Hong Kong might be well-known for its fantastic cuisine and iconic cityscape, but let’s not forget that we are also the Hollywood of the East, home to a wealth of gifted actors and a top-notch film industry that was first in the world in terms of per capita production, and the third-largest motion picture industry worldwide, behind only Hollywood and Indian cinema. Despite our return to Chinese sovereignty, we still enjoy a greater level of autonomy as a creative hub and have retained much of our distinctive film identity, producing works that continue to play a prominent part on the world cinema stage.
In honour of the glitz and glamour of the silver screen that was part of what made Hong Kong great, here is a list of the city’s most iconic actors of the late 1980s and 1990s, who more than deserve their fame and accolades, with film recommendations for each artiste. Everybody already knows all about Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, but how many works from these other Hong Kong actors have you already seen?
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The inimitable Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing was one of Hong Kong’s most loved celebrities. He rose to prominence as a pop icon and was largely considered one of the ‘founding fathers’ of Cantopop, receiving multiple accolades for his work, such as the Jade Solid Gold Best Ten Music Awards, the Golden Needle Award, and the RTHK Top 10 Gold Songs Awards.
For Western audiences, Cheung was better known as a prolific actor, whose big break came in his starring role in John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow in 1986. His most famous films included Rouge (1987), Days of Being Wild (1991), Farewell My Concubine (1993), Viva Erotica (1996), and Happy Together (1997).
As a bisexual artist, Cheung was a forerunner in Hong Kong’s mass media for queer representation. He collaborated with Jean Paul Gaultier to create cross-cultural drag costumes, which highlighted androgyny and queerness, and also worked with William Chang—the art director in Wong Kar-Wai’s Days of Being Wild—in his music video Bewildered, featuring a homosexual relationship between men. He refused to self-censor, and such blatant flouting of social convention was unfortunately not well received in Hong Kong, though it must be said none of it diminished Cheung’s popularity.
Even more than a decade after his death by suicide in April 2003, Leslie Cheung remains a beloved Hong Kong icon whose star still shines bright in the hearts and minds of most in the city, and indeed across Asia.
Must-watch work: Happy Together, also starring Tony Leung (see below). This raw film about a turbulent romance was nominated for Palme d’Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival.
There’s no doubt that Tony Leung Chiu-wai is one of Hong Kong’s most widely-acclaimed actors of his generation, and has won multiple acting awards—including Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival. He has also been listed by CNN as one of “Asia’s 25 Greatest Actors of All Time” and both Robert De Niro and Brad Pitt have been quoted as being fans of his work.
Leung has famously collaborated multiple times with director Wong Kar-wai for a total of seven films. He has also starred in films by Ang Lee, Zhang Yimou, and John Woo, most of which are internationally-acclaimed productions. Leung first received large-scale attention in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1989 film A City of Sadness, which won the Venice Golden Lion, but he truly shot to stardom with John Woo’s classic 1992 action film Hard Boiled.
Apart from his spectacular filmography with Wong Kar-wai, featuring stellar films such as Chungking Express (1994), Happy Together (1997), and In the Mood for Love (2000), Tony Leung is best known to international audiences for starring in the iconic Infernal Affairs (2002), for which he won Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Award, the Golden Horse Award, and the Golden Bauhinia Award.
Leung represents the best of Hong Kong’s acting talent and has long been under-appreciated among mass western audiences, but it was announced this year that he is to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe, playing the Mandarin in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, slated to come out in 2021. We are positively vibrating in anticipation for his Hollywood debut.
Must-watch work: In the Mood for Love, also starring Maggie Cheung (see below). Tony Leung was awarded Best Actor for the film, becoming Hong Kong’s first actor to win this award at Cannes.
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A household name since 1980, Chow Yun-fat is respectfully referred to in Hong Kong’s media as ‘Big Brother Fat’. He is well-known across Asia for his work in heroic bloodshed action films and has also starred in several films that performed very well in Western box offices.
