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[Alumni Interview] Destined to Become Comic Icon of a Generation Michael Hui Shares His Secret to Spreading Happiness

Destined to Become Comic Icon of a Generation
Michael Hui Shares His Secret to Spreading Happiness

At an interview with Michael Hui (69/UC/Sociology), the most discussed topic was the concept of "destiny". Despite not subscribing to any religious beliefs himself, he acknowledged the mysterious influence of destiny in shaping events. This powerful force has propelled his journey into comedy directing and acting, solidifying his status as a comedic icon of his era and garnering acclaim in the international film arena. While keeping a low profile for many years, his passion remains undiminished, continuously generating fresh ideas for his next project. He expresses reluctance to repeat past endeavours, emphasizing that each new film must originate from a wholly original perspective. Drawing parallels between theatre and life, he advises tackling problems by employing one's intellect and approaching them from a new angle, allowing solutions to naturally unfold.

In 1950, Michael and his parents fled from the Mainland to Hong Kong, settling in the Sheung Yuen Leng squatter area in Diamond Hill. His father, once a primary school teacher, and his mother, a passionate enthusiast of Cantonese opera, nurtured the family. "My father played the violin well, often providing accompaniment to my mother's operatic singing at home. I believe my brothers and I inherited our artistic talents from our parents.”

"Initially, my father struggled to find a teaching job in Hong Kong, but he eventually secured a managerial position at a Wan Chai hotel through a friend's recommendation. Due to work demands, we saw him only once a week. Although my mother was employed, providing for the four of us proved challenging, and we were constantly plagued by poverty. There were times when our rice bucket was empty, and my brother Sam and I had to devise ways to ensure we had two meals a day."

Later, when La Salle College began accepting students, Michael's father encouraged him to apply for fifth grade. "During the interview, when the Irish priest called out 'Hui Koon Man' (Michael's Chinese name), I stood up, and he looked at me, saying only ‘good boy’ before admitting me to the school. Despite my limited English proficiency, I successfully graduated from secondary school."

After graduating, he enrolled in the Sir Robert Black College of Education, as his grades were not remarkable enough and he lacked the financial means to pursue university education. Upon completing his studies there, he secured a teaching position to support his family. "I taught English and Science at St. Francis Xavier's College, earning a monthly salary of $675. I eventually found that my colleagues who had obtained university degrees were earning double my salary. Therefore, I resolved to pursue a university education. My mother did not object but emphasized that my financial contributions to the family must not be affected. To make ends meet, I took on more tutoring and substitute teaching, including at evening schools."

​He reflected on his choices, noting their pragmatic nature. "With United College conveniently located on Hong Kong Island and easily accessible by ferry from St. Francis Xavier's College, I ruled out studying at distant colleges. As for why I chose to study sociology, I found engineering and medicine to be dull, while there were more requirements for business studies. During the interview, I noticed that the queue for sociology had the fewest people. Although I didn't know what sociology was, I knew it was somewhat related to psychology. Understanding people's lives seemed like an interesting subject. Life is so short; why not take the opportunity to understand it? So, I opted to study at the sociology department! I firmly believe that destiny truly exists. Even if God were to give me another chance, I would still choose United College and sociology as my major."

Back when United College was still located on Hong Kong Island, Michael Hui (last row, far left) commuted daily by ferry between Hong Kong and Kowloon, balancing his studies and work.

Destined for Performing Art Career
The choice he made proved faultless. Michael even said it aided him greatly in the days to come. "Initially, my ambition was to enter politics, where a deep understanding of human psychology is indispensable. The first sociology book I read was ‘The Individual in Society’, which mentioned that all interactions between two people are related to sociology. Though I had not foreseen my foray into filmmaking, the insights gleaned from sociology proved most useful in crafting a movie script that would succeed at the box office. Often, I heard people dismissing sociology as mere common sense, but the opposite has turned out to be true. Sociology challenges conventional wisdom, providing profound insights into various aspects of human psychology. I truly reaped substantial benefits from my sociology studies."

Juggling coursework with part-time employment and shouldering the responsibility of Student Union President stemmed from his desire to bring joy to his peers. "Frankly, my university experience left me with some regrets. Balancing classes with work left me with little time to savour campus life. However, despite the demanding schedule, my playful nature led me to engage in various extracurricular activities, such as joining clubs, organizing parties and forming live bands. I often agreed promptly when the drama club needed helpers or guest performers. Perhaps due to my active nature, I found myself unexpectedly elected as the student union president. I recall that many of my fellow CUHK students were rather reserved, absorbed in their studies and part-time jobs, prompting me to organize diverse activities to engage everyone." It appeared that the seeds of his comedic aspirations were quietly taking root back then.

