Interview: Taiwanese Actor and Martial Artist Charng (Chang) Shan
After the success of the Meet-and-Greet weekend event at SENI 2014 featuring special guest Hwang Jung Lee, Eastern Heroes/Hate Media followed up the next year with another Asian Action Cinema fan extravaganza, this time featuring old school Hong Kong Cinema legend Charng (Chang) Shan. Held in the Polish Cultural Centre in London, the programme 'kicked' off with the screening of Shan's debut film Of Cooks and Kung Fu (1979) followed by the classic Shaolin vs Lama (1983). After a brief interval Shan took to the stage for a Q&A session and a kung fu demonstration allowing him the opportunity to display his skills as a real-life martial artist, much to the delight of his fans. A Meet-and-Greet/autograph session followed with more screenings of his films. It truly was a day to remember.
Thanks once again to author and filmmaker Toby Russell, I was given the opportunity to photograph and interview Master Shan for MyM magazine the day before the event, which led to a three-page special within the pages of issue 42.
Almost three years on and I am delighted to be able to publish here the interview in full. Enjoy!
Born in Inchon Korea to parents from Shantung province China, Chang Shan left his hometown at the age of 21 and headed off to Taiwan to take part in a World Championship martial arts tournament which he won. Impressed by his performance the film company Eternal Movies got the young fighter to sign a contract to make nine films in three years. He would go on to play some of the most feared onscreen bad guys in some of the best old school kung fu movies of the eighties and nineties, most noticeably Shaolin vs Lama.
Where does your love for martial arts come from?
My older brother practiced taekwondo and taught me a bit before taking me to a master of Chinese kung fu. I was about 9 or 10 years old. My sifu (teacher), Bi Shu Yi, was 68 years old.
Did you ever have any aspirations to be an action star before you got your movie deal with Eternal Movies?
No I never wanted to be an actor before then. When they wanted me to do it I said, “Why do you want me? I’m not a good looking guy. What do you want me for?” They just said, “We want you to sign”.
Can you remember making your first film Of Cooks and Kung Fu and what that experience was like?
I was always being scolded by the action director because I didn’t really understand what I was supposed to do at the time. I was missing with my Kicks. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was fighting like a robot. But after Shaolin vs Lama I began to learn more about acting and fighting for films.
Shaolin vs Lama has become one of your most popular films. When you were making it did you think it was going to be so popular among fans of kung fu films?
I didn’t know it was going to be a hit. I didn’t really think about that. When we were shooting that film the atmosphere was really good on set. The action director Peng Kong was really helpful and he let me use my own style. That’s why the fighting in that film is quite unique. The only bit I hate is in the beginning where I do the Casanova [Wong] triple kick, because my legs weren’t quite right. I wanted to reshoot it but they wouldn’t because they didn’t have enough money or time to make the breakable pots as all the others had been broken by some thugs and we had to leave that set.
Did you have any input into the development of the character you played?
No. I didn’t really understand about it at the time. For the acting part I was quite nervous, but for the fighting… no problem.
Was there a lot of preparation work done for the climax of the film or was it worked out there and then on set?
There was never any rehearsal. The action director would shout “Go” and you just do it. There was never any preparation rehearsal on these films, we practice the action on the set, when it's ok we shoot it. The director wanted to shoot the ending in seven to ten days, just the ending. But we shot it in four and a half days. There was about six separate action directors involved. We were able to get 60 good shots per day. I was twenty seven at the time and the other guy, Alexander Lo, was about twenty three or twenty four. We never stopped for a rest we just kept filming.
Having so many different directors on the one film, was there ever any disputes between them?
No because they would always show the main director Peng Gang what they had done and he would say, “Yes that goes, but that doesn’t go” etc. One days shooting was about $10,000HK. We were fighting in about 36 degrees heat. We got sunburnt and the skin on our foreheads started to peel off.
Sounds like a tough shoot. Did you have any serious injuries on set?
There’s a shot in the movie were we both jump up in the air and hit… I broke my finger when I landed on the ground. So I went to the hospital and they said I needed to have a cast on it. I said, “No. That’s not gonna happen”. I carried on, but if you look closely from that moment on in the movie I’m only really using my other hand. My finger turned a black colour. So afterwards I went home and put it in hot water.
During your career you’ve appeared alongside many top martial artists including one of the toughest female onscreen fighters Yukari Oshima in Kung Fu Wonder Child (1986). What was it like working with her and what is your opinion of her fighting skills?
Oshima gave me a good impression. Her work attitude is very serious. She is very polite lady. Her fist and kicking kung fu is very good.
In many of your films you can be seen wearing some pretty cool outfits. Were these specially made for you or had they been worn in previous films?
On the bigger budget films and period films we had our costumes designed and tailored for us. On the lower budget pictures we wore our own clothes.
You retired from the film industry after making Chinese Ghostbusters. What was your reason for this?
Well, the films I did early on in my career were really enjoyable; it was like a family unit. Everybody working on the film would help each other out. But then there were all these modern day movies. They’d have a Hong Kong actor come over and he’d do two days work and put his name up big in the credits and get paid 10 times the amount we were getting. My name was just listed as a tiny support actor on the credits. So, I just thought it wasn’t worth the effort. I just decided I didn’t want to do it anymore.
How much had it changed in those 10 years since you did Shaolin vs Lama?
I went from playing big roles like the main bad guy to playing smaller parts. I wasn’t too keen on the Hong Kong actors. They were quite arrogant. I don’t hate them, it’s just their attitude. For example, I was making a film called Five Fighters From Shaolin and they cheated me. They said I was going to be the star of the movie but I wasn’t. They had my name very small like I was one of the extras, but they signed me as being the lead. Then they sacked everybody. It’s just a classic example of the Taiwan movie madness.
Did you decide to go into another business or did you just take it easy for awhile?
I set up a Korean BBQ restaurant and did that for awhile. It didn’t do too bad, we just about broke even. But I knew too many people and they would come in every day and would all drink the profits (laughs). A while after that, an old friend of mine who was very powerful within the Korean television industry gave me the rights to a popular Korean drama he made as a gift because he owed me a favour for doing some films for him. There were 280 episodes made. I sold the Taiwanese video and television rights and lived quite well from that. He gave me a contract but I said “I don’t know anyone in that sort of business”. And my friend said, “If you have a contract, they will find you”. So then I got a call from a TV company saying, “We hear you have the rights to this show”. They really wanted it because it was very popular at the time. I also made good money from the video sales.
Looking back are you proud of the films you have made?
Yes. But when I was young I would shoot a movie and think “I can do better than that”. I was always thinking how I could improve. I’d look in the mirror and try and improve on my acting. Now that I am older they are very good memories for me.
Is it true that your children never knew until recently that you had acted in films?
Yes because originally I didn’t want my children to see those types of films because they may have been embarrassed by them. Then one day my son and his friends were watching TV or a movie and my son’s friend said “That looks like your dad”. And my son said, “Oh yeah, you’re right”. When he came to me about it my wife showed him all these photos from my films. He’s very proud about it and told all his friends. Now they all sit together and watch them on video.
Is there any truth to the rumour that you have come out of retirement and currently working on a new film with Shaolin vs Lama director, Lee Tso Nam?
Yes. There are two projects I am working on. One is a secret, I can’t talk about. The other one is with Lee Tso Nam. We should have started shooting by now but we’ve delayed it by about another month. In 2013 I went up to Lee and said I want to make movies again. So I started on a training program and Lee said “OK, whenever you’re ready then”. So now we have a project together with China. I play the bad guy. I’ve done six days rehearsing with the action director. I thought I was too old. When they knew my real age they were surprised. They thought I was forty-something, but I’m 58. I can’t say too much about it though. Lee doesn’t want the actual story of the movie to come out yet. It’s in our contract not to say anything.
Thank you Master Shan. It's been a real pleasure talking with you.
Above image: MyM magazine issue 42.
Many thanks to Toby Russell and Rick Baker at Eastern Heroes.