Transcending Space and Time – Early Cinematic Experience of Hong Kong
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Hou Yao

Hou Yao (1903-1942) was the first generation Chinese playwright and film director and a pioneer of Hong Kong film industry. He started his career by writing and directing silent films in Shanghai during the 1920s. By the 1930s, he had made almost twenty Cantonese films, with subjects widely ranged from romance to social issues to national affairs. He moved to Singapore in the 1940s and made several Malay films. Hou was a skillful director and a thoughtful storyteller, branding his individuality on every film. Though lived a short 40-year life, Hou left cinematic works that are unquestionably timeless.

New Stage, from Theatre to Cinema

Hou Yao and his wife Pu Shunqing were standouts in Shanghai’s theatre circle in the 1920s. He was admitted to Southeast University in Nanjing in 1921, and founded Nanjing Local Committee of the Socialist Youth League with friends the year after. When Hou met his future wife Pu Shunqing in the school’s drama club, he was on the mission to recruit youths and educate the public through theatre. While studying and managing the club, he created six plays that were performed on campus and different clubs all over the country. They were later published in a book.

After his graduation in 1924, Hou married Pu Shunqing and was hired as screenwriter by Shanghai’s Great Wall Film Company. In this period of booming creativity, he wrote five screenplays in merely two years and even directed his own work The Hypocrite. All of them were written in the style of realism, from the perspective of an intellectual, exposing and criticising the bygone society.

New Milestone: China Sun

1926 was the first milestone of Hou Yao’s career: he and his wife joined Shanghai’s China Sun Motion Picture Company, which was run by Lai Man-wai. He wrote or directed nine films in three years (six of which he even did both). His screenplays were diversified in genres and subject matters: contemporary or period dramas, social or romantic stories, personal struggles or national conflicts. He would utilise the structure of traditional drama and infuse modern beliefs to create films that were ahead of their time. One could definitely get a glimpse of such in his surviving films Way Down West and A Poet from the Sea (both 1927).

After making Mulan Joins the Army (1928), Hou Yao left China Sun at the peak of his career and joined the National Revolutionary Army to take on educational work. In 1933, Hou moved to Hong Kong due to rising instability in China. After making The Fool Pays Respects, he once again left the film industry and penned some popular novels, such as Incident in the Pacific, which in 1938 was adapted under the same name for silver screen by himself. In 1937, Hou came back to make Cantonese films and amassed sixteen films in three years.

Time Changed Life

Hou cared not only about films or theatre but also politics. He joined Chinese Youth Party in 1930 to engage in military education work and published articles, wrote plays and poems under a pseudonym to spread sentiments against the Japanese. He even helped smuggle firearms to the troops.

He took refuge in Hong Kong but his patriotism wasn’t eroded. Those years away from the unrest only helped him to become more pragmatic than radical. He chose to concentrate on writing and teaching after making The Fool Pays Respects in 1933.

Ups and Downs

Hou published a series of novels and essays in newspapers during 1934 to 1936. He repackaged his works to gain greater access to the mass while subtly conveying patriotism. Becoming enormously popular, he was highly sought after by every major newspaper.

With a huge fan base, Hou made a comeback in filmmaking in 1936. He directed and wrote many films, in collaboration with his protégé and close partner Wan Hoi-ling. The news of his comeback continued to attract the media and box office soared. This was his career renaissance.

In early 1940, Hou made fourteen films with subjects ranging from war film to folklore. Nonetheless, Chinese government implemented new policies to censor the film industry, and Hou was personally criticised. Distressed, he moved to Singapore with Wan Hoi-ling at Shaw Brothers Limited’s invitation. He made six Malay films in just a year and a half. Sadly, the Japanese army occupied Singapore in 1942. Hou was jailed and executed. 


  • Hou Yao and Lai Man-wai

  • Film still of The Pearl Necklace (1926)

  • Film still of A Poet from the Sea (1927)

  • Handbill of Romance on the Battlefield (1928)


  • Interview of Lau Yam