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Women in martial arts

Bringing together the trailblazing ladies who helped forge Hong Kong’s greatest cinematic legacy

Forget about the men, it’s time for the ladies to step into the spotlight. Arthur Tam explores the women that have shaped, contributed and kicked major ass in Hong Kong martial arts cinema. Photography by Calvin Sit. Art Direction by Phoebe Cheng. Illustration by Stanley Chung

No one would argue that Hong Kong, starting with the rise of Shaw Brothers, has dominated martial arts cinema for much of the last 50 years. Local film makers laid the foundation for many of the greatest action films ever made, giving rise to revered international action heroes like Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Jackie Chan and, of course, the greatest of the greatest, the dragon himself, Bruce Lee.

Yes, these are the men that we adore to this day, but we forget that to their yang there has always been a strong yin.The great women of Hong Kong martial arts cinema are often overlooked and overshadowed by their male counterparts. It’s unfair and ludicrous since much of the genre was shaped by female fighters like Cheng Pei-pei, Kara Hui, Michelle Yeoh, Angela Mao, Cynthia Rothrock and Yuen Qiu. In the 50s and 60s, female lead roles in wuxia and kung fu films were just as prevalent as male roles and the ladies threw it down with as much strength, speed and tenacity as the men did, if not more.

These day it’s all about fighting to level the playing field and in the light of increasing girl power, what better way to celebrate than to acknowledge women in an industry that has been so essential to the popularity of Hong Kong pop culture. Snapped tendons, bruised eyes and broken bones – yup, they went through it all and more. It’s time we all recognise.


Cheng Pei-pei (鄭佩佩)

"I’m very proud, and competitive to a fault. I thought, ‘if a man can do it, so can I’"

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By: Arthur Tam

Kara Hui (惠英紅)

"If I could choose again, martial arts would be a hobby, not a career. Once you snap enough tendons because of something, you begin hating it.”

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By: Arthur Tam

Mandy Ho (何佩珉)

"When people look at me, they don’t really see someone who would practice kung fu”

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By: Arthur Tam