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Sadly Overlooked: The Career of Hong Kong actor Ng Man Tat

Darren Murray
Sadly Overlooked: The Career of Hong Kong actor Ng Man Tat

Probably best known in the west as comedy superstar Stephen Chow’s regular sidekick, it is easy to overlook the major accomplishments that Ng Man-tat has made throughout his acting career, a career that has now spanned the better part of five decades.

Ng was born in 1952 and hails from Fujian province, China. Although it wasn’t until the late 1980’s that Ng’s film roles became more prominent, he had still been working steadily as an actor since the mid 1970’s.

Like a good deal of Hong Kong actors of the time, Ng enrolled in the TVB Television Training programme, with him graduating in 1974, when he was only in his early twenties. From this he progressed to acting in a number of television shows of the time, such as Social Worker (1977) and ICAC investigation (1977), where he co-starred with the likes of Do Do Cheng and Roy Chiao.

In addition to his higher profile television work, Ng can also be spotted in considerably small film roles in the likes of The Running Mob (1975), Hong Kong Emmanuelle (1977) and Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre (1978).

Moving into the 1980’s, Ng would work consistently, although none of the roles he was being offered at this period in his career could exactly be considered worthwhile.

Even the films that these roles appeared in have generally been forgotten, with the likes of Rape and Die (1983), The Company (1984) and Crazy Games (1985) being the kind of disposable fluff that Hong Kong churned out at the time. Only the romantic drama Everlasting Love (1984), which was released during this time, could be considered noteworthy. This is more to do with it featuring an early role for superstar Andy Lau.

Thankfully Ng’s films would begin to be higher profile, with him going on feature in some of the more popular Hong Kong films of the time. His roles in the likes of Legacy of Rage (1986), To Err is Humane (1987) and A Better Tomorrow 2 (1987) are perhaps relatively short on screen time, but opened the actor up to a wider audience than anything he had appeared in previously.

Come the following year, he would be co-starring in one of the best martial arts thrillers of the late 1980’s. Tiger Cage (1988) went on to spawn two successful sequels, but the first in the series is definitely the grittiest.

Ng was yet to become the well known comedy actor as he is known today, with him playing a corrupt police officer in cahoots with the equally corrupt Simon Yam. The film gave Ng a chance to give a great dramatic performance, and one with a considerable amount of screen time.

The film is mostly remembered as an early Donnie Yen vehicle, even if he isn’t actually the star, with Jacky Cheung being the true lead. The film is full of good performances and some of the most brutal action created by director Yuen Woo Ping. Well at least until Tiger Cage 2 (1990).

On a much lighter note, Ng also made appearance in action comedy Operation Pink Squad (1988) in the same year, something more akin to the films he would become famous for.

Ng would stay in comedy mode, for sequel It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World 3 (1989), another wacky entry into the comedy series. Ng’s screen time was relatively short in comparison to his co-stars but is his usual winning self. 

Further small roles would follow, with him showing up as a shady loan shark in Wong Jing’s God of Gamblers (1989). Ng would of course become one of the saving graces of the series, returning in the following sequels in a more substantial role.

It wouldn’t be all laughs in this year, with him showing up in crime thrillers like Chinese Cop Out (1989) and most memorably My Heart is That Eternal Rose (1989) from director Patrick Tam. Like the previous Tiger Cage, Ng once again plays a shady police officer and gives one of the film’s best performances.

As well as Ng’s film roles, he would go on to co-star with Chow Sing Chi on the TVB show The Final Combat (1989). Running for 30 episodes, the Final Combat was a comedy Wuxia.

Perhaps not up to the standards of either of the actors later work, The Final Combat is still memorable as the first time the two were teamed together as well as featuring an early co-starring role from Francis Ng.

Ng’s career would only get better as he moved into the next decade. He would yet again co-star with Chow Sing Chi in Lung Fung Restaurant (1990), a minor offering from the pair before making clear his comedy credentials, co-starring with Chow Sing Chi yet again in All for the Winner (1990) which went on to become the highest grossing film in Hong Kong at the time.

The two of them would go on to further success in God of Gamblers 2 (1990), where they continued to portray their All for the Winner characters. Between these two smash hits, the both of them had co-starring roles in Triad Story (1990), a violent gangster drama, a complete departure from their comedy work.

There would be other gangster movies for Ng in this year. Films like Blood Stained Tradewind (1990) and Hong Kong Gigolo (1990) would prove to be minor offerings but his co-starring role alongside Andy Lau in A Moment of Romance (1990) would garner Ng the best supporting actor award at the 10th Hong Kong Film Awards.