After making a name for himself on TVB with television series The Bund, Chow established himself as a film superstar with John Woo’s gangster melodrama A Better Tomorrow (1986), and quit TV entirely to focus on the silver screen. The film was a resounding success and set a new precedent for the Hong Kong gangster film genre; with this under his belt, Chow went on to make many more films in the heroic bloodshed genre, such as The Killer (1989), the iconic cult thriller Hard Boiled (1992), and City on Fire (1987). If you didn’t know that Tarantino ripped off the latter for his debut film Reservoir Dogs, well, now you do.
To Western audiences, Chow is most likely remembered for his role as Li Mu-bai in Ang Lee’s 2000 wuxia film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was a winner at both international box offices and the Oscars. He had also starred alongside big Hollywood names such as Jodie Foster in Anna and the King (1999), and Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007). His role as a ruthless emperor in Zhang Yimou’s stunning Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) is also a chilling portrayal juxtaposed against gorgeous backdrops.
Must-watch work: God of Gamblers, also starring Andy Lau (see below). Chow truly flexes his acting muscles, showing a range of portrayals from a debonair pro gambler to a bumbling slap-stick idiot savant.
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The beautiful Hong Kong-born Maggie Cheung Man-yuk was raised in Bromley, England, from the age of eight, before returning to her hometown and placing second in the 1983 Miss Hong Kong pageant. That same year, she was also a semi-finalist in the Miss World pageant. This paved the path for her on-screen career, starting as a TV presenter with TVB.
Cheung became a star practically overnight when she starred alongside Jackie Chan in the hugely popular Police Story (1985). However, she wanted more dramatic roles instead of comical or typically feminine ones, getting her wish when Wong Kar-wai cast her in his 1988 action drama As Tears Go By opposite Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung. Her work went on to earn her much critical acclaim; Cheung holds the record for most wins in the Best Actress category for the Hong Kong Film Award, and has been awarded the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival, as well as Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival. In 2004, she became the first Asian actress to be nominated for the French César Award for Best Actress.
Cheung truly broke into the international scene with Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep (1996), and her first English-language film was Wayne Wang’s Chinese Box (1997), which also starred Gong Li and Jeremy Irons. But her most recognisable role is, of course, opposite Tony Leung in Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000). Her cheongsam-wearing character is to this day still a classic icon in both the film and fashion worlds.
After 25 years of film-making, Cheung decided to take a break from acting in 2004, shifting her focus to philanthropy and composing music for films instead. It’s hard to say if we will see Maggie Cheung on the silver screen again, but luckily, she has a large treasure trove of filmography for us to trawl through.
Must-watch work: Clean, in which Cheung’s harrowing performance as a mother trying to kick her drug habit and reconcile with her son won her the Best Actress Award at Cannes.
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Stephen Chow Sing Chi is Hong Kong’s comedic superstar, as well as internationally acclaimed as an actor, film director, and producer. Like plenty of boys, he was inspired by Bruce Lee to become a martial arts star after watching The Big Boss at age nine. After a few years on television with TVB, Chow debuted in films with Final Justice (1988), which garnered him attention and the Taiwan Golden Horse Award for Best Supporting Actor.
His claim to fame was undoubtedly The Final Combat (1989), a wuxia comedy TV series, in which Chow cemented his famous catchphrase, “Sit down, drink some tea, eat a bun,” (坐低飲啖茶食個包) into Hong Kong lexicon. He then starred in a veritable flood of comedies, firmly earning himself a place in Hong Kong cinematic history as the king of comedy with his particular brand of humour known in Cantonese as mo lei tau, which evokes a casual, mindless, and crass vibe that resonated very well with local audiences. Fight Back to School (1991) became Hong Kong’s top-grossing film of that age, also starring Ng Man-tat, who has partnered with Chow on many other comedies.
In 1994, Chow also began directing films starting with From Beijing with Love, a spoof of James Bond movies. His films Shaolin Soccer (2001), Kung Fu Hustle (2004), and CJ7 (2006)—all of which he directed and starred in—went on to win him various awards and enjoyed much popularity in the box office. His 2016 film The Mermaid broke numerous box office records, becoming the highest-grossing film of all time in China; Chow was then ranked the ninth top-grossing Hollywood director of 2016.
