulment of the Sino-British Joint Declaration (Szeto, 315). Chow targets and calls out different uses of language, particularly in Cantonese but also Mandarin and English. Unlike anything done before, Chow took the physical absurdness of cartoons and placed it within an otherwise realistic setting. To say that Stephen Chow exemplifies an avant-garde movement would be an understatement, because he in many ways defied anything popularly viewed before and did more than the average avant-garde movement. He created a completely new way of viewing the Hong Kong culture, and gave the Hong Kong people a way to view themselves and place themselves in their surroundings. But he also made his avant-garde idea a complete success that has been universally accepted and internationally loved. By adding in references from other popular sources, Chow has essentially guaranteed himself the attention of the international community, but has done it so tastefully and humorously that he has made international hits time and time again. As Stephen Chow and his moleitau style grows, so do the people of Hong Kong, and Stephen Chow will forever be a household name and a defining aspect of what and who Hong Kong is.




“Mo Lei Tau.” YouTube. YouTube, 07 Oct. 2013. Web. 09 Dec. 2013.

Hui, La Frances. “Asian American Writers’ Workshop – Nonsense Made Sense: The Downside Up World of Stephen Chow.” Asian American Writers Workshop. N.p., 16 Aug. 2012. Web. 09 Dec. 2013.

Brett, Anwar. “Stephen Chow: Kung Fu Hustle.” BBC News. BBC, July 2005. Web. 09 Dec. 2013.

Podvin, Thomas. “Hong Kong Cinemagic – Interview with Wong Jing, Guru of Mainstream Cinema.” Hong Kong Cinemagic All Items. N.p., 12 Oct. 2012. Web. 09 Dec. 2013.

Hwang, Ange. “Asian Media Access :: An Interview with Stephen Chow.” Asian Media Access :: An Interview with Stephen Chow. N.p., 18 Feb. 2011. Web. 09 Dec. 2013.

Szeto, Kin-Yan. The Cosmopolitical Martial Arts Cinema O F Asia and America: Gender, Ethnicity and Transnationalism. Diss. Northwestern University, 2005. Evanston: n.p., 2005. The Cosmopolitical Martial Arts Cinema O F Asia and America: Gender, Ethnicity and Transnationalism. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.

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Garrison, Laura T. “Looking at Hong Kong Humor.” Splitsider. N.p., 21 Sept. 2011. Web. 16 Dec. 2013.

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Sun, Huizhu. “Performing Arts and Cultural Identity in the Era of Interculturalism.” TDR Comment. Web. 16 Dec. 2013.

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Szeto, Kin-Yan. “Jump Cut: A Review Of Contemporary Media.” The Politics of Historiography in Stephen Chow’s “Kung Fu Hustle” by Kin-Yan Szeto. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2013.

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Stokes, Lisa Odham., Jean Lukitsh, Michael Hoover, and Tyler Stokes. Historical Dictionary of Hong Kong Cinema. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2007. Print.