The award would go on to prove that Ng was equally adept at either drama or comedy, with his easily switching between genres whenever the opportunity arose.

in 1991 alone, Ng would have co-starring roles in no  less than 16 films, and this is excluding his cameo in Fist of Fury 1991 (1991) and his voiceover work on Crazy Safari (1991). The majority of these films had him co-starring alongside regular co-stars Chow Sing Chi or Andy Lau, with the likes of Tricky Brains (1991), Fight Back to School (1991) and God of Gamblers 3: Back to Shanghai (1991) amongst them.

As well as his more comedic work, there would be the strictly dramatic role in Lee Rock (1991) and its sequel, once again teaming him with Andy Lau. Additionally he would appear in smaller roles in other crime dramas, mainly To Be Number One (1991) and its loose spin off Queen of the Underworld (1991).   

Not busy enough, Ng would co-star alongside both Do Do Cheng and Anita Mui in The Top Bet (1991), a fun gambling comedy which was yet another spin off from the God of Gamblers series.

Due to the popularity of his partnership with Chow Sing Chi, Ng would find himself more and more starring in comedy roles, sometimes alongside Chow sometimes without. The best of his work with Chow in this year include sequel Fight Back to School 2 (1992), with him being a real scene stealer. There was also the Royal Tramp (1992) and King of Beggars (1992).

There would be less successful comedies such as Handsome Siblings (1992), which once again partnered him with Andy Lau. Not on par with their other work together, the film still proves to be an enjoyable time filler, albeit one that lags in the middle.

One of Ng’s more underrated films would be released at this time. Shogun and Little Kitchen (1992) is an extremely fun Lunar New Year comedy. The film was directed by Ronny Yu and features performances from Leon Lai and Yuen Biao, in a non fighting role. Unlike director Yu’s other more action orientated films, it is more in tone to one of Ng’s later films God of Cookery (1996).

Ng managed to fit in the odd dramatic role between his more comedic roles. There was With Or Without You (1992) from director Taylor Wong and Best of the Best (1992), which proved to be one of director Herman Yau’s poorer efforts.

Both films featured stellar work from Ng and had him co-starring with Jacky Cheung. Coincidentally, director Herman Yau would later make a prequel to With or Without You, the slightly superior No More Love, No More Death (1993).

Ng would work with Best of the Best director Herman Yau the following year on the infinitely superior Taxi Hunter (1993). Just a supporting role, Taxi Hunter is however an exciting genre movie that comes highly recommended.

Further dramatic turns would follow with the likes of war drama End of the Road (1993), Sword Stained with Royal Blood (1993) and to an extent Heroes Among Heroes (1993), an enjoyable martial arts movie that reteamed him with Tiger Cage director Yuen Woo Ping and one if its stars, Donnie Yen.

As par for the course at this point in his career, there was the obligatory co-starring role with Chow Sing Chi, this time in period comedy The Mad Monk (1993)

The Mad Monk was directed by one of the best directors currently working in Hong Kong, Johnnie To. Surprisingly this would prove to be one of Chow and Ng’s poorer efforts, which while still enjoyable is considerably under par from previous collaborations.

Johnnie To has since commented that he would never work with Chow again after his experiences on The Mad Monk.

Surprisingly, some of Ng’s lesser comedy films would turn out to be more enjoyable. Millionaire Cop (1993) would feature Ng in a co-starring role alongside Aaron Kwok. Ng would yet again steal the film from its lead, playing the whole film for laughs.

As well as a small role in the wacky Flying Dagger (1993) alongside a cavalcade of Hong Kong talent including Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Jacky Cheung, Maggie Cheung and many others, Ng would make sequel to an earlier Chow Sing Chi vehicle,  My Hero 2 (1993).

My Hero 2 (1993) was an in name only sequel to My Hero (1990). Sadly Chow Sing Chi doesn’t return for the sequel, with Ng teaming up with Dicky Cheung, which is a poor consolation prize. Still Ng almost makes the film work and there is fun to be had for undemanding audiences.

Ng would end up reteaming with both his My Hero 2 co star Dicky Cheung and Millionaire Cop’s Aaron Kwok for The Kung Fu Scholar (1994), an inferior attempt at copying Chow Sing Chi’s smash hit Flirting Scholar (1993). Thankfully the film has Ng, in a typically wacky performance, or it would be a total failure.

Thankfully, Ng would go on to better work in the same year, co-starring in two of Chow Sing Chi’s better films of the period, Love on Delivery (1994) and Hail the Judge (1994). In comparison to previous years, even though he still managed to act in six films in the year.