Whenever he had free time, Michael Hui would organize dance parties for his classmates, teaming up with Sam Hui to sing and entertain guests, laying an early foundation for his aspirations in public entertainment.

"Enjoy Yourself Tonight" as Starting Point
Initially, he stuggled to make ends meet at university. By his third year, he was unable to earn enough to bring home. After witnessing his brother Sam Hui's singing performances at the local television station TVB, Michael approached him to inquire about potential job opportunities there. "Following his recommendation, I met with TVB's general manager, Collin Bednall, an Australian known for his successful organization of inter-school quiz competitions in Australian television station. He asked me to write a proposal for a similar Chinese inter-school quiz competition in Hong Kong. I readily accepted and spent the entire night crafting a detailed 60-page proposal. I even enlisted the help of a junior student from CUHK to type it, and she later became my wife. The next morning, I promptly delivered the proposal to TVB at 9 am. The general manager was astonished by the comprehensive document produced overnight. He immediately contacted the director of variety show 'Enjoy Yourself Tonight', Robert Chua, to inquire about the salary for a scriptwriter. They offered me a monthly salary of $3,000, which left me elated. Thus, I launched my career at TVB."

At his university graduation, Michael Hui (centre) is pictured with his parents.

In his early days at the television station, Michael adamantly refused to act on cameras. "My father often emphasized the low social status of actors and the challenges of supporting a family through acting. Besides, I aspired to enter politics or business, with no inclination towards acting." However, senior management at the television station soon recognized his verbal fluency and good command of English. Consequently, they appointed him to host an English segment on "Enjoy Yourself Tonight", where he conducted interviews with celebrities from around the world. Michael noticed that the comedy sketches on the show often fell short of humour. He offered suggestions to the director and was then invited to join the joke writers. "Each week, I came up with comic skits for five nights of the programme. Perhaps my later ability to craft comedy was nurtured during this time. Originally intending to leave TVB after university and pursue a career at an advertising agency, I was struck by fate once again.

"One day, senior TV executive Selina Liang approached me. Having observed me for a while, she found my gestures while teaching comedy to others amusing. At that time, a commercial brand sought to sponsor a 30-minute programme with TVB, coinciding with the New Year period. Selina proposed that I tell jokes while Sam sings. I politely declined, saying I have no acting experience. However, Selina assured me that the programme was a one-time deal and suggested that I could also sing. So, I agreed. Little did I expect the immense popularity of the “Hui Brothers Show” upon its debut. The client extended the sponsorship for another year and a half, a development entirely unforeseen by me."

Fifty Years of Filmmaking Inspired by LI Han-hsiang
His acting journey didn't end with his departure from the television station; rather, it marked just the beginning. Reflecting on this, Michael once again marvels at the wonders of destiny. "Sir Run Run Shaw personally contacted me, informing me that the renowned director LI Han-hsiang was preparing to film 'The Warlord'. Initially, they had cast an older actor from Taiwan for the role. However, due to visa issues, he was unable to travel to Hong Kong after the sets had been constructed. I was merely 29 years old, and they proposed that I portray a warlord in his 60s during the Republic of China era, a role requiring me to shave my head. I found it hard to accept. Yet, Sir Run Run Shaw pointed out that hair can grow back, and opportunities rarely knock twice. There was no reason to forgo the chance without attempting it. Having listened to his advice, I embraced the role." Subsequently, "The Warlord" shattered box office records of Shaw Brothers. Michael went on to star in three more films directed by Lee Han-hsiang. "Lee held a particular fondness for me. He frequently shared his worldview while simultaneously taking on dual roles as both director and screenwriter, crafting scripts that provided satirical commentary on contemporary issues. Over time, I came to realize that my aspiration to become a president of a country was merely a desire to contribute to humanity. However, as a director, I could also convey my personal reflections on the silver screen. If viewers leave the cinema with a sense that the world has become a slightly better place, that, too, constitutes a contribution. After much contemplation, I told my wife my determination to make film directing my lifelong pursuit."

Michael Hui was awarded the Best Actor at the first Hong Kong Film Awards for his role in "Security Unlimited".

