Angela Mao was as famous as Bruce Lee when she was a
martial arts film star during the 1970s. Then she seemed to vanish.
It turns out she’s been in Queens this whole time.
At the reception for an Asian film festival at Lincoln Center six years ago, excitement rippled through the crowd: Was it her? Lady Kung Fu? Was that Lady Whirlwind?
Rumors long circulated that she had left movie stardom in Hong Kong for domestic life in New York City, but no one had heard much else about Angela Mao, possibly the most famous martial arts actress of her time, in more than 30 years.
Surprised fans were now greeted by a small 60-year-old w
oman wearing a floral silk dress. Her son helped her manage the crowd. One fan, Ric Meyers, approached her for a photo. Like others, he was curious to know what she had been up to. He got his answer.
“She told me and my friends she was running restaurants in Queens,” Mr. Meyers said. “I told them, ‘We all have to go.’ But we all just got too busy and never went.”
“She gave off the impression,” he added, “that she was a very private person.”
On a warm afternoon this September, Ms. Mao, now 66, sat in one of those restaurants, keeping an eye on lunch service as she rubbed her baby granddaughter’s belly.
The restaurant, Nan Bei Ho, sits on a quiet street in Bayside, a suburban Queens neighborhood beyond the reaches of the subway system and not far from the Long Island border. It is the oldest of three restaurants she runs with her husband and son, all of them in Queens. It serves Taiwanese food and is popular on weekends but is otherwise nondescript.
Martial arts fans have sought the address of this restaurant for some time — they wanted to know what happened to Angela Mao, the Queen of Kung Fu, who fought and flew through dozens of films in the 1970s but vanished within a decade.
A woman with a hearty laugh, Ms. Mao sometimes expressed confusion that people still had any interest in her.
Over the course of three hours at the restaurant, she spoke in Mandarin, with her son and his wife translating into English. Ms. Mao, who usually declines interviews, reflected on her past without sentimentality.
On moving to New York: “My son was born, and my husband came here for work. Supporting my family is what is most important to me.”
On her second vocation: “Chinese restaurants are always a good way to make money in the U.S.”
On leaving the spotlight: “My story is now in history. I want to be off the screen. I always keep low.”
When encouraged to discuss her stardom with less modesty, she turned away from her granddaughter, seeming to consider the past for the first time in a long while. Then she chuckled.
“How famous was I?” she said. “When I was a somebody, Jackie Chan was a nobody.”
Ms. Mao’s career was brief but bright, taking place in Hong Kong and Taiwan and including roles in more than 30 films over a decade. Studios promoted her as a female Bruce Lee. When she appeared as Mr. Lee’s doomed sister in the 1973 martial arts classic “Enter the Dragon,” her place in the kung fu canon was secured. Quentin Tarantino has cited her as an influence, and a violent fight scene in his 2003 film “Kill Bill” involving a swinging ball and chain is strikingly similar to one of Ms. Mao’s duels in “Broken Oath.”
She fought with ferocity and grace, mowing through armies of opponents with jaw-breaking high kicks, interrupting the carnage only to flip her pigtails to the side. A common climax in her films was her combating a villain twice her size.
“She was the first female kung fu star — name above title,” said J. Hoberman, a longtime movie critic who now writes about video for The New York Times. He has fond memories of seeing Ms. Mao’s movies on triple bills at Times Square grindhouse theaters in the 1970s. “She basically had one act, which was going from an obedient character to a machine-like avenger,” he added. “A lot of people saw her films as feminist statements the same way as Pam Grier films.”
Ms. Mao’s career coincided with the over-the-top, often impolitic exploitation era in film. The narrator for an American trailer of her 1972 film “Hapkido” declares: “Watch out for the pigtail that whips you up and wipes you out. … Lady Kung Fu: the unbreakable China Doll who gives you the licking of your life.”
She was born Mao Ching Ying in 1950 and grew up in Taiwan, the third of eight children, to a family of entertainers for the Peking Opera House. Like her siblings, she started training for the opera at a young age, taking voice lessons when she was 5. She also studied martial arts, specifically hapkido, rising to the level of black belt — a prowess that later distinguished her from other action stars, who merely choreographed their fight scenes.
In her 20s, she moved to Hong Kong, where a thriving film industry was based, but she was hardly romantic about it. “To be honest, the money was just better in movies,” she said. “I had to support my family. Most of the money I made I gave to them. This is the Chinese tradition.”
Leading female roles were rare in Hong Kong at the time. Mr. Meyers, the fan who met with Ms. Mao at Lincoln Center, is the author of “Films of Fury,” a comprehensive history of the kung fu movie genre. Ms. Mao, he said, was the first woman to star in her own action films without having to defer to a male star.
Men ran things,” he explained. “Hong Kong had lots of machismo then. Women were considered ‘jade vases.’ They didn’t speak on screen. They were considered decoration.”
When asked about this epithet, Ms. Mao snapped, “I was never anybody’s ‘jade vase.’” She shifted in her seat. Moments later, she dispatched her son to tend to a customer she noticed from the corner of her eye.
Her break came when the Hong Kong producer Raymond Chow discovered her in an opera. Though Ms. Mao generally described her life as a case of being in the right place at the right time, she did display a rare moment of tenderness at this point. “I have to thank God and Raymond Chow,” she said.
The dominant studio in Hong Kong at the time was Shaw Brothers, which produced dozens of formulaic action films per year. Mr. Chow was considered one of Asian cinema’s revolutionaries for founding the competing studio, Golden Harvest, which is credited with helping bring martial arts cinema to the West. Among his early coups were signing Bruce Lee — and discovering Angela Mao.
“Everyone told him, ‘No one wants to see a woman on the screen,’” Mr. Meyers said. “He said, ‘That’s not true: I do.’ And Raymond Chow was right. He searched for a female actress with the same charisma and talent as Bruce Lee, and he found Angela Mao.”
Her first prominent role was “Hapkido,” or “Lady Kung Fu,” in 1972. “That made me a star,” she said. “I traveled the world to promote it. People knew my face. Then the whole Asian world knew my face.” “Lady Kung Fu,” along with “Lady Whirlwind,” also in 1972, established her nicknames.
In the early 1970s, she appeared in a string of films now considered martial arts classics: “Angry River,” “Thunderbolt,” “The Fate of Lee Khan,” “When Taekwondo Strikes” and “The Tournament.” A teenage Jackie Chan appeared as an uncredited stuntman in several of her early films.
“Jackie and I started together,” she said. “We learned to take care of each other. He is my brother.” At the height of Ms. Mao’s fame, a man attacked her on a walk home, she recalled in an interview from the mid-1990s. She promptly dealt him several kicks. He ran off. The episode made headlines.
Ms. Mao reflected: “A lot happened to me in a little bit of time.”
Aside from some cameos in the early 1990s, Ms. