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Nonsense Made Sense: The Downside Up World of Stephen Chow

The veteran comedian, actor and director was the epitome of Hong Kong’s ’90s-era mo lei tau subculture.

By La Frances Hui

A young woman, Ah Qun, has gone where few right-minded human beings would dare go: a heavily guarded mental institution. She is on a mission to track down a mysterious man she spotted the night before who bravely confronted a spooky ghost. But as soon as she enters the compound, she is stopped by a guard. Just when her quest seems finished, the guard is distracted by someone screaming, “Robbery!” Gingerly moving forward, Ah Qun comes across some extraordinary minds: one patient explains Van Gogh’s religious views to his fellow inmates; someone else demonstrates Einstein’s theory of relativity on a blackboard; and yet another recollects a phone call from Steven Spielberg, who was seeking advice on a sequel to Jurassic Park. Suddenly, her target leaps out of nowhere and asks her, “Do you believe in flying saucers and the Loch Ness Monster?” When Ah Qun answers yes, the man says, “We can talk.” Introducing himself as Leo, the man explains that he is deemed insane simply because he is scared of nothing. As he describes the origins of his fearlessness, our visual cuts to a stone-faced child (presumably the young Leo) fending off monsters and taking on wild rides in an amusement park.

The above is a short sequence from the 1995 Hong Kong film Out of the Dark, starring the popular comedian Stephen Chow as Leo. It bears all the trademarks of a typical Chow film: illogical—even incoherent—events, unconventional speech, comic gags, and twisted characters. (Leo and Ah Qun eventually partner together to save a haunted apartment building.)

Born in 1962, Chow has acted in over fifty films, many of which have broken Hong Kong box office records. His brand of lowbrow comedy, which mixes dizzying verbal wordplay, improvised dialogues and jumbled plotlines, hilarious pratfalls and kung fu, is hugely popular. Some of his most memorable roles include an “expert of trickery” who gets paid to fool people in Tricky Brains (1991), an undercover cop who infiltrates a high school as a student in Fight Back to School (1991), a martini-drinking butcher-turned-James-Bond-style secret agent in From Beijing with Love (1994), and a Shaolin kung fu practitioner who uses his martial arts skills to play soccer in Shaolin Soccer (2001). An extraordinarily creative actor, Chow is known to improvise on movie sets and sometimes serves also as the films’ director and screenwriter. Although he has drastically decreased his film output in recent years, he is still revered as “Grandpa Star”—a reference to a character in his Chinese name meaning “star”—for his undisputed influential status.

Chow ruled the Hong Kong box office in the ’90s. He represented the epitome of the ’90s mo lei tau 無厘頭 “nonsense” subculture. Mo lei tau is a Cantonese term that can be translated literally as “coming from nowhere,” but in common parlance it means “makes no sense.” In Chow’s films, this concept manifests itself as absurdist and unintelligible speech and behavior. Since his television work in the late ’80s, he has invented nonsensical phrases that have become widely adopted in everyday life. The slang phrase “You are talking!” (你講嘢呀!), often heard in Chow’s films, has become the customary response to any spoken statement deemed unnecessary, irrelevant, and dismissible.

But all this so-called nonsense did not really come from nowhere. The ’90s were a particularly tumultuous time in Hong Kong history. The Sino-British Joint Declaration, signed in 1984 after rounds of negotiation between the Communist Chinese and British governments, determined that Hong Kong would rejoin China in 1997, after more than 150 years of British colonial rule.

Hong Kong’s colonial history is unlike most others. When Hong Kong Island was ceded to British rule in the mid 19th century, it had only a few thousand inhabitants, scattered throughout fishing villages. The Hong Kong of today—a global financial center with a population of more than seven million—came into being during the colonial period as waves of immigrants from mainland China poured into the city to flee political and economic turmoil. As an immigrant society, Hong Kong did not have an indigenous cultural identity of which to speak. It was not until the early 1970s, when a native-born population finally came of age, that Hong Kong’s sense of rootlessness began to dissipate. A unique Hong Kong identity—as opposed to a larger Chinese identity—slowly emerged, driven by the enormous social, economic, and cultural gaps between Hong Kong and mainland China.

This stability and contentment, however, was radically upset by the looming arrival of 1997. The Joint Declaration was decided without the participation of the Hong Kong public. The brutal crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests created further anxiety. Young people—those who grew up in Hong Kong, knew of no other home, and enjoyed its economic rise and relative freedom—suddenly found themselves facing an unnerving reality. Educated in a colonial system that was designed to deflect political and historical consciousness, they found the unfolding events and politicians’ speech incomprehensible. Thus they turned to the nonsense subculture, as exemplified by Chow’s films, to essentially act out their discontent.