Ni Kuang: Prolific Hong Kong Novelist and Screenwriter Known for Fantastical Thrillers

From a New York Times obit by Tiffany May headlined “Ni Kuang, Prolific Hong Kong Novelist and Screenwriter, Dies at 87”:

HONG KONG — Ni Kuang, a prolific author of fantasy novels imbued with criticism of the Chinese Communist Party and a screenwriter for more than 200 martial arts films, died in Hong Kong.

His death was announced by his daughter-in-law, the actress Vivian Chow, on social media. She said he died at a cancer rehabilitation center.

Best known for his fantastical thrillers, Mr. Ni wrote the screenplays for many of the action movies produced by the Shaw Brothers, who dominated the Hong Kong market. He also created the story lines and central characters for Bruce Lee’s first two major films, “The Big Boss” (1971) and “Fist of Fury” (1972), although the screenwriting credit for both films went to the director, Lo Wei.

In the Chinese-speaking world, Mr. Ni was perhaps best known for the “Wisely” series, a collection of about 150 adventure stories first published as newspaper serials. The stories told of the title character’s encounters with aliens and battles with intelligent monsters, but they sometimes also contained pointed political criticism.

Born in 1935 to a working-class family in Shanghai, Mr. Ni was given two names at birth, as was the custom: Ni Yiming and Ni Cong. Information on his parents was not immediately available, but it is known that he had six siblings.

He began working in his teens as a public security official during China’s land-reform movement, believing in the Communist Party’s promise of a more egalitarian future. But he quickly grew disillusioned after being given the task of writing daily execution notices about landowners, who were blamed for China’s rural poverty and persecuted as public enemies. When he questioned whether they had committed other crimes to warrant a death sentence, his superiors rebuked him.

“That was the beginning of my distaste for the party,” he said in a 2019 interview with Paul Shieh, a prominent lawyer and television host, for RTHK, the Hong Kong public broadcaster.

His troubles did not end there. While stationed in Inner Mongolia, Mr. Ni mated a crippled wolf with two dogs, then raised a pack of their cubs in secret. When the cubs attacked a more senior official, he was punished and made to write long essays of contrition. In public sessions where so-called class enemies were denounced, he got in trouble for giggling. He was also branded as an anti-revolutionary after being caught dismantling wooden planks from a footbridge to burn as fuel during a cold spell.

A friend had warned Mr. Ni that he could face heavy penalties for his transgressions and helped him steal a horse so he could escape, Mr. Ni said in the RTHK interview. He returned to Shanghai, where he paid smugglers to help him stow away on a boat to Hong Kong in 1957.

At first, Mr. Ni made less than 50 cents a day doing factory work and odd jobs. In interviews, he described in great detail the first meal he had paid for with his earnings: a bowl of rice topped with glistening slabs of fatty barbecued pork.

Mr. Ni soon found a vocation as a writer of serialized fiction when The Kung Sheung Daily News accepted a manuscript he wrote, “Buried Alive,” about land reform in mainland China.

He threw himself into writing full time, saying in interviews that at the peak of his career he wrote as many as 20,000 words a day. He published the first installments of the “Wisely” saga in the newspaper Ming Pao in 1963.

“Back then, I wrote novels as a living, to feed mouths and get through the day, so I had no way of writing exquisitely,” he said, adding that he had time for neither research nor revision while writing. “I could only rely on what was in my head.”

Although he never returned to the mainland, his early life experiences there often figured into his writing, even as his fiction became more supernatural. “Old Cat,” a “Wisely” novel first published in 1971, was inspired by a gray-blue Persian cat that had kept Mr. Ni company when he was locked in a hut as punishment. He had spent hours untangling its knotted, matty hair, he said in an interview. The cat in the novel battled aliens.

In a speech at the Hong Kong Book Fair in 2019 about his legacy as a science-fiction writer, Mr. Ni argued that his work did not really fit into that genre as it is traditionally defined. He had once avoided writing about aliens, he said, but found them to be convenient narrative devices when he was stuck on a plot.

“My science fiction is completely different from Western science fiction or what most people would consider ‘hard’ science fiction,” he said.

Having completed only junior high school, he added, he lacked a proper understanding of science. He drew more from ancient Chinese myths and legends.

Mr. Ni also brought his imagination to the big screen, earning screenwriting credits for movies that included “One-Armed Swordsman,” which broke Hong Kong box-office records in 1967.

Mr. Ni married Li Guozhen in 1959. She survives him. His survivors also include their daughter, Ni Sui, and their son, Joe Nieh.

Over the years, Mr. Ni did not hold back in his critiques of the Chinese Communist Party, and he described Hong Kong as a refuge for free thinking. But he was pessimistic about the city’s future under Beijing’s tightening grip.

His 1983 novel, “Chasing the Dragon,” was widely cited as a prescient description of the political backdrop that prompted pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019, followed by a sweeping crackdown.

In the book, Mr. Ni writes about an unnamed metropolis that is reduced to a shell of itself:

There’s no need to destroy the architecture of this big city, no need to kill any of its residents. Even the appearance of the big city could look exactly the same as before. But to destroy and kill this big city, one only needs to make its original merits disappear. And all that would take are stupid words and actions coming from just a few people.

When asked by Mr. Shieh of RTHK what disappearing merits he meant, Mr. Ni said, “Freedom.”

“Freedom of speech is the mother of all freedoms,” he continued. “Without freedom of speech, there is no other freedom at all.”

Tiffany May covers news from Asia for The New York Times.

Speak Your Mind

*