Thursday, 27 December 2012

Opera singing Rickshaw Puller

San Ma Tse Tsang (新馬師曾 1916-1997) was one of thr greatest Cantonese opera stars of his time. In The Rickshaw Puller and the Orphan (拉車行大運, 1961) he plays a rickshaw puller who shows kindness to others and is rewarded. The  opening credits are shot over Hong Kong scenes familiar to westerners, Sun Ma Tse Tsang's song tells about ordinary local people who wouldn't have gone to the Peak or to fancy nightclubs.  Rickshaw pullers were poor, but their jobs took them to all parts of town. They saw Hong Kong from different perspectives. Although this film is fiction, it's also keen social observation. The relationships between Ah Cheung and his neighbours are central to the plot. Lots of cameos for character actors of the time, like Sai Gwa pau with his buck teeth and Lau Hak Suen with his "villain" eyebrows.

Sun Ma Tse Tsang plays Ah Cheung, a rickshaw puller. Rickshaw work was tough. The men were out, often barefoot, in all weathers, and many became drug addicts. Sun Ma tseTsang's wiry physique is perfect. He looks tubercular but he's tough. In real life he was a powerful character and used to make jokes about his looks. Ah Cheung lives in a bed space. It's not a room but a space rented out for  a few hours before the next "session". He's way behind in his rent. The landlady Sam Koo (陶三姑 1895-1983) acts tough and mercenary but her droll face is inherently funny. Brilliant character actress.  One day Ah Cheung picks up a woman who is in childbirth. They start to negotiate a fare but he realizes she's about to pop, so he runs for help. When he gets back the woman is gone, but she's left the baby behind. So Ah Cheung picks up the baby and tries to cope. There's a wonderful scene where he climbs over his sleeping neighbours and steals milk and a thermos of hot water to feed the baby. The landlady charges more because babies cry and create diapers. Nonetheless Ah Cheung raises the baby, carrying in in the umbrella section of his rickshaw while he works. 

A famous opera singer Miss Chan (Fu Tsair) (Tang Bik Wan 鄧碧雲 1926-91)  also in real life a very famous actress and opera singer)  is propositioned by a sleazy rich man, Mr Lau ( Lau Hak Suen) who smokes cigars, wears a bow tie and is chauffeured around in a fancy car.  Rickshaws are called "cars" too, so there's a pun on the words "pulled car" and "petrol car". Miss Chan jumps into Ah Cheung's rickshaw to fend off Mr Lau. "Petrol cars are faster than rickshaws" says Mr Law who goes to Miss Chan's house to lie in wait. But Miss Chan gets Ah Cheung to ride around all night instead of going home. She asks about the little girl, who's name is "Thirty Cents", the fee Ah Cheung and her mother were negotiating before the baby was born. "You deserve to be loved" says Miss Chan, who admires how the toddler follows the rickshaw and helps out night and day.

Miss Chan gives Ah Cheung $20. "Too much!" says Ah Cheung. "We're behind in rent!" squeaks the kid. Rich Mr Lau is angry that  Miss Chan got out of his clutches so sends his thugs to beat Ah Cheung up and smash his rickshaw. "It's only money" says the rich man. Significantly Sun Ma Tse Tsang describes the mugging in a opera aria.  Miss Chan goes to see Ah Cheung in the "Pigeon Roost" which he calls his home, because everyone there is stuffed together like pigeons. "He lives on the thjrd tier" says the landlady, meaning the third layer of bunk beds. "He can't work" she adds, he's beaten "red, silver and yellow". 

Miss Chan gives Ah Cheung money, and he shares his good fortune with the whole household and pays for a feast. The scene where the householders eat chicken is poignant. They're too poor to nomally eat meat, so they gnaw on the bones to get every last scrap of goodness.  Details like this are lost on moderrn people who don't know what poverty was like then. For example, street kids were sometimes covred in black slime. "Don't pick her up" says Ah Cheung, worried that the dirt on the child might mess Miss Cheung's beautiful cheoung sam.  That night the householders dream of food, licking their lips and rubbing their tummies in their sleep. "They've eaten the equivalent of a month's rent" says the landlady, who dreams that her round clay piggy bank has broken.

Since Ah Cheung can't do rickshaws any more, Miss Chan hires him as her assistant in the opera house.  He mimics a snippet from a famous aria, "I am 18 years old, I've never thought of men" (is this from the Purple Hairpin?)   Mr Lau's thugs beat up one of the other opera singers, so Ah Cheung is called on to sing the role of a cheeky maid. In real life, Sun Ma Tse Tsang was a great singer, so he can do the part with great humour.  Hilarious falsetto! The Prince in the opera is I think sung by Tang Bik Wan herself. Cross dressing is no big deal in Cantonese opera.

Ah Cheung is now in western clothes and his little girl has a white fur coat and doll. They are staying with Miss Chan in a mansion.  Mr Lau wants to trap Miss Chan into marrying him, but Ah Cheung discovers a stash of white powder..So he warns Miss Chan that .Mr Lau is a crook. They sing an extended duet in traditional opera style as they decide what to do.  When the crooks discover the stash has been found, they try to stop Ah Cheung and Miss Chan from calling the police and leaving. Ah Cheung is bundled into the boot of the car, and Miss Chan is tied up in the passenger seat. But little Thirty Cents runs to tell her dad's fellow rickshaw drivers what's happening, and they all rush to help, blocking the getaway. Confronation between rickshaws and fancy foreign car, morally upright poor folks and sleazy crooks. Ah Cheung's hawker friend joins in, unleashing the pole he uses to carry his goods, and uses it as a weapon. What a clash of cultures! It turns out that Miss Chan was the lady Ah Cheung helped a few years before. Thirty Cents is her natural daughter. In the last scene, Ah Cheung is back in the Pigeon Roost with three tiers of bunks, reading about Mr Lau's arrest in the newspaper. Miss Chan enters, in simple black sam foo, (symbol of Chinese virtues) and coyly says "I want to talk to you about something". 

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