Flavours of Chinese

A while back, a fellow walked into a video rental place to ask for Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay. This in itself was not unusual, but what made the inquiry so memorable for me is that he asked, “Do you have that new movie, Harold and Kumar Escape From Guacamole Bay?” This question has very little to do with what I’m about to discuss, but since that fellow made my day in such a hilarious fashion, I thought I would dedicate this blog entry to him…whoever he is.

At the Ye Olde DVD Shoppe for Chinese people, a question often comes up that is not heard in other DVD outlets: “Do you have Such-and-Such Chinese Movie in Cantonese yet?” I should point out that these folks are inquiring about films made in Hong Kong, not Mainland Chinese films.

This question may seem odd to those of you who don’t normally seek out HK films on DVD. It’s not so odd when you consider that (for some reason that I have yet to unearth) HK films typically see sooner release under Mainland distribution than they do in Hong Kong. The most widely distributed editions in the Mainland are dubbed in Mandarin regardless of the original language, thus the question from Cantonese speakers about a Cantonese edition.

What’s most striking about such requests is how passionate they can be. Some walk away disappointed when only a Mandarin dub is available but others get quite indignant at the idea of a non-Cantonese edition of a Hong Kong film–or at least the suggestion that they buy the Mandarin version instead of the HK edition.

To say that language is important is a bit of an understatement. While it is the source cultural diversity, it is also a divisive issue that inflames people’s passions. And this is just a DVD we’re talking about here, never mind national pride.

While the Chinese government is doing its utmost to ensure that future generations speak the official tongue and write in Simplified form, the deep roots of Cantonese look as though they’re going to hold firmly for a while yet.

I just hope the DVD shopkeepers get those Cantonese releases in soon…they’ve got a crowd waiting.


The glory that was the Golden Harvest Theatre (or How I became a Golden Harvest fan)

During the ’80s, there was a stretch where my parents and I would make weekend trips to downtown Toronto. Invariably, we’d find ourselves at the corner of Spadina and Dundas catching an afternoon flick at the Golden Harvest Theatre. There were other Chinese movie houses to be sure, but this was the one that I remember most fondly.

Golden Harvest (the studio) was a dominant force in Hong Kong cinema at the time, so the theatre did not go wanting for films. Movies like Dreadnaught, The Miracle Fighters, and The Champions played as first-run pictures at Spadina and Dundas, and I was fortunate enough to have seen them there. Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao were rising stars in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and I got to see their rise to fame in films like The Young Master, The Magnificent Butcher, and Righting Wrongs shortly after those pictures hit the big screens back in Hong Kong. I wound up seeing quite a few movies starring these three talented gents so it’s little wonder that I became such a fan of theirs.

It was also at the Golden Harvest Theatre that I had my introduction to the HUI brothers when The Contract (1979) and Security Unlimited (1980) played. The theatre didn’t just confine itself to first-run films, though: HUI classics like Games Gamblers Play (1974) and The Private Eyes (1978) would be brought in from time to time as crowds chomped at the bit to see their favourite comedic trio again and again. Also making it to the big screen in re-release was The Way of the Dragon (1972), which became the first Bruce Lee film that I can remember. (My mum tells me the very first movie I saw theatrically was Enter the Dragon, but I was three or four at the time.)

My family stopped going to the cinema some time in the mid-80s, and I honestly can’t remember the reason. I do recall that the last film I saw at Spadina and Dundas was Lucky Stars Go Places (1986).

Even though the cinema is now defunct, overrun by street merchants, I still look at it fondly whenever I pass by. It was a big part of my life back in the ’80s and made a lasting impression on me. I’m still a Golden Harvest fan today, and I’m eternally grateful for the wonderful memories I have of the theatre and the movies that it played.

No, I’m not yelling out surnames

As any good fan of Eastern Cinema knows, many Eastern cultures use a name order that’s the opposite of the Western convention; that is, the family name is written first. So Park Chan Wook is Mr. Park, Wong Kar-Wai is Mr. Wong, etc.

Of course, cultural conventions rarely adhere to ironclad rules and naming is no exception. We have, for instance, folks like Ang Lee whose name (outside of Chinese-speaking countries, at least) goes by the first name-last name convention. And then there are people like rock star Wu Bai, who really trip up non-Chinese speakers by using a stage name (kind of like the Chinese equivalent of “Bono” or “Lady Gaga”). So what is one to do to keep all the names straight?

Well, when I first began watching Korean movies (if you haven’t started, you really should), I noticed that the English subtitles would spell out certain names in BLOCK CAPS. After a bit of research, I discovered that this was a naming convention that some people use to indicate family names.

Simple yet brilliant, no? Well, at least it beats the forced westernization technique of putting everyone’s family name last regardless of their cultural background. (“Hey, the world is now one big melting pot. Isn’t it great?”)

I don’t know who came up with using block caps, but the fact remains, a good idea is a good idea, so I’m using it. All future entries in this blog, then, will use this convention.

So say “Ohayo” to Messrs. ASANO Tadanobu and MIIKE Takashi. And give YUEN Woo-Ping and YAM Tat Wah a big “Nihao”. (Well, “Lei ho” would probably work better since they’re both Cantonese speakers.)

With that out of the way, this blog is ready to rock, so stay tuned….