Friday, 28 November 2014

In search of Bruce Lee’s last filming location

My claims to fame are so few and far between that every so often I feel the need to relive some old glory, and so here is a look back at one of the more challenging, and ultimately frustrating, film location identifications I became involved with back in the summer of 2009.

I had been contacted in May or June time by a chap called John Little - perhaps not that well known to many readers here but a big name in both the bodybuilding and Bruce Lee worlds.For those who don't know, John is famous in the world of fitness and exercise for his regular writing and research into bodybuilding and he also made quite a name for himself as the archivist/author for the Lee estate throughout the 1990's - authoring and editing several books on Lee as well as producing a highly regarded documentary called A Warrior's Journey.

After a self-enforced exile of several years John was in the pre-production phase for a new documentary concerning many of the filming locations used in several of Lee's later films. He had contacted me on the strength of my Lee-obsessed posts on version one of this blog and was hoping to get me involved for the Hong Kong and Macau aspect of the filming.


Sadly, my rather busy family schedule pretty much put paid to anything resembling flexibility with my time, so I had to regretfully decline. However, as you see in the above credit sequence, I did get a small mention. The reason was because during one of our chats John had expressed an immense desire to locate the place used for one specific scene from Enter The Dragon and I said I would have a dig around and see what I could find. The location John referred to was a bit of stumper and I had in fact tried, unsuccessfully, to find it previously. The location can be seen at the very beginning of the film when Lee faces off against a very young, but still rather tubby,  Sammo Hung. Here is a quick reminder. The key to the scene is the odd shaped hilltop in the background.


The scene is quite significant because although it appeared at the beginning of the film (mashed together with a shot of Ching Chun Koon in Tuen Mun), it was in fact the very last bit of filming that Lee did...EVER.

John had hoped I could do some research and have the place ready for him when he arrived with his film crew in the first week of August 2009. Unfortunately, it didn't quite work out that way. July rolled by and I was having no luck whatsoever. This was back at a time when my hunting skills were still fairly undeveloped and my knowledge Hong Kong as a whole was fairly limited. I say this because most seasoned hikers would already have known the location just by looking at the above screen cap.

Along came August and the film crew arrived and I had nothing to give them. John had almost immediately recorded interviews with both Yuen Wah and Stephen Tung Wei and neither knew or could remember where the filming had taken place. Considering that Yuen Wah was the stuntman who performed the various flips in that scene, the fact that he couldn't remember didn't really bode too well for our success. The only other person who might know was Sammo Hung himself and John had tried desperately to get some time with him for an interview but without success. The reason was that Sammo had been admitted to hospital with heart problems during filming of Ip Man 2. He was incommunicado undergoing a battery of tests at the Baptist Hospital in Kowloon Tong.

The week ticked by. John did filming at various locations in HK and Macau: Tai Tam Bay, Muslim Cemetery, Ching Chun Koon, King Yin Lei, Woodland Crest in Sheung Shui, Camoes Garden, as well as some non-film related places such as Bruce's old schools. He also conducted several more interviews with such people as Chaplin Chang and Ip Chun. By the end of the week he had a whole bunch of locations, not all were film-related, but nothing regarding this famous fight scene. I'll be honest when I say I felt bad for not being able to find it in time. John and the crew left for Italy where they were going to capture the various places used in Way of the Dragon and I promised to keep him up to date in case I found anything useful.

So, after all the excitement of the film crew, I got back to my usual routine but spent an hour or so each night trying to track down this location and following up various clues. By now I had begun to take it quite personally. Now, you have to bear in mind that Enter The Dragon was filmed in 1973, and in 2009 that was still almost 40 years previously. Everything changes over time and really the only reliable (and even this isn't true 100% of the time) thing that can be compared is the ridge lines of hills and mountains in the background. So this is how it was for the next few weeks: looking at page after page of pictures of HK hillsides and mountains from as many different sources as I could find. My eyes seemed to be going square with all the staring at the screen and eventually decided to change tack and start looking at other parts of the film scene in the hope that they might reveal some previously unnoticed detail.

It wasn't until I started played around with Microsoft’s Photosynth and stringing several screen caps together that I was able to get some semblance of a useful background. Finally I had a distant ridge line that  looked (kinda) familiar. Here is a rough example of what I had to work with, although this is a stitch using a program called Autostitch.


