How Movie Censorship Was Practiced in Hong Kong

Here is a quote from a post at kalos kagathos:

(in translation) What was Hong Kong like before the 1960's?  I wasn't there, so I don't want to waste my breath as well as your time.  So why don't I select something from the records that I have read and share it with everyone?

I want to talk about movie censorship in Hong Kong during the 1950's and 1960's.  Actually, I was there except the times were such that we were so divided down the CCP-KMT line that anyone was likely to know only one side of the story.  When my father was with Cathay Motion Pictures, he was a prominent figure with the Free Motion Pictures Workers Association (自由影人總會).  On October 10, he would lead a team of famous Cathay actors and actresses, and they would make a big show at the National Celebration Banquet in Taipei.  But my father was a political gnostic (in a nutshell: there are all sorts of gods out there, except they are all evil-doers) and he would not be caught out there making pure political statements about Free China or whatever.  In that era, either you sign up with the Free Motion Pictures Workers Association or face its full wrath.  After that, it was about minimizing the damage.

As the opening quote suggests, I am going to talk about the other side of the divide.  That is the side that I was not privy to, although anyone back then must have some intuition about what was going on.  The following is the history of movie censorship in Hong Kong as practiced by the British colonial administration in the 1950's and 1960's.  As the opening quote suggest, this will come from the written records by others.  This is loosely translated from the book The History of the Leftist Struggle in Hong Kong by Zhou Yi (周弈).

The British colonial administration was hysterically afraid of the Five-Star Flag and Mao Zedong icons.  Within its power, it banned the appearance of these objects.  Even so, its powers were limited and the attempts to forbid the schools from raising the Five-Star Flag had to be made without too much exposure.  But there was one department which can eliminate all these annoying things from the sights of the people of Hong Kong without any restrictions.  That would be the Motion Picture Inspection Bureau.  All movies that looked to be exhibited in Hong Kong, no matter whether they were made locally or elsewhere, must be sent to the Motion Picture Inspection Bureau for examination.  Apart from a copy of the film itself, the distributor must also submit all promotional materials, photographs and posters about the film.

According to the information from the Chinese Southern Motion Picture company, if the Chinese national flag, emblem, anthem or leaders (such as Mao Zedong) appeared in any dramatic or documentary Chinese film, then either the film is banned outright or those sections must be deleted.  If within some dramatic film, there happened to be a photograph of Mao Zedong on the wall, then that scene had to be removed.  This was a well-known unwritten rule.  Many of the news documentaries in the early 1950's were therefore banned: "The 1952 National Day," "The 1953 National Day" and the "The Glorious Five Years."  Also, Tibet was a sensitive subject and it was not permitted to show the post-liberation Tibet.  Thus, "The Happy Road to Lhasa," which was a film about highway construction, was banned.

In 1950, the documentary "The Democratic Northeast" had arrived in Hong Kong and passed inspection at the Motion Picture Inspection Bureau.  But after the film was scheduled, an order came from the Motion Picture Inspection Bureau to rescind permission.  (At the time, a group of Hong Kong industrial and business people had gone to northeast China for an inspection tour, and this may have been the reason for the ban.)  Also banned were documentaries about industrial and agricultural construction and people's daily lives.  The worst case was that "The Yellow River Cantata," which was a musical film with the famous choral cantata set to some scenic videos, was also banned.

Similar problems were encountered by dramatic films.  In the early years after the liberation, famous movies such as "The White-Haired Girl" and "Female Basketball Player Number 5" did not pass inspection.  Movies about the war of liberation or the war of resistance against Japan were banned, and even the historically themed "Scenes from Poems of the Song Dynasty."

Some movies passed inspection at first, but were recalled later for further editing, as is the case with "Blessing" based upon a work by writer Lu Xun.  Some movies were edited for peculiar reasons.  For example, in a marine movie, there was one section in which the ship captain had to go see the Director of the Marine Department.  There were four mentions of the word "Director" and these were ordered removed.  It is hard to imagine why the word "Director" had to be kept off the screen.  Perhaps because it confers authority on the individual? 

Some movies were passed, but the Motion Picture Inspection Bureau specified when it can be shown.  In September 1957, the movie "China Today: The May edition" was passed but the Motion Picture Inspection Bureau specified that it can be shown after October 1 (National Day).  This documentary contained the following segments: the life of a steelworker; the life of a pig breeder; the art of bamboo sculpture; snake island; a new type of fire extinguisher.  Where are the political values?

It is worthwhile to say some more about "The White-Haired Girl."  The original opera was staged in Hong Kong in July 1948 (before the liberation).  Due to lack of financial resources, the sponsors rented the Pu Qing movie house on Sunday mornings for five weeks in a row (each time to a full house).  Even the Hong Kong Governor's wife attended one of these shows, and the South China Morning Post published a famous report.  After the liberation, the "The White-Haired Girl" was made into a film.  In September, 1952, it was shown in Macau but the Motion Picture Inspection Bureau would not allow it to be shown in Hong Kong.

As news of these censorious activities began to disseminate, the British colonial administration was embarrassed into relaxing a bit.  In December 1958, the Motion Picture Inspection Bureau passed four documentaries ("The Leader Labored With Us Together," "The Opening Ceremony of the Thirteen Tomb Dam," "The Singing on the Dam" and "The Satellite Rose Up The Sky") and this was the first time that Mao Zedong was seen on a movie screen in Hong Kong.

By the end of 1958, 72 movies made in China had been banned and 26 were edited by the British colonial administration in Hong Kong.

Although the pressure was slightly relaxed in the late 1950's, it came back on hard in the 1960's.  The documentary "Cheers for the third successful nuclear bomb test of our nation" was edited twice.  In the renowned film "The East Is Red," the section in the first scene showed the national flags of the United States, England and Japan in the background and it was excised; the fifth scene had banners saying "Down with Chiang Kai-shek" as well as soldiers in American uniforms and KMT officials fleeing and so that was excised too ...

Generally speaking, films based upon local folk music were easier to pass.  Films about the War of Resistance Against Japan and the War of Liberation were rarely ever approved.  The Korean War was a huge taboo, with only one film "Heroic Sons and Daughters" being passed in the late 1960's.

As for performance theater, the British colonial administration demanded the inspection of the scripts before approving the performance.  The so-called "script" referred not only to the speeches made on the stage, but it included dance performances without words.  In November 1963, the Chinese Art Performance Troupe came to perform in Hong Kong.  A Tibetan dancer had a solo performance with this explanation: a freed serf is taking care of a newly born sheep and praising his new life.  When the Troupe performed in Japan, this was how it was presented.  But in Hong Kong, a "freed serf" in Tibet was sensitive and this program was "naturally" banned.  What to do given that the performer was already here?  The Troupe made up a new title "The Kicking Dance" and presented it without any explanation.

That was how it was.  Consider the leftist movie workers from that particular generation.  How should they think of the 'censorship' that is alleged to be happening nowadays in Hong Kong?  Should they laugh or cry?  If there is any censorship today, then it is a less virulent and blatant and more subtle and nuanced variant.