It’s a real privilege for all of us at KFK to interview the legends of martial arts (and their movies) when opportunity arises, it’s especially sweet when they’re from the old school era of kung fu flicks!
Today it’s the turn of Korean born Chang Shan, one of the ‘old school’ actors to grace our screens in such classics as “Shaolin vs Lama” (1983), “Of Cooks and Kung Fu” (1979), and “Seven Steps of Kung Fu” (1979). Check out this clip of Chang Shan fighting (he’s in the red costume!) from “Shaolin vs Lama” and you can also read our review of this classic, chop-socky fan-favourite here!
Chang has earned great respect from his fans due to his magnetic screen persona, and solid, fast fighting abilities while playing a tough, vengeful and menacing villain.
Today, in his late fifties, his kung fu skills are still puissant as he keeps in great shape and carries a very friendly, positive character with a no-nonsense, honest, yet frank demeanour to go with it. Now he sits down with us and recounts the stories of his early life, training influences, mindset, martial arts cinema career (and more) in what may well be his most extensive English interview available on the web -enjoy!
Hi Chang Shan, welcome! So let’s ask first of all, when and where you were born?
Thank you! Yes, I was born in Incheon, South Korea, 1956.
What’s your height and weight?
When I was younger my height was 1.77m, now it’s 175 cm, I think it was due to getting older! My weight now is between 69-70kg, about two and a half to three years ago, I was 85kg.
You lost weight?
Actually I didn’t intend to lose weight, it was because I wanted to get back into acting, so I exercised a lot every day and eventually lost some weight, while eating more than before.
Everyone has a story when it comes to martial arts, what was it that first got you into it, what was your age?
When I was about 5-6 years old, my older brother Xin Chuan Chang (who is 12 years my senior) was a 2nd rank in Taekwondo, he taught me some kicking moves whilst we were playing. When I was 8 to 10 years old, my brother was learning Chinese martial arts and he took me along, so that’s when I formally started learning it, and my master was 68 years old at the time.
So at 6 years old you did Taekwondo. Did you get involved in playground fights in school with your Taekwondo kicks?
I like fighting very much so yes I was a bit of a ‘bad boy’ and I’m sorry for that!
Did you get influenced while growing up watching kung fu films with your brother on TV?
Well, there weren’t a lot of opportunities to watch films back then. Often we’d watch them with the whole school. When movies like Jimmy Wang’s “One-Armed Swordsman” was screening in Korea, a lot of people at school went together for the group discount, so that way we got to watch one or two films per year.
Did you like that film?
Of course! After watching “One-Armed Swordsman”, we children were all imitating it when playing at school. We also loved Pei-pei Cheng’s “Golden Swallow” too.
What were your favourite 2 or 3 kung fu films?
When I was little, my favourite movie was “One-Armed Swordsman”, I think because there weren’t many Chinese films to choose from, Koreans didn’t make kung fu movies either, so it was all down to imported Shaw Brothers movies from Hong Kong. Since Jimmy Wang’s movie was such a big hit, the following movies by Pei-Pei Cheng and Lisa Chiao Chiao were popular too, but Jimmy Wang was still the biggest hero for the boys. David Chiang, Lung Ti and Kuan-tai Chen later all made some good movies, but we still loved Jimmy Wang. When I was in my second year of high school however, everything changed as Bruce Lee came up, then everyone in school was imitating him!
(Laughs) So, your favourite Bruce Lee film/s?
All of them! I loved his films when I was a student because he was my hero. But when I started acting, I got to appreciate the power, beauty and tempo in his work more, not just because of his kung fu, but how well he can capture the moves. He has a great sense of timing, I can’t copy that, no actor can imitate that.
Who else (aside from your brother and master) did you look up to as you were growing up through the martial arts any other fighters?
I like Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard I like them very much. But in terms of Taekwondo in Korea, I didn’t know any big names before high school, there weren’t any films about Taekwondo, but there were a lot of training places.
In your films, we see a lot of upper body and boxing work going on. Do you want to include boxing in your next movie features?
I like boxing a lot and yes I want to include it, but of course it’s all down to the script, if I get to do it in a form of free fighting, I’ll want to combine boxing, Muay Thai and Chinese martial arts all together and possibly make a new and more beautiful style in the process.
I watched “Ip Man”, and I hope you don’t mind me saying, but I don’t think it was expressive enough. I don’t know much about Wing Chun, but I think the movie could be better with less storytelling and more on the cultural side of things, not just about the power of Wing Chun, this way it could be more meaningful.