Now, it was initially a bit tenuous, but it was all I had (this was before Google had introduced Streetview to Hong Kong) and I felt that the hills at the back left were very similar to the following ones seen in the background of Way of the Dragon. These two hills below looked as though they matched the ones that are either side of the yellow-garbed figure on the left in the above shot. Anyway, it wasn't much to go on but seeing as I knew the location of the Way of the Dragon scene, I figured it would be a good idea to start looking in the Sheung Shui area.


Now, Sheung Shui is reasonably flat for the best part but has hills either side of it and logic (taking into consideration the environment that is visible in the film) dictated to me that the west part was a more likely spot, so it really wasn't long before I had some candidates to investigate. The most likely, called Tai Shek Mo, didn't seem to have any pictures online, at least none that I could find, and so a quick trip up to the area was called for - easy seeing as I was still living in Taipo at the time.

So I hopped on the train and jumped in a cab and told the driver to take me to the village next to the hillside - a place called Ho Sheung Heung. It wasn't until the cab was driving along Castle Peak Road about to turn into the village road that I knew I had the right place because I had the perfect view of the hill from the back of the cab. Here is basically what I saw.


So this is when I started to get excited because as far as I was concerned it was a perfect match. If only I had access to Streetview back then I may have solved this in time for when the film crew were over, but, such is life. I arrived at the village and headed into the village hall/shop and got chatting to a local villager who had basically lived there from birth and, after showing him a contact sheet with all the film grabs on, he confirmed that the area was indeed around here - in fact in the wooded area behind the village (it was a so-called 'fung shui' wood). However, he told me he used to play there when he was younger but the area was now completely overgrown and full of snakes.

Anyway, I ate some noodles at the shop, thanked the guy and went for a wander to get my bearings. I walked the complete perimeter of the wood and couldn't find a single place to get in. There were some pathways cut but they only went in fairly shallow and all led to graves and/or ossuary pots urns. I ended by walking up to a decent vantage point on nearby Tai Shek Mo and took some photos. Of course, at this point it was quite clear that the area I was interested in was fairly large and it would be hard to pinpoint the exact spot, but anyway it was a start. Here are some of the photos I took that day.

 Tai Shek Mo
Looking south - back toward the wood

I took this latter picture because the small hill you can see in the middle can also be seen on film - behind Roy Chiao as he sits presiding over the fight, and it provides a handy reference for seeing which way the set was laid out.


It was quite obvious from my own camera angles that the area I was after was further south - somewhere in amongst the trees, but on that day this was the closest I could get. On a positive note, it was nice to finally know I was in the approximate area of where the filming took place and, of course, it was pleasing to know that the place hadn't been buried under a several thousands tons of Chow Tai Fook and Prada handbag shops. However, locating the actual spot was going to prove a bit more difficult.

Whittling down the location was done in several ways. First I got a 1976 aerial view of the location from the mapping office. As you can see below (the picture is oriented horizontally) the area was more sparse back in the 70's and had multiple open areas as well as tracks leading to them. It also revealed that this finger of land consisted of three small hillocks.


They may be a bit difficult to make out on the black and white picture, but thanks to the Home Affairs Dept, we also have a contoured map showing each hill. In the picture below, the close contours of Tai Shek Mo can be seen at the top, and the more widely spaced contour lines - indicating a rather more gentle decline - of the three small hills as well as Ho Sheung Heung village to the right (east).


So anyway, September rolled around and on my next free day called up my buddy Eddy and we took some rather nasty looking chopping blades along and hacked our way onto the top of the lower hill (Hill 1). Sadly, although there was a clearing at the top, it was small and just didn't seem to be the right place. I was fairly certain that it was the middle hills we needed to get to but the foliage was impassable.

My reasoning was that in some of the film scenes (like the one below) you can see the rather pointy top hill (Hill 3) in the background. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see a yellow dirt path going up a small hill on the left. This is Hill 3 and is, as it turns out, currently the only other accessible point in the woods. Just to the right is another small pointy hill that is on the lower slope of Tai Shek Mo. I've also marked them to make it easier to see.