Starting from 1974, Michael produced a series of hits including "Games Gamblers Play", "The Private Eyes", and "The Contract", all smashing Hong Kong box office records. He became the  box office champion for five consecutive years, breaking the record three times for the highest box office sales in Hong Kong. Additionally, he earned the Best Actor accolade at the inaugural Hong Kong Film Awards for his role in "Security Unlimited ". With a string of popular comedies under his belt, he credited his success to sociology. "Sociology delves into social stratification, where the lower class make up the majority. To achieve maximum box office success, one naturally targets this vast demographic. Most of my films speak for the audiences from the lowest social strata, to strike a chord with them. Life inherently carries a sense of tragedy. In our existence over a few short decades, we grapple with uncertainties surrounding our life purpose, the meaning of life and what awaits us after death. These issues are compounded by the harsh realities of the world. What can be more heart-wrenching than the plight of children in war-torn regions? Why we have to produce a tragedy film and ask people to pay the ticket?I only consider a tragedy film worth making if it offers a fresh perspective like 'Forrest Gump', introducing novel insights we've never encountered before. Otherwise, given the plentiful options, I'd still choose to produce comedies."

Michael Hui collaborated with Sam Hui to produce Cantonese film "Games Gamblers Play", which grossed six million dollars. The film's outstanding box office performance broke the record for the highest-grossing film in Hong Kong at the time.

However, since his latest movie "The Magic Touch" in 1992, Michael Hui hasn't taken up the director's baton again. He cited the reason as his struggle to generate new ideas. "I never anticipated being at a loss for so long. In the blink of an eye, I've turned 81. Nowadays, with platforms like TikTok, even street vendors are sharing funny videos for free. To make audiences spend over a hundred dollars on tickets and invite friends to enjoy a laugh together in the cinema—what level of quality must one achieve to ensure they feel it's worth their money? It's an incredibly daunting task. Everyone enjoys hearing jokes, but after work, they retreat home to binge-watch Netflix. They consume three or four shows a night, encountering more jokes than I could ever conceive. How can I devise something fresh to captivate them?" Nevertheless, Michael remains resilient. "Regardless of the challenges, I'll persevere. Not only do I aim to astonish people entirely, but I also intend to revolutionize the art of 'creating gags'. It can't rely on the conventional method where the third line serves as a punchline for laughter. My son often jests, reminding me of my age—81 years old—and questioning if I have enough time left to achieve this. Call me stubborn, but even if I face failure in the end, I'll still direct a comedy next year!"

Awarded the Hong Kong Film Award for Lifetime Achievement, Michael Hui is pictured with his son Hui See-wai (left) and daughter Hui Sze-hang (right).

"Hong Kong people will never lose"
In times like these, when many Hong Kong people wear expressions of furrowed brows, Michael was asked if there were any remedies to alleviate the worries of local citizens. He remarked that the solution is rather commonplace, "It's like shooting a movie. When you're feeling unhappy, simply take a break. View things from a different perspective, and a solution will certainly emerge. I often engage in conversations with them, particularly young people. I may not fully grasp the challenges they face but I do recall my own youth, where the primary concern was having not enough to eat. As long as one has ample sustenance and good health, there's little cause for worry. Everyone possesses a creative mind; it's a matter of shifting one's perspective to motivate oneself. Life is fleeting, and doing the things that make one unhappy is unwise! I've observed that today's youth are far from foolish; they adopt a relaxed attitude towards money. If they have money, they spend it first. They won't slog for a lifetime like us just to own a property. In this respect, they demonstrate intelligence. Hong Kong people have always demonstrated flexibility, along with a hardworking and resilient spirit, enabling them to surmount any challenge smoothly. These attributes are not easily replicated by people from other regions in just a few years. Therefore, I firmly believe that after Hong Kong regains stability, there will always be a path forward. Hong Kong people will never lose!"

Michael Hui’s Profile

  • 1969    Graduated with Bachelor of Social Science in CUHK
  • 1977    Awardee, Ten Outstanding Young Persons of Hong Kong
  • 1981    Best Actor, inaugural Hong Kong Film Awards
  • 1991    Best Actor Award, Hong Kong Artists Federation
  • 1993    Founding President, Hong Kong Performing Artistes Guild
  • 1995    Hong Kong Affairs Advisor, HKSAR
  • 1997    Hong Kong Election Committee, HKSAR
  • 2004    Appointed Justice of the Peace, HKSAR
  • 2006    Honorary Fellow, Lingnan University
  • 2011    Golden Mulberry Award, Udine Far East Film Festival, Italy
  • 2022    Lifetime Achievement Award, the 40th Hong Kong Film Awards
  • 2023    Best Supporting Actor, the 41st Hong Kong Film Awards

Published on CU Alumni Magazine Issue 117 by Alumni Affairs Office 2024

Read online: CU Alumni Magazine Issue No. 116 (Chinese Version Only)
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