If you’re just telling a story, you forget about it once the movie is over. If the movie has embodied a culture it can live on for longer in people’s memories, perhaps for ten years or even twenty years. In the future, I’d like to make a movie like this, if I have the money I’d invest in it myself, whether it sells or not is not my main concern. I want to make something for the generations to come, documenting the timeless moves of real kung fu, and not just for the show.
Getting back to your experience, since you were a little rowdy as a youngster, did you get into street fights when you later grew up?
I’ve had a lot of fights in Taiwan, I like fighting and people in the business all know that. Now I can speak perfect Mandarin, but back then I was speaking Korean and Shandong dialect, my nickname was “Gaoli Bangzi” (a degrading nickname for a Korean) even though I’m Chinese, so when I was shooting “Seven Steps of Kung Fu”, more than ten martial arts actors picked on me at the same time, I’ve had a lot of fights because of my accent.
After a while, people in the business stopped picking on me, for I have a bad habit, I don’t run away from a fight. For example, if I was fighting with three people, I’d fight the one in front of me like there were no others!
Did you spend time teaching students as well?
Yes I’ve taught after I made several films in Taiwan. I went back to Korea after director Chung Ting left the business and opened a martial arts school but it closed after 6 months because I didn’t have the brain for business.
When I was a student, I learned from my master in the traditional way. Back then, tuition fees for a student in Taekwondo or so called ‘Hwarang’ were 800 Korean Won. There were two or three Chinese martial arts schools charging 2,000 Won and then there was me charging 20,000 Won per student, I had 80 students training at the same time.
When I opened for business, all my Shixiong (senior fellow students or elder brothers) sent their children to me. The training was from 6 to 8am and I told them from the start, the door closes at 6am, you get one chance at being late, the second time you take your money and don’t come back!
In terms of my way of teaching, I didn’t use the traditional or normal method. Since I learnt many kinds of martial arts from my master, I taught my students based on their individuality. It takes about a month to discern what’s best for you – I might teach you stick-fighting or sabre, or if you are good in the ring, I’d teach you Sanshou moves. Children would get busy checking on others and become lazy from time to time; some were late and I’d kick them out even if their father was my Shi-xiong, rules are rules. I taught with my master’s rules, the doors were closed for privacy, training is not just for others to see.
All the students ran away after six months!
In my school, there were about ten under age students, the rest were adults and some were even 6 or 7 years older than me. People in Korea have a habit of calling others based on their age, like ‘Senbai’ (senior), but the ranking concept in martial arts is different. You learn from me therefore you have to call me Sifu (master) you can’t take me for anything less or my Sifu would be at the same level with you, that’s not acceptable.
It happened that some people didn’t want to follow this rule, so I said, ‘let’s fight for it, if I lose, I don’t teach, if you lose, you pack up and go home’. More than ten people left in this way, so in the end, the school was closed after 6 months.
Tough love! How did you first start in the film industry?
I took part in the Second World Kung Fu Tournament and then I had a chance to sign up into the film industry.
Did you win that tournament?
Yes I won, that was in 1978.
How many movies did they sign you up for?
Nine movies to be produced over three years.
You’re well known for playing the villain Yao Feng Lin in “Shaolin vs Lama”, which has since become a cult classic, how did you get involved in this movie?
Pan Kong introduced me.
Can you tell us your general experience in making “Shaolin vs Lama”?
Well, the crews worked like one big family, we all felt like real brothers and sisters and we have a lot of good memories.
What about the kung fu in the movie, was there anything new you tried for the film?
Back then, we always filmed it this way but when shooting this movie, Pan Kong asked me, “What do you want to do?” I asked “can I do it this way?” He agreed, so we just proceeded with that. Back then, I don’t think there were any films with fighting like that, I used a lot of the Chinese martial art Sanshou.
What was the main style you took away from your master?
I practiced mainly Chinese Fist fighting, I’ve practiced Changquan, Baji Quan, Baguazhang, Northern Praying Mantis and Xing Yi Quan, all from the one master.
Can you tell us one special thing from the making of “Shaolin vs Lama”, there’s a lot of fighting in that.
It’s not such a big deal but I broke my finger, they said we should put a cast on it but I said no way let’s make the film and after the shooting, it turned black! They wanted me to rest for a few days but I said don’t worry about it, I really didn’t think much of it at the time. If you look at the end part of the movie, you’ll see that my character is fighting with just one hand.
