- This article was first published in our May 2022 issue.
As the British government threatens to privatise Channel 4, it’s worth looking at the channel’s important contribution to British film. Channel Four Film/Film4 has especially helped British minority filmmakers – Horace Ové, Hanif Kureishi, Gurinder Chadha, Steve McQueen… But for all the success Black and South Asian British filmmakers have had in the last 25 years, the voice of British East Asian filmmakers has been largely absent. Nevertheless, one of the finest productions made under the Channel Four Film banner is by a Chinese-British filmmaker.
Leong Po-Chih’s Ping Pong (1986) debuted at the 1986 Venice Film Festival, then sank almost without trace, grossing just £12,928 in a meagre British theatrical run before its television airing and $67,421 in its US release. Perhaps its tone alienated audiences: it’s a quirky but not zany light noir, playing the crime elements seriously. The plot follows the fallout when London Chinatown restaurateur Sam Wong is found dead in a phone box. A Chinese-British junior lawyer, Elaine Choi, is tasked with sorting out the will. Wong’s family are taken aback to find that his beloved sports car has been left to a mysterious ‘Sarah Lee’, and that a family member must accompany his body to China for burial. None of them – especially son Mike – want to go back, or sign the will (which they have to do to make it valid). There is also the problem of the eccentric Mr Chen, who immigrated to England with Sam in 1936 but, unlike his friend, never took up citizenship.
Leong, born in Northampton to Chinese parents, may be the first first-generation Chinese-British film director. An alumnus of the London Film School and the BBC, he went to Hong Kong via the Shaw Brothers’ TV network TVB, where his international background meant that he had almost an outsider’s view on the local scene. His earlier films included Foxbat (1978), a spy film starring US imports Henry Silva and Vonetta McGee, and the interesting colonial romance Hong Kong 1941 (1984), starring Chow Yun-Fat.
On a minuscule budget of £650,000, Leong makes Ping Pong look far more expensive than the glorified teleplay it is. Sam Wong’s phone-box demise (placed knowingly opposite a poster for the posthumous Bruce Lee cut-and-paste thriller Game of Death, 1978) has a Technicolor, opalescent glow, redolent of American pulp magazine covers and Patrick Hamilton. London’s Chinatown, around Gerrard Street in the West End rather than the Limehouse of Yellow Peril cliché, is here a bustling, savvy mini-Hong Kong. But the focus is on characters caught – ping-ponging – between a China that no longer exists and a Britain that doesn’t want them.
Lucy Sheen, as the British-born Elaine, is superb, with her plucky countenance and an oddly naturalistic quality that contrasts with her femme fatale appearance – Sheen’s still working, but deserves better than token bit parts in soaps/sitcoms. Top billing, though, goes to David Yip as Mike, the dead man’s son. The Chinese Liverpudlian Yip had come to fame in the BBC policier The Chinese Detective (1981-82), but never achieved his potential – the highlights of his film career otherwise were as doomed sidekicks to both Indiana Jones and James Bond. Here, though, he is a natural screen lead.
Otherwise, the cast is full of Chinese-British character stalwarts. Burt Kwouk is absent for once, but two other key Chinese faces of British screen do appear: Ric Young, who shortly afterwards moved to Hollywood, has a cameo as a yuppyish relative; and Robert Lee is wonderful as the flat-capped hoarder Mr Chen, showing childlike wonder and a gravitas that he never got to display playing Asian stereotypes in the likes of the sitcom Mind Your Language (1977-86). Perhaps this film would have led to better roles, had he not died before its release. Barbara Yu Ling, a dragon-lady satanist in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), is Sam’s daughter; other roles are played by actors whose sparse filmographies and charming naturalism suggest unfamiliarity with the camera.
The film is as much feel-good comedy as mystery. A lazy comparison would be Wayne Wang’s Chan Is Missing (1982); it is perhaps better set alongside Peter Chelsom’s Hear My Song (1991) and Funny Bones (1995) in the way it constructs a world like ours but with genre trappings, like the nunchuck-wielding ex-Hong Kong policeman uncle, woven in almost unobtrusively. But these Asian touches are largely overshadowed by quintessential British banality, in the form of the bland suburban funeral home where Sam’s traditional Chinese funeral is staged.
After this, Leong went back to Hong Kong, making pictures including Shanghai 1920 (1991), before returning to the UK with the Jude Law vampire picture The Wisdom of Crocodiles (1998). A career in American TV and straight-to-video vehicles for Steven Seagal and Wesley Snipes followed. Perhaps work would have been harder to come by in Britain. Since Ping Pong, films about Chinese Britons by Chinese Britons have been vanishingly rare – the best-known example is Hong Khaou’s Lilting (2014), which had a white lead in Ben Whishaw. Otherwise, Chinese Britons have been seen mainly through the eyes of foreign directors shooting in Britain (Zhang Zeming’s Foreign Moon, 1996) or white Brits, as in Mike Newell’s Soursweet (1988) and Richard Laxton’s Grow Your Own (2007). The latter cast Benedict Wong as a refugee rather than using his own distinctive Mancunian tones. Maybe someday a Chinese-British filmmaker will give Wong a lead in a film as good as Ping Pong.