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Kwan Tak Hing, MBE (traditional Chinese: ???; simplified Chinese: ???; pinyin: Guan Déxing; 27 June 1905 – 28 June 1996) was an actor who played the role of martial artist folk hero Wong Fei Hong in at least 77 films, between the 1940s and the 1980s. No-one else in cinema history has portrayed the same person as many times. In total he made over 130 films. He was elected to be the chairman of Chinese Artist Association of Hong Kong in 1955. He was awarded the M.B.E. (Member of the British Empire) in 1983.
Kwan was born in Guangzhou, China in 1905. He was the second child in the family. His father died of a disease at a young age. When Kwan was 12, he began work in construction. At the age of 13, he worked as a waiter in a restaurant in Singapore and started to learn Cantonese opera.
His film debut was in The Singing Lovers in 1933, made in the US. During the World War II he was in a troupe of patriotic entertainers and had a price put on his head by the Japanese.
The first film in which he starred as Wong Fei Hong was the Story of Huang Feihong (1949) directed by Wu Pang and produced by the Yong Yao Film Company. The film included Shek Kin as the villain and Li Lan, the very first winner of the Miss Hong Kong Pageant, and the first of many winners who would become famous actresses in Hong Kong). This partership was a huge success and spawned many sequels, exploring many ideas and situations used in later action films. In 1956, a total of 25 Wong Fei Hong films were released.
The Wong Fei Hong sequence of films ended in 1970, but in 1974, Golden Harvest revived the role, pairing Kwan with Sammo Hung in The Skyhawk. Other films followed followed in which Kwan reprised his familiar role – The Magnificent Butcher (1979), the Magnificent Kick (1980), and Dreadnaught (1981). TVB also aired a 13-part television series featuring Kwan as Wong Fei Hung in 1976. By this time, he was then in his 70’s and though he was doubled for the more athletic scenes, he still demonstrated remarkable fitness and suppleness. To the Chinese, Kwan embodied the Confucian virtues and patriarchal authority, and he is thought to have modelled his speeches on those of Sun Yat-sen. Kwan appeared in cameo roles in The Family Strikes Back and Aces Go Places 4 (both 1986). His final film appearance was in the 1994 family comedy film It’s a Wonderful Life!, at the age of 89, some 61 years after his acting career began.
Kwan was originally a practitioner of the White Crane martial art including the use of the bullwhip and the pole. Kwan was also known for his skills in the lion dance and Chinese calligraphy.
Although these films feature a lot of bloodshed, it is interesting that at the end of The Magnificent Butcher, the main villain (played by Hoi San Lee) is saved from Sammo Hung, reflecting Wong Fei Hung’s portrayal in the original films, wherein he would defeat the villain but then heal him. Kwan became so associated with the mature Wong Fei Hong that other filmmakers would only portray the character as a younger person, including Jackie Chan playing Wong as a young man in Drunken Master (1978), and Yuen Woo-ping depicting Wong as a child (played by actress Sze-Man Tsang) in Iron Monkey (1993). When Jet Li portrayed Wong in the Once Upon a Time in China (film series), many Chinese audiences thought him too young.