Must-watch work: Tricky Brains, also known as The Ultimate Trickster, starring Andy Lau, Ng Man-tat, and Rosamund Kwan. We think this is his funniest comedy, though many will argue for their favourites. The humour is very locally Hong Kong, so foreign viewers might find it difficult to get the quick-witted and punny jokes.
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The late Anita Mui Yim-fong was not only a major idol in the Cantopop music scene, dubbed the “Madonna of the East”, but also a well-known actress who had starred in over 40 films. Her works were mostly in the action, martial arts, or comedic genres, but she had also taken on dramatic roles as well.
Mui’s first acting award was Best Supporting Actress at the Hong Kong Film Awards for Behind the Yellow Line (1984), and she then went on to win Best Actress at both the Hong Kong Film Awards and the Golden Horse Awards a few short years later for Rouge (1987). She also starred in the action-packed The Heroic Trio (1993) with Michelle Yeoh and Maggie Cheung, in an early display of girl power wrapped up in a flashy kung fu superheroine adventure.
Unfortunately, we lost Mui way too young; she died of cervical cancer in 2003, aged only 40. She was originally cast in Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers, but resigned two weeks before her death due to her poor health. Out of respect for Mui, Zhang never cast another actress in her role, instead removing the character completely. In the film’s closing credits, Zhang quietly dedicated the work “In Memory of Anita Mui”.
Must-watch work: Rouge, also starring Leslie Cheung. Mui’s performance as a love-lorn ghost is understated and emotional.
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Arguably one of Hong Kong’s biggest stars, Andy Lau Tak-wah is a prolific actor who has worked on more than 160 films while maintaining a hugely successful singing career at the same time. Along with Michael Miu, Kent Tong, Felix Wong, and Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Lau was named as part of the ‘Five Tiger Generals of TVB’, a group signifying the five most popular young leading actors of 1980s Hong Kong television.
After finishing TVB’s artist training program, Lau went on to star in many television series, further heightening his popularity. He later left TVB in the late 1980s due to contractual issues and focused on film instead, starting off with a small role in Once Upon a Rainbow, and then onto his first leading role in the Shaw Brothers-produced action flick On the Wrong Track (1983). He was rather pigeonholed into heroic gangster roles, such as in Wong Kar-wai’s As Tears Go By (1988) and Benny Chan’s A Moment of Romance (1990), but was later able to spread his wings as an artist with dramatic roles such as an honour-bound kickboxer in A Fighter’s Blues (2000)—which he also produced—and a cancer-ridden criminal with nothing to lose in Running Out of Time (1999).
Of course, to a wider international audience, Lau is better known for his leading roles in the iconic crime thriller Infernal Affairs (2002) opposite Tony Leung, and in Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers (2004), both of which are stellar performances and earned him worldwide acclaim. In 2018, he was invited to become a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Must-watch work: A Simple Life (2011), also known as Sister Peach. Lau’s heart-wrenching performance as a filial man looking after his ailing servant is a tour de force.
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Aaron Kwok Fu-shing is most known for being one of Hong Kong’s ‘Four Heavenly Kings’—the title given to the top Cantopop stars of the 1990s—along with Jacky Cheung, Andy Lau, and Leon Lai. Dubbed Hong Kong’s answer to Michael Jackson, who Kwok modelled his dancing style after, he remains hugely popular and a greatly marketable star in Asia to this day.
Apart from his music, Kwok also has a successful career on-screen, having started off in TVB series such as Wars of Bribery. He later moved on to focus on movies, usually appearing on the silver screen at least once a year since 1988, collecting multiple nominations and awards along the way. In 2005, Kwok became the surprise winner for Best Actor at both the Golden Horse and Golden Deer Awards, beating veteran actor Tony Leung Ka-fai to the honour.
Kwok remains very active in the industry—he already has four films in the production pipelines—so it looks like we’ll be lucky enough to still see more of his work in the years to come.
