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Birth of the Dragon: Philip Ng

Philip Ng is a Hong Kong-born American actor, martial artist and action choreographer. He spent the majority of his youth in Chicago, Illinois before returning to Hong Kong to pursue a career in acting and martial arts choreography in film and television. His notable action acting roles in Hong Kong include “Once Upon a Time in Shanghai”,  “Sifu vs Vampire”, “Naked Soldier”, “Princess and & Kung Fu Masters” and the TV series “A Fist Within Four Walls”. He has served as martial arts choreographer for films including “Zombie Fight Club”, “Young and Dangerous:Reloaded” and “Star Runner”.

He will play the role of Bruce Lee in the upcoming US film “ Birth of the Dragon ”.

Interview with Philip Ng

Philip Ng Birth of the Dragon

When did you start training in martial arts?

Philip Ng: I started when I emigrated to the US from Hong Kong when I was seven years old. Like a lot of new immigrants, we lived together with my extended family in one home. We lived in my grandparents’ house in suburban Chicago. Several of my uncles practiced martial arts. At first, I think it was a way to calm me down. I was a little hyperactive, you know? We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had a backyard, and that’s where I started learning Kung Fu.

Birth of the Dragon Philip NG

What styles of martial arts have you studied?

Philip Ng: I trained in Hung Gar, Wing Chun, and Choy Lee Fut with my dad and uncles. Mainly it was just doing forms. It was good exercise. When I was around 13, I was on a playground, some kid punched me in the chest. It floored me. It’s a very distinct memory. After that, I questioned what I was doing. A lot of people who study traditional martial arts are given an application, and certain strategies, but the training often lacks a progression that makes a person able to use the skill set as it is intended. I think a lot modern Kung Fu schools are often missing that aspect of training.

So I looked into other methods of training, other skill sets, for further inspiration. One of my uncles, who taught Wing Chun suggested I go to Hong Kong to study with Wong Shun Leung, who was Bruce Lee’s senior, and a senior student of Ip Man. He’s famous for being the ‘King of Talking Hands,’ so people called him Gong Sau Wong. ‘Talking Hands’ is a term for challenge matches, which happened a lot back then. The most important thing I learned from him was his approach to combat, and the practicality of his approach.

There’s a lot of mysticism attached to martial arts all over the world, especially when I was younger. People were much more easily mystified by movies and books. Now, with MMA and the internet, people know what real fighting looks like.

So I traveled to Hong Kong every year to study with Sifu Wong until he passed away. In America, I studied with my father, mainly Choy Lee Fut. I also got a black belt in Taekwondo, I learned some Judo and Jiu Jitsu, Escrima, Thai boxing, and I even did some amateur Western boxing. I explored different combat arts, because I was interested in skill sets that I could use, as opposed to just ‘collecting’ forms.

Philip Ng birth of the dragon

When you were younger, did you watch a lot of martial arts movies?

Philip Ng: Of course! When I was young, we would rent VHS tapes in Chinatown. There was a copy of Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master that I watched so many times that the tape wore out. My dad would take me to movies, and one of my strongest memories is something that really made me want to achieve success in the movie industry. Whenever we watched a martial arts movie, he would recognize every single martial artist in the movie! It didn’t matter if it was a secondary role, or a bad guy, or someone who was just in one scene. He knew all of them, knew if they were good or bad martial artists. So after I got into the industry I’m really happy that I’ve been able to introduce my father to a lot of the people he and I used to watch, like Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung. I might try to get him to appear in one of my movies, but he’s really shy. Maybe someday he will.

I started learning more about the Hong Kong action film industry, not just about martial artists, but stuntmen. When I was a kid, a lot of people looked up to mystical warriors, like Shaolin monks, but my heroes were stuntmen. They were doing real things, it wasn’t a legend or mysticism. What they’re doing physically is right there for us to see.

Those things amazed me when I was a kid, so when I was able to finally come to Hong Kong and start working in the movie industry, I thought everyone in the Hong Kong film industry knew Kung Fu really well. I found that there’s a wide variety of skill levels, from people who are really good to people who aren’t. The generation that I watched, who were all very highly skilled, has passed.

But with the popularity of MMA, I think people are starting to become interested in martial arts again. They’re studying Jiu Jitsu kickboxing, but not traditional Kung Fu. I understand, because a lot of times, Chinese martial arts are taught in a very esoteric way, as opposed to being concise or scientific. You don’t see people sparring, which should not be the case as I firmly believe that kung fu was created to enable the practitioner to fight.

Philip Ng birth of the dragon

How did you get started in HK movies?

Philip Ng: In the US, I went to university and graduated with a Masters degree in education, and I had taught at a school for a year. But I would still go to Hong Kong in the summer. Through a friend, I was able to get a very small role in a movie, and it just sparked something. I thought, “It shouldn’t be that hard, it’s possible.” I thought I’d try it for a year. But once you’re here, you realize it takes longer than that, and it takes more effort. You either give it your all or you give it up.

Every Kung Fu kid has a dream, which is why you see so many people come to Hong Kong. But once you’re here, you realize it’s a lot harder than you thought. It’s an uphill struggle. There’s a lot of people, and they all want the same thing. It’s the classic contradiction; you can’t hired with no experience, but you can’t get experience without getting hired! It takes perseverance and luck, but if you do get in, you realize there’s a system.

I was lucky; through my church group, I met a singer/actor named Joe Tay. He’s good friends with [legendary stunt coordinator] Chin Kar Lok, who was doing pre-production for the film Star Runner. They needed someone who knew Wing Chun and Hung Gar to train the actors and choreograph them. I consider this my real first movie gig. I was a trainer for Van Ness Wu and Andy On. That’s where we met, and eventually became best friends, which has lasted for more than a decade.

Philip Ng Birth of the Dragon

Who was the first person you worked with that you had watched in movies and what was that like?

Philip Ng: Before Star Runner, I appeared very briefly in Twins Effect, and I got to cross hands with Jackie Chan. It was just one scene, but for a kid from America who grew up watching Drunken Master so much he broke the tape, it was a dream come true. Meeting your idols is a great thing, but it should be a benefit of a larger goal.

Birth of the Dragon Philip NG

Can you tell us about some of your upcoming projects?

Philip Ng: I have a film titled Undercover Punch & Gun, which is tentatively scheduled for release in the Fall. I’m very proud of it. I was one of the producers, the action director, and an actor, along with Andy and Van Ness. We tried as best we could to capture the energy and style of the Hong Kong movies of the 80s and 90s, not just with action but even comedy.

While filming Star Runner in 2002, I remember the three of us sitting on a ledge on location in Lau On Pai, eating our ‘rice boxes,’ wondering where we’re going to be in ten years. Van Ness was at the height of his fame with F4, and Andy was new up-and-coming action star (who would win the HK Film Award for Best Newcomer for this role). It was Van Ness’ first movie, and he was in the lead role. It was really a first for all of us. More than ten years later, we all got together and made Undercover Punch and Gun, and some of it was filmed in Lau On Pai. It was cool to have all three of us together again in the same place.

I have another movie called Color of the Game. I was the action director and one of the leads with Simon Yam and Jordan Chan. It’s a fun, very well put-together gangster film. It should come out by the end of the year. I also did a small cameo in Donnie Yen’s Chasing the Dragon, and I got to ‘cross hands’ with one of my idols, so I was very excited.

Last but not least, the US release of “ Birth of the Dragon ” will be on August 25th.

Read Part 2 here.

Philip Ng Birth of the Dragon
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