Chinatown Kid
Hong Kong 1978
Directed by Chang Cheh.

Alexander Fu-Sheng is a poor kid from the Mainland who pretty much only cares about money and really nice watches. His watch fetish takes him to San Francisco, and soon he's dressing nice and killing people.

How much do you love digital watches? Enough to kill? How about if it's a circa 1970's digital number that has dimly glowing red numbers? Now how many people would you kill?

Alexander Fu Sheng is Ah Tung, a poor mainlander come to Hong Kong to stay with his uncle and look for some honest work. He is obsessed with making money and climbing out of poverty. But unfortunately, he entered Hong Kong illegally and doesn't have an ID card, so no one will hire him. "With money, you can have everything," he says. "But without it, you have to work hard." He decides to open an orange juice stand, where he can squeeze oranges with his bare hands using his kung fu skills. Some people learn the art of the Snake or many learn the deadly art of Orange squeezing?

He isn't set up for long when a rough gang show up and menacingly order a round of drinks. Ah Tung notices the gang boss' digital watch -- and for Ah Tung, there is no turning back. "You push to make it light up, right?" he asks, fascinated. The boss hires him to work for him, but not a moment later Ah Tung is ignoring the boss and just doing whatever he thinks is the right thing to do. The gang beat up his uncle a few times, and finally plant some cocaine on Ah Tung and get him in trouble with the police. Ah Tung has no alternative but to hop on the next boat to America.

He gets a job in San Francisco Chinatown washing dishes, and sleeps above the restaurant he works with a young man from Taiwan, Yan Ching-Wen, whom he quickly befriends. When a local gang tries to shake down the restaurant for protection money, Ah Tung intervenes and beats the living hell out of everyone, for which his boss fires him immediately.

But it's no matter. Soon the gangs in Chinatown recruit him and he's making the big money. He has everything he ever wanted -- which is money, suits, and a digital watch. He gets a big reputation -- "He's a nobody, but he fights great." But even though he has everything, he quickly becomes more trouble than he's worth for the gangs. He stops prostitution, breaks up drug trafficking. Soon all of the bosses are out to take him down. In the end, only his friend from above the restaurant will stand behind him in an all out Chinatown gang war blood bath fight to the death.

The Chinatown of Chinatown Kid is a place where white people seldom go. Instead, it is a place of Chinese people, Chinese shops, and Chinese concerns. It is more an extension of Hong Kong than of America. Gangs are simply branches of the powerful Triads back in Hong Kong. But in addition to being a hotbed of gang violence, prostitution, and drugs, it is also a place where new immigrants can find assistance, friendship, and work. People like the restaurant owner that takes Ah Tung in are willing to do so even though they don't need an extra hand at the time. It is a different side to Chinatown than what is typically seen in Hollywood fare.

Director Chang Cheh is best known for his costumed martial arts pictures, so Chinatown Kid is a departure from the norm. Alexander Fu Sheng is a superb martial artist, and he shows some of his talent here despite being placed in modern settings. And he has more than his fare share of opponents -- much of the regular Shaw Bros. stable rounds out the cast, led by musclebound tough guy Philip Kuo.

Part of the fun of watching this old film is that it isn't as timeless as Cheh's other period martial arts films. This one is distinctly set in the late 70's, and is a casualty of the fashions of the time. The music is also mod, and one of the big triad bosses, a thin man who always wears tinted shades and has a handlebar mustache, gets his own way groovy themesong. When you're that badly dressed, it starts to make sense that you would kill someone for their crappy digital watch. Simple characters, lots of fights, and a wicked seventies vibe all add up to a hell of a fun picture to take in with some friends.

Rating: Marginally Recommended (Marginally Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 25, 2004.

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