So, I went back by myself again and tried once more to get to the middle hill without success, but rather than leave empty handed I decided to find a way up to Hill 3 and managed to find a small path further up near the village that led straight up. Here are some more pictures from that day.


So in these two pictures above you can see the second hill I marked on the screencap, basically where the second red arrow is pointing, and I took the picture from the top of Hill 3 (first red arrow). I think this hill is easy to access because it is perhaps used by the villagers for flying a flag at certain festivals - there is a concrete base at the top with a hole in it for a flag pole. Actually, these picture also show one of the main reasons why this location hasn't been used for filming for a long time, but I'll get to that later. In the meantime, here is a photo looking south from Hill 3 towards Hill 2. Yes, that rather overgrown bit of green in the middle.



It's on top of that hill (and to the left a bit) that the fight with Sammo was filmed. The pine trees that were obvious on the film have all gone - actually there are only a few left in the thicker part of the wood, most other seem to have been cut down or just disappeared - perhaps victims of 40 years of typhoon damage?. Sadly though, this is still the closest I have been able to get, the foliage over there is several feet deep and I have yet to find the time and courage to launch a full scale assault on the place. Just for clarity I've marked the location in question on both the 1976 picture and a modern aerial courtesy of GoogleEarth.



As luck would have it, not long after I found this place, my kids started horse riding lessons at the nearby Lo Wu Saddle Club and for quite some time I was making a regular weekly trip up here. Over the months and years I have noticed new paths have been cut out and some fresh graves put down. Some of them look as though they may be helpful for gaining access to Hill 2, but I have yet to try. What I will say is that Tai Shek Mo itself has been subject to two major hillfires in the past year - a side affect of having graves on the hillside and people who are too careless to take their burning offerings with them when they leave. What this means - and with the addition of new graves in the wood - is that the chances of a hillfire occurring in the wood seems to have risen and it really wouldn't surprise me one day to come up here and find everything burnt to the ground with unfettered access to Hill 2.

So there you go. Two months after being asked to find it, I finally managed to find the place, but sadly it was far too late for it to be included properly in the final documentary. John did include some of my findings in an earlier version of the film, which ended up being released by a French distribution company without John's knowledge, but sadly the final version saw it dropped. Never mind. John did get in touch a couple of years later when he found out I had got closer to the place, and asked me to send some high-res video for him to use. Sadly, my camera skills are shakey at best and it couldn't be done - however, as a result of that little effort he also gave me a small credit in his mini-doc called Return to Han's Island that was included in the 40th anniversary Bluray release of Enter the Dragon. Another small claim to fame but perhaps not really deserved second time around.

Anyway, with all that palava over with, it was interesting to find out, via my good friend from Germany, Andi (who has his excellent locations website here), has told me of many more films that used this very same location including several Shaw films such as All Men Are Brothers (1975), The Blood Brothers (1973), The Water Margin (1972), The Lady Hermit (1971). Sammo Hung even went back there in 1978 to film The Odd Couple and Yuen Woo Ping filmed a scene for Snake in the Eagle's Shadow there in 1979.

So there you go, it turns out the place was really well known amongst local film makers and was used on several occasions - I expect there to be more films as well that I don't know of yet. This makes it easier to understand why Bruce knew of the place and decided to use it. It was certainly picturesque when it was studded with tall pine trees and its rural nature meant it was a good place to fill in for a supposed Shaolin Temple.

The reason it wasn't used much beyond the late 70's should be obvious from my modern shots above. You'll have noticed that there is a great big electricity pylon slap bang on the middle of the hillside. Ugliness aside, it doesn't really pay to have a modern pylon showing up in the background of a shot from your period-set kung fu film. The pylon was probably erected when the New Town development in nearby Sheung Shui/Fanling took place in the 1980's. But more recent development over the nearby border in Shenzhen mean that even behind Tai Shek Mo there are rather large obvious skyscrapers that spoil the once rural view.

Okay, so this story isn't quite over yet because someone still has to make it onto Hill 2...is anybody willing to take up the challenge?

2 comments:

  1. Wow I just found your blog, you did an incredible job!!! thanks for you time and dedication to find all these places!!! I will go to HK to see the Bruce Lee exibit and also check out these locations!
    Frankie

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    1. welcome Frankie. This is a republishing from 5 years ago, I've done a few more things in the meantime so keep watching.

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