As he went into 1995, his workload became larger, with him appearing in no less than nine films throughout the year. Again his co-starring roles with Chow Sing Chi would prove to be his most popular work, with A Chinese Odyssey Part One – Pandora’s Box (1995) and its sequel A Chinese Odyssey Part Two – Cinderella (1995) being the clear highlights.

Sadly, the other film with Chow Sing Chi this year was the sporadically amusing Sixty Million Dollar Man (1995), which not even the two of them could save, although the great Elvis Tsui makes the most of his role as a mad professor and is one of the films saving graces.

Equally sub standard was The Saint of Gamblers (1995), another attempt to spin off the God of Gamblers series with Ng once again reprising his role of Uncle Tat. Eric Kot makes for a poor Chow Sing Chi replacement, with Ng yet again being the main attraction for fans.

Still, both Sixty Million Dollar Man and Saint of Gamblers are classes above the abysmal On Fire (1996). Coming from Naked Killer (1993) director Clarence Fok, one shouldn’t expect high art.

Still Fok has been able to turn out the odd classic such as The Iceman Cometh (1989) and Cheap Killers (1998). Unfortunately not even solid work from Ng and an early performance from a pre-stardom Louis Koo can save the film. 

Only slightly better was The Killer Has No Return (1996), an attempt to meld the style of Wong Kar Wai with that of a typical heroic bloodshed movie. Sadly it fails, partly down to a poor leading man in Wong Hei, sloppily put together action scenes and only giving more accomplished actors like Ng limited screen time.

Towards the end of the year Ng would bounce back with his co-starring role in the previously mentioned The God of Cookery (1996). One of Chow Sing Chi’s biggest hits of the time, The God of Cookery is surprising in that Ng is cast in a villainous role. However, this is still a Chow Sing Chi comedy, so he still gets involved in the usual wacky situations.

There was a downturn in quality projects in the next year, with the likes of Kid Vs the Cop (1997) and Jail in Burning Island (1997) being mostly forgettable.

Considering the poor quality of the final products it is no surprise that these films came from director Chu Yen Ping. In addition to being directed by Chu, both films feature leading roles from Nicky Wu. On both occasions Ng acts him off the screen.

Ng would make another prison themed movie in the same year with the unfortunately named Chinese Midnight Express (1997). Surprisingly the film is better than what its cash in title may imply. Clearly a B movie attempt to cash in on both the original Midnight Express (1978) and Ringo Lam’s Prison on Fire (1988), Chinese Midnight Express still manages to be an entertaining genre film with a great lead performance from Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. Ng is equally as good as the inmate that shows Leung the ropes.

Thankfully Ng would partner up again with Chow Sing Chi, this time on The Lucky Guy (1998) from God of Cookery director Lee Lik-Chee. The Lucky Guy would prove to be one of their lesser collaborations, with Ng having a relatively small role in comparison to his other work with Chow. Still it is an improvement on some of the films Ng had been making the year previously.

Ng would turn to more dramatic fare, with the release of Portland Street Blues (1998) only coming a month after The Lucky Guy. A spin off from the Young and Dangerous series, Portland Street Blues featured Ng in an award worthy performance, almost on par with his work on the previous A Moment of Romance.

Considering the majority of films Ng was appearing in at the beginning of the decade, his film roles were beginning to become less and less. Of course he would additionally still act in a number of television series, most of which are not available in the West. By 1999 he would only make two movie appearances, one a classic and the other probably best forgotten.

King of Comedy (1999) was unlike the majority of the other films that Ng made with Chow Sing Chi. The opening of the film eschews the typical antics of its lead, focusing more on the his character and the setting of the film.

King of Comedy is mainly a satire on the Hong Kong film industry, with this giving the film makers ample opportunities to poke fun at the work of John Woo, Jackie Chan and the like.

As well as solid supporting turns from the likes of Karen Mok and newcomer (at the time) Cecilia Cheung, King of Comedy has Ng as his typically reliable self, co-starring as the film companies unit manager who tries to teach Chow the art of acting.

It would be good to say that Ng’s other comedy of the year was on par with King of Comedy, but The Lord of Amusement (1999) is one of his poorest comedies of this year, with not even the efforts of both Nick Cheung and Francis Ng as the leads being able to save it.

The film is just another poor attempt by Hong Kong filmmakers to emulate the success of Chow Sing Chi’s God of Cookery.

