Mambo Girl opens with a shot of Golden Age icon Grace Chang shaking her bon-bon to a Latin-flavored mambo number while wearing checkered Capri pants. So, we’re in pretty good territory right from the start. The film that follows the rump-shaking opening is a breezy affair from the heyday of Hong Kong cinema. It was a time when the screen was ruled by the likes of Linda Lin Dai and the star of this particular movie, Grace Chang. Grace was the reigning queen of Cathay Studios, one of the most respected studios in the history of Asian film. Few and far between were the films that didn’t feature Grace singing, dancing, and flashing her smile at the camera.
Cathay was the primary competition for the Shaw Brothers, and both studios shared some major stars, including the impish Peter Chan Ho and the regal Linda Lin Dai. Like Shaw, Cathay roots were in South Asia. Studio founder Loke Wan Tho began making films in the late 1930’s when his family began opening state-of-the-art theaters in Singapore. After the end of World War II, Loke cemented a deal to distribute British Rank films in South Asia. In the 1950s, he moved the business to Hong Kong, purchased a studio lot, and formed MP & GI, which would later change its name to Cathay. The studio was keen on developing new talent. While the Shaws had a good balance of male and female superstars, Cathay was always considered a “woman’s world” known for a stunning array of actresses who overshadowed their male counterparts. Cathay built its success around a core group of female stars that included Linda Lin Dai, Jeanette Lin, Julie Yeh Feng, Lucilla You, Betty Loh Ti, Li Mei, and Grace Chang. Cathay films and stars were well-regarded by critics and fans alike, and the studio exhibited a consistently high quality in the vast majority of what it produced. But, as we all know, nothing gold can stay.
By the mid-1960s, the studio began to decline. Loke died in a plane crash in 1964, and Shaw Brothers productions began to eclipse those of Cathay. The Shaws simply had more money to throw into their projects, and they lured away a number of Cathay’s biggest stars, chief among them Linda Lin Dai. By the end of the decade, Cathay had lost nearly all direction, and it’s style of film was out of fashion. Whimsical romantic comedies and dramas, especially in black and white, were no longer as popular as they had once been. Cathay was sold to a young upstart studio that would eventually do to Shaw Brothers what the Shaws did to Cathay — drive it out of business. That upstart studio was Golden Harvest, the eventual home of, among others, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.
But there for a while, no one could match Cathay in terms of star power and picture quality. And if your studio has to have a poster girl, you can sure do a lot worse than Grace Chang. There’s something special about her, something unique. Her popularity was driven by her undeniable charisma, overpowering charm, and versatile singing voice. Where Hollywood (and indeed Hong Kong). Audiences thought of her as the woman you could always trust to be your friend, to be dependable and friendly and down to earth. You could also count on her to sing you a song. And unlike many actresses who were featured prominently in Hong Kong musicals, Grace could belt out her own tunes.
She was born in 1934 in Nanjing but grew up in Shanghai. There, in China’s most cosmopolitan and swinging city, she trained in Peking Opera, which in those days often provided a path into the movies. In 1949, after the tumult of World War II and the Chinese Civil War, Grace and her family moved to Hong Kong. She made her film debut in Seven Sisters (1953) and joined MP & GI in 1955. Her film and singing careers soared after that, and she became one of the top stars of stage and screen. Her singing talent even garnered her an appearance on America’s Dinah Shore Show. She married in 1964, and like most Hong Kong actresses, her marriage heralded her virtual retirement from show business. She still makes occasional appearances though, and she left a tremendous legacy.
Mambo Girl is an excellent way to get to know the work of both Cathay and Grace Chang. As the story of the making of the film goes, Grace was performing for troops in Taiwan and had them so enthralled with her mambo dancing that they started calling her Mambo Girl. Scriptwriter Yi Wen was then inspired by her popularity to write a quick little film around the name. Another story, as told by Grace herself, maintains that the idea for the film came during an evening at a nightclub where Cathay founder Loke was so impresses with her dancing and singing that he decided a movie should be made. Whichever version of the story is true, the fact remains that someone somewhere saw Grace singing and dancing and simply had to make a movie for her where she could do the same.
Although for the most part it’s a breezy musical comedy, unlike most films from that particularly light-hearted genre, it has a darker, more serious current running through it that allows it to make a social comment without being heavy-handed. Grace stars as Li Kia-ling, the celebrated “mambo girl” as she is known on campus. She’s the all-American (or all-Hong Kong) gal who gets good grades, treats her fellow students with equality and respect, and is a vastly talented singer and dancer. Aside from being the sweetheart of the campus, she has a cool little sister and a father who owns a toy store and, when neighbors come by to ask them to turn down the mambo music, tells the neighbors to take a hike. Rather than being the movie parent who attempts to crush the musical dreams of his child, he encourages her. Her father is played by Liu Enjia, one of the best male leads at Cathay and one of their only men to not be overshadowed by the ladies. He’s a big, fat jolly guy, after all, and it’s hard to overshadow big, fat jolly guys. He was Cathay’s go-to man whenever they needed a solid father figure, and he’s best known for his roles here and in the successful cross-cultural comedy The Greatest Civil War on Earth.