A lot of your fights were with Alexander Lo Rei, who’s physically awesome; a very powerful, action man hewn from steel so it appears; what was it like working with him, did he teach you anything or did you teach him?
Well actually, he’s the very person I most want to make a movie with again. I’ve said this, years ago when he first became a director, I asked him “when can we make a film together again?” I also mentioned this to director Lee. In 2013 we met again in Beijing, I said, “We’re getting old! my brothers, is there any chance we can make another action movie again?” He said “Yeah…Damn, we’re getting old, but it’s really tempting! Fighting with you is a real pleasure, whether it’s acting or for real, it just feels right.”
Would be keen to see it! OK, so in “Shaolin Temple Strikes Back”, again, there’s masses of totally exciting fighting going on there, can you share an interesting memory from that film?
How about me being naughty? We had a good time making the film, but when we were shooting the big ending, I got news from director Chung Ting, that he was going to Korea from the Dominican Republic. Now I’ve known him for over ten years, he was my first Shifu in the film business, I wanted to see him so I went and asked director Joseph Kuo about taking some time off, I did not know that director Kuo was director Ting’s Shifu. Anyway Joseph refused but I just went and took a plane to Korea the next day anyway and came back after 4 days
What happened with the film?
They couldn’t shoot anything since the villain was gone, so they had to rest for 4 days. The producer and the boss got angry, including the director Tso Nam Lee as well. I acted like it wasn’t such a big deal as I was 28, young and not sensible. I just left without caring and came back to take the scolding! In the end we finished the movie and I fed the whole crew by way of apology; ditching them like that was the worst thing you could do to them at the time.
Well! Moving on then… “Of Cooks and Kung Fu” was another well-known cult classic, can you relate any interesting things that occurred in the making of it?
The funniest thing about making that movie was that I got scolded every day, but I couldn’t understand a word because it was all in Cantonese! Back then I didn’t know how to act, I got scolded when I hit someone, I got scolded when I missed, I got scolded when I didn’t hit it right. I couldn’t understand, so I just replied, “Thank you, thank you!”
One day Jackie Chen said, “Kick my body”. I said “No, it’s dangerous”. He said “No problem, I can take your “Puo-tuae” (“kicking” in Taichi) Director Chung Ting also said, “Go ahead!”. I asked again if they were sure, and they said yes, so I obliged, and then he didn’t get up for 10 minutes! When he got up, I apologised and since that moment he didn’t scold me anymore.
You’re a force to be reckoned with! OK, so do you have a favourite fight move?
For general fighting I think the front-kick is the most efficient move; there’s no fear of getting restrained, because you cannot grip a leg. If someone grabbed your leg, you can pull him towards you and punch him in the throat, so that’s why the front-kick is good.
Overall, which movie was the most physically demanding you’d done so far?
Well, I never felt tired when shooting a film, maybe because I was young and energetic, I never wore protection either; kicking, hitting, real fighting was no problem, I didn’t feel like I was undergoing any hardship.
Did you sustain any other injuries?
When I was 27, I broke my shoulder the first day we were shooting “The Wild Panther”.
I was not good at flipping and that happened when shooting a fight scene with actor Don Wong in Korea. I didn’t know there were rocks under the sand beneath us and I fell hard on it. The doctor told me later that my bone was broken and the director suggested that I rest and recover and take the next film instead. But I didn’t want that, once I started it I wanted to finish it!
Glad there was nothing else too serious! OK, so what advice would you give to martial artists who want to appear in films?
I suggest that you learn several kinds of martial arts, don’t just be good with one thing, because you never know what might be needed for a movie, maybe one film needs Wing Chun, and the other Hong Chun (Nanquan) or maybe Kaladan. Learn more in your spare time; don’t spend time drinking with others after work, it’s not good for you. Concentrate instead on your profession. Watch movies made by others and not just action movies, action is not all there is to the movie. Acting is more important, especially acting from the heart, so watch other people’s films and learn from them, that’s very important.
What do you think about people like Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, these guys who are in the films? You worked with Yuen Biao on the film “Kickboxer”, can you tell us a little more?
Yuen Biao was the boss, leading actor and action director, he has a whole team and his leg Kung Fu is wonderful, he knows a lot! Well, he wasn’t satisfied with a particular kicking move and he wanted to create a new move in this film, so the director Ma Wu introduced me, (we’d previously shot a film called “The Chinese Ghostbuster” together) and he called me in for a favour. I hesitated but still went, because in this business you don’t call off favours. So one day they were shooting a scene and since he wanted us to come up with a new kicking move, I suggested a flying kick as a surprising entry, and the conversation went like this:
Yuen said, “I’ve done that!”, then I said “how about Suan Tuae?” “What?” “Suan Tuae!”