The failure of The Lord of Amusement wouldn’t deter Ng from going on to co-star in yet another cooking comedy, this time with The Marvellous Cook (2000). Like The Lord of Amusement, the film fails to live up to the previous success of God of Cookery, and is beneath the talents of Ng Man Tat.

Only slightly better was Wong Jing’s romantic comedy Everyday is Valentine (2001), which featured Ng in a small supporting role. Ng has worked with Wong Jing on numerous occasions throughout his career, but Everyday is Valentine is far beneath the likes of the God of Gamblers films.

It wouldn’t have mattered what the quality of Everyday is Valentine was, as Ng’s other film of the year overshadowed most Hong Kong films of the time. Shaolin Soccer (2001) would offer Ng one of his best supporting roles in a Chow Sing Chi film, and he doesn’t disappoint.

Shaolin Soccer went on to win numerous Hong Kong film awards, with best actor and director amongst them. Surprisingly Ng was left out when it came to nominations. It eventually became the highest grossing film in Hong Kong cinema history. It held this record for a number of years, only being beaten by Chow Sing Chi himself with the release of Kung Fu Hustle (2004).

Sadly Shaolin Soccer would mark the last time to date that both Ng Man Tat and Chow Sing Chi would co-star together. There have been numerous rumours that the two had a falling out, a rumour which Ng has flatly denied. In interviews Ng stated that he was originally going to co-star with Chow in Kung Fu Hustle, but due to the SARS epidemic delaying the production, this wasn’t a possibility.

Ng clearly isn’t an actor to be put off by a film’s failure, as he would go on to work with director Chu Yen Ping again on Shaolin – Lets Go (2002), a child centric martial arts comedy. If anything Shaolin-Lets Go is even poorer than his previous films with the director, although Ng does his best.

Perhaps the experience of working with Chu Yen Ping is better than the final product, as Ng would continue to work with the director. Both One Stone and Two Birds (2005) and its sequel One Stone and Two Birds 2 (2005) were made in Taiwan but are difficult to judge due to their limited availability in the West. There was a further entry the following year which also co-starred Ng, this time directed by Bai Qui-Lin.

Chu Yen Ping may not have returned to helm the third entry in the One Stone and Two Birds series, he still did however direct Kung Fu Dunk (2008), a poor attempt to do for basketball what Shaolin Soccer done for football.

Slightly better than some of the directors previous films due to a better than expected leading performance from Jay Chou and some well choreographed action from Ching Siu-Tung. Ng shows up in the film in a smaller role than he deserves, with it clear that the actor is a long way from his heyday in the 1990’s.

Even though the actor has never been a leading man, his co-starring roles throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s always gave him substantial screen time. Sadly as he moved into the next decade, the supporting roles he was being given didn’t not give the actor much to work with.

Thankfully the actor would always have his television work to fall back on, with roles in the likes of Happy Mother In Law, Pretty Daughter in Law (2010). A lot of his television work these days is made in Mainland China as opposed to Hong Kong. This is unfortunate as this makes his television work increasingly difficult to obtain.

In 2014 there were unsubstantiated rumours that the actor had died. This turned out to be just another celebrity death hoax. He did however suffer from a minor heart attack, which was apparently down to a bacterial infection.  

In regards to Ng’s career, there would be the odd bright spot such as director Pang Ho-Cheung’s Aberdeen (2014), which may have been a smaller role for the actor but had him in a dramatic performance alongside the likes of Louis Koo, Gigi Leung, Eric Tsang and Miriam Yeung.

In addition to Aberdeen was Overheard 3 (2014), the third part in the surveillance series. Ng’s screen time doesn’t amount to much, with Overheard 3 being the poorest entry of the series. Still the film was quite high profile, and Ng’s presence is always a welcome one.

Both Louis Koo and Lau Ching Wan who starred in Overheard 3 would later star in tue crime drama Dealer Healer (2017). Based on the life of reformed drug dealer Peter Chan, the film gives Ng Man Tat a small supporting role, but sadly he is overshadowed by the amount of screen time given to the likes of Lau Ching Wan, Louis Koo, Gordon Lam and Zhang Jin.

Thankfully Ng Man Tat seems to be still going strong at the age of 65. Hopefully he has many years left in him to delight audiences. There has been talk recently of him teaming again with Chow Sing Chi for a sequel to Kung Fu Hustle. This would mark the first time in 16 years the actors have worked together. Let’s hope this is more than just a rumour. 

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Andy LauChinaChow Sing ChiComedyGod of GamblersHong KongNg Man TatStephen ChowWong Jing

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