Must-watch work: After This Our Exile (2006), in which Kwok gives a masterfully nuanced performance as a father who uses his son to pay off gambling debts.
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Actor and director Nick Cheung Ka-fai started working in film after a four-year stint as a Royal Hong Kong Police officer. He moved from ATV to TVB, where he worked on a slew of widely popular television series such as Healing Hands (1998), The Legendary Four Aces (2000), and The Last Breakthrough (2004). Cheung eventually left television altogether to work solely on films. Initially, he was typecast in comedic roles à la director Wong Jing, but has branched out into more dramatic and sombre roles since 2003.
Determined to have his craft taken seriously, Cheung starred in four crime dramas by Johnnie To, then reunited with Dante Lam, who he worked with for 2001’s Runaway, to make Beast Stalker (2008). He had been nominated multiple times for Best Supporting Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards, until finally bagging three Best Actor awards for his role as a boxer-turned-assassin who is losing his eyesight in Beast Stalker.
Cheung garnered a lot of attention when he transformed himself by losing a lot of weight to play a man serving a 20-year prison sentence for an alleged murder in Nightfall (2012), and then again when he underwent a year of professional athletic training for the role of a former fighter who rediscovers his purpose in life within the world of mixed martial arts in Unbeatable (2013). He went on to win several Best Actor awards again for this taxing film.
Must-watch work: Line Walker 2 (2019), also starring Louis Koo. This modern reprise of the heroic bloodshed genre is a rare case of a sequel being better than the first film (which itself was a spin-off of the TVB drama series of the same name).
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There truly isn’t anybody in Hong Kong who doesn’t know of Eric Tsang Chi-wai. Among local audiences, he is best known for hosting the ever-popular variety show series Super Trio on TVB for 18 years. Due to his fast-talking and often hilarious straightforwardness, he is often given MC roles in productions and television events.
Tsang is also an awarded actor with many successful films under his belt. He was mainly typecast into bumbling sidekick and comedic roles early in his career, but after working with Peter Chan, who cast Tsang in his first role as a mobster leader, the perception of his acting skills were elevated and more dramatic roles came flooding his way.
Western audiences will most likely recognise him from the Infernal Affairs saga, in which he masterfully plays a multifaceted gang leader. Tsang received the New York Asian Film Festival 2017 Star Hong Kong Lifetime Achievement Award, but it doesn’t seem like he’s quite ready to collect his gold stars and call it a day yet—good news all around!
Must-watch work: Mad World (2017), also starring Shawn Yue. Tsang plays an estranged father who takes on the task of looking after his son who suffers from bipolar disorder.
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Anthony Wong Chau-sang joined ATV’s training programme at the age of 21 after returning to Hong Kong from attending college in the UK. As a half British actor, he was subjected to institutionalised racism in the Hong Kong film industry of the 1980s, something he has openly critiqued both in interviews and online.
Since his film debut in Angie Chen’s My Name Ain’t Suzie (1985), Wong has collected more than 200 screen credits in his repertoire. Earlier in his career, he was known for playing violent, villainous characters, such as in the cult hit The Untold Story (1993) about a real-life serial killer who made meat buns from the flesh of his victims.
International audiences will most likely recognise him from his roles in the classic action film Hard Boiled (1992) and, again, in the critically acclaimed Infernal Affairs saga. He has also appeared in Hollywood productions, namely The Painted Veil (2006) and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008), as well as recently in the British television series Strangers (2018), which is set in Hong Kong.
This year Wong received the Golden Mulberry award for outstanding achievement at the 21st Far East Film Festival and the Black Dragon Critics Awards, as well as Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards.
Must-watch work: Still Human (2019), also starring Crisel Consunji in her debut film. Wong plays a paralysed wheelchair-bound man who develops a heartwarming relationship with his new Filipino helper.
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It doesn’t matter whether you love him or hate him; there’s no denying that Chapman To is a big name in Hong Kong. One could even say he is the king of bawdy comedies, whose works in hilarious, dirty-minded films have gained him much popularity because of their distinctly Hong Kong-centric humour and local flavour.