(So basically they started setting up the wires and) Yuen Biao said to Ma Wu, “Can this really work?” Ma Wu came asking me, “Chang Shan, are you sure about this?” I said, “How many costumes does Yuen Biao have?” “There are 6 costumes for his doubles.” “Well bring me one of them.” “What do you want to do?” “I’ll do it.” “You know how to do it?” “Of course! I picked this move so of course I know!”
So I put the costume on and they wanted to fix me with the wire, but I said no need for that. They asked, “What if you broke your neck?” “I won’t, just give me a wooden box, no need for rehearsing.” I hinted to the other action actors how I’d move, we didn’t even practice, it was just a one take shot and Yuen Biao said “It works!” Then they gave me a role, the film was almost done but they gave me a role and a single fight. Yuen Biao added that scene, I wasn’t in the movie per se but he added it for me.
Nice bit of background there! So, what is it like working with Yuen Biao?
You can learn a lot from him, he has great sense of the camera and beauty in action, he knows how to act, and he has a very professional attitude. When other scenes are being shot he’s always there observing or reading the script, he works very hard.
There are famous people who become vain but he’s certainly not one of them, he takes his job seriously, he is humble and very nice to be with.
What do you think about people like Tony Jaa?
His movement is very graceful, actually I’ve admired him from quite a while back when I was making Korean dramas. I told many people that if they make more of these kinds of Thai films, Taiwanese films will be outdone easily. His actions in the film are totally different from our traditional fighting but it’s all very good.
I feel that he’s very into combining Chinese Kung Fu and Boxing, I read that he also learned Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and his leg moves seem like they’re from Karate, so I’m really impressed; not because he’s famous but because his moves are really clean and accurate. He can combine Chinese Martial Arts, Boxing and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu altogether, and he could well be the first to have accomplished this feat in films, so he’s really good.
Thoughtful views Chang, thanks for sharing. OK, so other stuff now; what’s one geeky thing about you that no one knows?
I have no secrets; I tell people everything. I don’t pretend, so have nothing to hide, I don’t tell stories to show off, I just tell things as they are. I don’t like lying.
Do you have any other hobbies?
I don’t have other hobbies I don’t watch baseball, football or golf, I don’t know their rules, I think my true calling and passion is martial arts. I haven’t done any other exercises for 20 years, but sometimes I’d take a stick and use it like a sword, or a spear, and I’d play with the stick pretending I’m practicing martial arts at the same time.
So, what’s next in the pipeline for Chang Shan?
Because I want to get back into making films again, I’ve been training hard and haven’t touched a drop of alcohol in 3 years now.
What special message do you have for your fans around the world, what would you like to tell them?
I’d just like to say, thanks to all the good friends who like my movies, now I plan to make more and I’d be grateful as ever to have your support!
What favourite motivational warrior quote do you often refer to?
When I was little, I didn’t really get what my Shifu meant by “Everything is a circle”, I only got it as I grew up. You can go from point to point – if you want to jump from point to point, it’s possible but there’ll be many obstacles. This rule applies to both martial arts and life in general, so don’t get too attached, if things can’t work out one way, change your method or go another way, be flexible and not stubborn.
Are there any other insights you’d like to share from your extensive experience?
The ultimate goal of martial arts is to stop conflicts, 止戈(zhǐ gē) it means to stop wars, it’s not about fighting. When someone picks on you, you can react or you can ignore him.
If somebody suddenly says to you, “F**k you!” Do you take it personally or not? If you take it for real, then you get into fights, if you take it like it’s nothing, then there would be no conflict in the first place, this is true accomplishment. In short, ‘from nothing to everything, or from everything to nothing’, you decide. So don’t get too attached to things in life.
That’s some really good and useful Zen-fu right there! Thank you very much Chang for sharing so much in this interview, xie xie, it’s been such a pleasure!
Xie xie! Xie xie! (Thank you!)
You can find out more about Chang Shan via his Facebook page.
Note: We would like to thank Toby Russell for his kind assistance in facilitating this interview and special thanks to Louise Wei for her time, patience and generosity in providing an accurate and detailed translation from Chinese (Mandarin) into English.