All the boys at school fawn over Kia-ling, chief among them Peter Chan Ho. If you watch enough musicals and comedies from either Cathay or Shaw Brothers, you’ll get to know Peter Chan Ho. He seems to star in dang near every one of them, and he’s managed to romance everyone from Grace Chang to Linda Lin Dai to Cheng Pei-pei. Peter is an ubiquitous fixture in the musical films of the ’60s and ’70s, and he’s a pretty likable guy who emanates an everyman kind of charm which, while not as magical as Grace’s, makes you root for him. When Peter and the boys aren’t studying — and they rarely seem to study — they’re following Kia-ling around and urging her to sing and dance. You know the scene. It’s been in countless musicals, and in the background is always a guy I know simply as Tennis Racket Lad. If you’ve ever seen a musical set at the beach, a college campus, or a summer resort, then you’ve probably spied the Tennis Racket Lad. He’s the guy in the chorus of nameless friends who, when song and dance breaks out, always strums a tenns racket like a guitar. I’ve seen Tennis Racket lad in at least a dozen films, from multiple countries, and I’m sure he shows up in a dozen more.
Kia-ling’s life is turned upside down when her sister discovers the older sibling she idolizes is in fact adopted. When she confesses this to her best friend, who also happens to be jealous of Kia-ling’s popularity with the boys, the girls, the teachers, the janitors, and everyone else in Hong Kong, word gets around to Kia-ling’s friends, and eventually to Kia-ling herself. Although her rival tries to make it a point to insult our darling Mambo Girl, none of her friend seem to care. She’s much too charming, and her adopted parents are so cool anyway. Kia-ling, however, is upset by the revelation and wants to find her biological mother. Along the way, she will discover the true meaning of family, and there will be many musical numbers.
Running just under the surface is a message about the many Chinese people finding themselves in Hong Kong after the revolution and Mao’s increasingly totalitarian (and deadly) handling of the country. Multitudes suddenly found themselves separated from their motherland, seeking shelter in the arms of Hong Kong. There is an obvious parallel between Kia-ling and the Mainland immigrants, between her choice of biological mother or adopted parents versus mother China or the adopted homeland of Hong Kong. Most people are not going to seek out a musical comedy called Mambo Girl in hopes of gleaning insight into the mental state of Chinese people seeking to make new lives for themselves in Hong Kong, but it does lend the film a deeper quality.
For a movie like this, however, what it has on the surface is as important, if not more so, than what lies beneath. And the surface of Mambo Girl is a pure delight. Grace’s performance is wonderful, and the music is catchy and enjoyable. As one would guess from the title, much of the music is infused with a Latin vibe, something that was very popular with lots of pop music from the era. Grace’s mambo numbers swing, though the lyrics are just about the squarest things imaginable. I doubt Yma Sumac or other mambo legends belted out words like, “You’re a lucky girl. We call you the Mambo Girl. You are the sweetheart in your family. You are the queen in the school.” Not exactly lyrical spiciness to go with the beat, but the infectious tunes will stick with you regardless of how corny the words may be.
The musical numbers are nothing lavish. They’re fairly well grounded in reality and most take place in nightclubs, sporting fields, or people’s living rooms. The dances aren’t extravagant either, but instead look like something an actual person might do. Well, make that an actual person who knows how to mambo and cha-cha. The fact that movie embraces these modern dances and modern modes of dress so energetically and is so youth-positive is also a mark of distinction. Many films of the 1950s reflected old-fashioned mores regarding singing and dancing, especially as a way of life. How many movies are there where a woman falls upon hard times and is forced to eek out an existence as a nightclub singer, a profession that garners her much attention but no respect? Kia-ling’s parents, on the other hand, break from tradition by enthusiastically supporting their daughter’s talents and preaching the benefits to mind and body of having some good, clean fun. It is another way in which her adopted parents symbolize the new, modern Hong Kong and new, modern ideas. By contrast, Kia-ling’s real mother (played by popular singer and eventual “most powerful woman in show business” Mona Fong, who became Sir Runrun Shaw’s wife and, eventually, the head of production at Shaw Brothers) is the type of lonely torch-singing forlorn woman we see in so many other movies — a product of outdated thinking and ideals.
The supporting cast does their best to keep pace with the leading lady. Liu Enjia is wonderful as her father, Peter Chan Ho is likable as her boyfriend, and Mona Fong is suitably tragic in true melodrama form. The real shining star among the supporting cast is Kitty Ting Hao as Kia-ling’s younger sister. She’s cute and energetic, and her performance is superb. Tragically, she was one among many of the Cathay stars who had a rocky life and ended it via suicide. She died in Los Angeles in 1967 at the age of twenty-seven. Similar sad stories seem to plague far too many of the Cathay women.
Despite that somber footnote, Mambo Girl is an energetic, fun, pluck-at-your-heartstrings musical that will win you over solely with the charm of its leading lady. Ultimately, you can’t feel sad watching the movie, especially when the time rolls around for the big musical mambo finale. It’s a refreshing change of pace for people who know Hong Kong cinema primarily through kungfu films and more modern actioners. Mambo Girl takes the conventions of the Hollywood musical and integrates them seamlessly with Hong Kong sensibilities. Relatively low-key in comparison to other musicals, even other black and white ones, it’s a quality, retro romp that just might have you reaching for the nearest tennis racket.