Lam Ching Ying
by Martin Cleary
Although the name may not be familiar to you, if you have watched many Hong Kong films from the Shaw Brothers to Bruce Lee, from Jackie Chan up until the actioners of the 1990’s, then the chances are that you have seen Lam Ching-ying and his work.He is most famous for his role as the Taoist Priest / Vampire hunter of the Mr Vampire films, but Lam Ching-ying has been involved in many of the biggest and most groundbreaking HK films ever made.
Born in Hong Kong on December 27 1952, Ching-ying had only two years of formal schooling when he enroled at the Peking Opera School of Madame Fun Guk Fa, where he stayed for five years. This was a school similar to that which Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and the rest of the Seven Little Fortunes were training, and – although rivals – the two schools had some interaction. Ching-ying’s training at the school not only gave him some unique physical abilities (fighting and gymnastically) but also taught him the rare skill to be able to play female roles! [As well as performing stunt-doubling for actresses, his ‘female’ side can probably be best seen in The Prodigal Son in which he plays a eunch and female impersonator] At the age of 17, the slender Lam began a career as a stuntman and action choreographer for the Shaw Brothers Studios. After a two year apprenticeship at Shaw Brothers, Ching-ying changed studios to work at the new Golden Harvest company after he was hand-picked by Bruce Lee to work as stuntman and extra in what was to become Lee’s explosive entrance onto the big screen – The Big Boss. Lee and Lam worked well together, they both had studied Wing Chun as a fighting style and were serious in their work. They became good friends – at one point filming was suspended on The Big Boss, because Bruce had to bail Ching-ying out of jail as he had been arrested for fighting. Bruce rehired Lam as his personal assistant and co-action director when filming for Fist of Fury began. This working relationship continued through all of Lee’s films. Most famously, on the film Enter The Dragon, Ching-ying played the stunt double for Shih Kuen who portrayed the villain, Han. When Bruce Lee died suddenly just prior to the release of Enter The Dragon, Ching-ying was incredibly saddened by his passing, he had a great deal of respect for Lee. Throughout his life many of his friends and co-stars spoke of Ching-yings ‘respect’. If he did not respect you, then he had very little time for you.
Lam had slowly become close friends with Sammo Hung (who can be seen fighting Bruce in the opening of Enter The Dragon), and he decided to join Sammo’s stunt team (Hung Gar Ban) as stuntman and action director. As a result, his on screen roles slowly increased – and so did his reputation.His first real on-screen breakthrough came during the attention grabbing fight between himself and Yuen Biao in The Magnificent Butcher. In 1982 Ching-ying won an award for best action direction for Prodigal Son which displays his Wing Chun training, and his portrayal of the female impersonator Leung Yee Tai steals the film. Two of the films highlights are Ching-yings duel with Frankie Chan and the training and sparring that he puts Yuen Biao’s central character through. The award for action direction was won again the next year by Lam and the rest of Sammo’s team for their work on Winners and Sinners.
Around 1985, Lam Ching-ying trained Michelle Yeoh, (at the time she was Michelle Kahn) who had previously been a ballet dancer and beauty queen, into an on-screen martial artist. One of Michelle’s earliest films ‘Yes Madam’ (released the following year) established her credibility in the martial arts movie and she has subsequently risen to become one of the most recognizable faces in HK cinema. Also in 1985 Lam starred as for the first time as the Taoist monk in the comedy Mr Vampire. Low on action but high in laughs, Mr Vampire proved that his comedy timing and skills were just as sharp as his martial arts ability. This was the role that won him the most recognition not only in Hong Kong but worldwide. Mr Vampire plays well with Lam’s ‘serious’ appearance and the whole cast seem to enjoy a certain amount of ‘spoofing’ of their on-screen personas. Ching-ying cashed in on the Mr Vampire craze by starring in many sequels both official and unofficial. Although he had become typecast as this ‘Taoist priest’, it was a role Ching-ying embraced, before heading off back into Sammo-directed films such as Eastern Condors and Shanghai Express. Ching-ying seems to appear in pretty much all of the Sammo Hung directed films of this period, very often as a villain. His ‘cool’ approach works well when playing a bad guy, and his fighting skills mean he always appears to be a formidable fighting opponent. In 1988, Lam also proved his acting skills in two non-action roles in the films School On Fire (directed by Ringo Lam) and the film Painted Faces, which depicts the training of the Seven Little Fortunes at the Peking Opera School. He followed this in 1989 with his directorial debut, an unofficial spin-off from the Mr Vampire series titled ‘One Eyebrow Priest’ (also well known as Vampire Vs. Vampire)
In 1995, Lam reprised his Mr Vampire role yet again for a television series called The Vampire Expert. An attempt to make a Mr Vampire television series for America had previously collapsed, but the Hong Kong series was a big success. It had a second run in 1996 and pre-production for a third series began. The third series was never made as Ching-ying became ill. At this time Ching-ying discovered that he had developed liver cancer. This was a hereditary disease, from which his brother had sadly died. Lam never publicly announced his illness, not even telling his closest friends. He quietly retired to his sisters’ home for what were to be his remaining few weeks and at the beginning of November, Lam fell into a coma. After being moved to St Teresa’s hospital in Kowloon, he died on 8 November aged forty-five. He left behind a wife, Cheng Bing Bing, and two children. A memorial service was held at Lam Ching-yings three-hour long memorial service on the 13th November 1997. While his close family and friends were in attendance, fifty Buddhist monks prayed and some of the biggest names in Hong Kong cinema -Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, Billy Chan, Wu Ma, Chin Kar-lok and Chong Fat – were his pallbearers. Ching-ying was cremated and his ashes were sent over to the USA. On his gravestone a calligraphic tribute reads ‘One Smile Returns To The West’.
Although he never reached the realms of superstardom worldwide that many off his peers have reached, Lam has in many ways been vital to the success their films. Lam Ching-ying left behind a fantastic legacy of films, many of which will still be entertaining viewers of Asian cinema for many years to come.
The Big Boss (1971)
Enter The Dragon (1973) (plays Hans stunt double, but – come on – it’s a classic film)
Magnificent Butcher (1979)
Encounters Of The Spooky Kind (1980)
Prodigal Son (1981)
Mr Vampire (1985)
Shanghai Express (1986)
Eastern Condors (1987)
Painted Faces (1988)
School On Fire (1988)
Magic Cop (1990)
Buy Lam Ching Ying’s movies at YesAsia