Which Chinese comic strip has been adapted to other media the most times? Undoubtedly the answer is Alphonso Wong's Old Master Q, of which there were already six film versions before this year, not to mention TV shows, stage plays, and animated shorts. Last year, the major Hong Kong director Tsui Hark also set his sights on Old Master Q, and has since made Master Q 2001. Tsui's film, shot using 3-D computer animation and featuring teen idols Cecilia Cheung and Nicholas Tse, opened in Hong Kong in April, proving so popular that it was difficult to get a ticket. The film was just released in Taiwan in July.
The featured characters of Old Master Q, including Big Potato, Mr. Chin, and Miss Chen, as well as the old master himself, have shared good times with countless comic fans over the years. The strip has been popular among all generations for decades. Because of the feature's enduring popularity, the 77-year-old Alphonso Wong has not only not retired, he has continued to turn out Old Master Q without the idea of retirement even coming into his head.
Old Master Q was first brought to the silver screen in 1965, in a Cantonese-language film featuring Gao Luquan as Old Master Q and Ai Donggua as Big Potato. This film was never shown in Taiwan, but it was so successful in Hong Kong that the company made two sequels that included several of the biggest stars of that era.
Between 1975 and 1978, three more Old Master Q movies were made, this time in Mandarin Chinese, including one by the Shaw Brothers of Hong Kong, directed by Gui Zhihong, which featured superstar Li Qingshi as Miss Chen and Singapore comedian Wang Sha as Old Master Q.
Mastering Master Q
In order to make himself look even more like Old Master Q, Wang Sha had most of his upper teeth pulled, leaving only his two front teeth, just like the cartoon character. Sounds bad? That's nothing. The script called for numerous pratfalls, and anyone who has ever read the original strips knows that the old fellow ends up tumbling to the ground-invariably in painfully outrageous fashion-quite often. To keep in character, Wang had to keep splaying himself on the sound stage to get the laughs.
On one occasion Wang was determined to make his pratfall even better, so he asked the crew to spread powder on the floor to make it more slippery. But this time Wang went overboard, and crashed his head against a wall, where he collapsed with a loud bang. His face turned pale, and he lay unmoving for quite some time. It was only when they were carrying him to the ambulance that Wang awoke and assured everyone that he was OK. Ever the professional, Wang went back to doing stunts and spills later on, and the only difference was that his technique had improved.
Though Old Master Q has been adapted into feature length films seven times, Alphonso Wong regrets that his personal choices as the ideal performers to play his characters have never been offered the opportunity to do so. For Master Q, he would have invited the early comic star Wei Ping'ao. As for the "sidekick," Big Potato, Wong says that this character is virtually a comic strip version of Eric Tsang. It's too bad no studios ever thought to ask Wei or Tsang to take these roles. In fact, Wong admits that he has always been somewhat disappointed by the film versions of Old Master Q.
Though Alphonso Wong is quick to say "I'm just a cartoonist, I don't know anything about making movies," this doesn't mean he doesn't have his own ideas. He feels that the Old Master Q movies could have been better made, but Hong Kong films always go for action sequences, and have too much chatter and dialogue, always going heavy-handed with the humor. Wong's ideal Old Master Q would have a lot less dialogue. Sometimes a look, a gesture, or a single line can surprise and delight the audience.
When he was younger Alphonso Wong bore a striking resemblance to the film star Jin Feng, and was several times asked to act in films. But Wong always said no. He says he is timid and anxious by nature, and he always thought that he would freeze in front of the camera.
That is why it is so surprising that this time Wong accepted the request by Tsui Hark to act, and appears in nearly ten minutes of footage at the beginning and end of the film. What card did Tsui have up his sleeve? In fact, at first Wong did turn Tsui's request down, but then Tsui asked Wong's son Joseph to put in a good word for him. The younger Wong made a special trip from Taiwan to the States just to lobby his father to take the part, telling him what a rare opportunity it was and that it wouldn't hurt to try just once. Eventually Wong was persuaded to accept, under one condition: That Joseph stay with him throughout the process.
Most people who have seen the film say that Wong comes off very natural in his acting, and doesn't look like a rookie at all. Wong is delighted by such comments. He has heard that Tsui Hark wants to make a sequel, and he is making it known that if the director asks him to appear again, he won't say no.
The late comic actor Wei Ping-ao would have been the choice of cartoonist Alphonso Wong to play in a movie version of Old Master Q. It's too bad he never got the chance.
Wong_ ideal player for the role of Big Potato is Eric Tsang. Regrettably, he has never been asked to take the part.
Director Tsui Hark has brought Master Q to the silver screen for the seventh time, featuring teen idols Nicholas Tse and Cecilia Cheung. The film was a big hit in Hong Kong. (courtesy of Joseph Wong)
Will the real "Wang Tse" please stand up? Alphonso Wong (center) has always used the pen name Wang Tse (Mandarin pronunciation), which is also the name of his eldest son, to sign his Master Q comic strips. At left is the genuine Wang Tse, known in English as Joseph Wong. At right is Alphonso's wife Chen Ling-ling, who served as the inspiration for Miss Chen is the comic strip. (courtesy of Martin Chang)