To first gained attention for his supporting role as a quippy gang member in the first two films in the Infernal Affairs trilogy—his character has one of the movie’s most quoted lines: “If you see someone half-heartedly doing something, but watching you at the same time, then he’s a cop.” He truly rose to prominence with La Comédie Humaine (2010), in which he portrays a hitman from mainland China who, by circumstance, gets thrown into the path of a geeky scriptwriter. Hijinks obviously ensue, but To also manages to convey pathos and moments of emotional depth.
Apart from comedies such as Vulgaria (2012), From Vegas to Macau (2014), and Black Comedy (2014), To has also starred in action films such as Initial D (2005), and produced box office hit Sara (2014) and family drama Isabella (2006), portraying his wide range of talents that are often overshadowed by naysaying comments about his low-brow image.
Must-watch work: Vulgaria, also starring the hilarious Ronald Cheng. Again, the humour here is very local (and, in case the name hasn’t clued you in yet, very vulgar—be warned!), so non-Cantonese-speaking folk may find it difficult to catch some of the quippy jokes, but it’s an uproariously funny film regardless.
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Tony Leung Ka-fai
Not to be confused with Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Tony Leung Ka-fai—known in the entertainment circuit as ‘Big Tony’ while Tony Leung Chiu-wai is ‘Little Tony’—is a four-time Best Actor winner at the Hong Kong Film Award, who has been in the film industry for more than 30 years.
After his debut in 1983 with Burning of the Imperial Palace, Leung went on to star with Chow Yun-fat in three well-received films, namely Prison of Fire (1987), A Better Tomorrow 3 (1989), and God of Gamblers Returns (1994). He has also worked internationally, starring opposite British actress Jane March in French erotica drama The Lover (1992) based on Marguerite Duras’ novel, as well as working with David Morse in the action-horror movie Double Vision (2002).
Leung’s performances have been highly acclaimed over the years and he is very much a respected veteran in Hong Kong’s film industry. His work in Everlasting Regret (2005) opposite Sammi Cheng and in martial arts fantasy epic The Myth (2005) with Jackie Chan are highly memorable, though he will be most known to local audiences as starring in noir crime thrillers such as Island of Greed (1997) and the fantastic police thriller Cold War (2012), for which Leung won Best Actor.
Must-watch work: Election (2005), also starring Simon Yam. Leung plays a gang leader engaged in a struggle to gain power and is sordidly gritty in this dark film that’s suspenseful and amusing in equal measure.
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We round off our extensive (but by no means exhaustive!) list with Donnie Yen Ji-dan—actor, martial artist, director, producer, action choreographer, stuntman, and world wushu tournament champion extraordinaire. Yen is one of Hong Kong’s top action stars, and consistently one of Asia’s highest-paid actors.
After debuting in 1984, Yen made his breakthrough in Once Upon a Time in China II (1992), in which his character had a fight scene with Jet Li’s character Wong Fei-hung. His martial arts abilities impressed his co-star so much that Li insisted Zhang Yimou invite Yen to play his adversary in the wuxia epic Hero (2002), a film which then went on to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2003 Academy Awards.
Yen has also choreographed fight scenes for many films, including Hollywood productions, such as Highlander: Endgame (2000), Blade II (2002), Stormbreaker (2006), and Flash Point (2007), the latter for which he won Best Action Choreography at both the Golden Horse and Hong Kong Film Awards.
Needless to say, Yen truly became a household name both in Hong Kong and internationally with the highly popular Ip Man films, in which he plays the titular wing chun master who becomes Bruce Lee’s teacher. In 2016, he starred in the Star Wars anthology film Rogue One as Chirrut Îmwe, a character which got voted as the audience favourite in an official poll on the Star Wars site.
Must-watch work: The Lost Bladesman (2011), in which Yen plays the historical Chinese general Guan Yu, and also served as the action director—yet another example of how he is not just an outstanding martial artist but also a truly good actor.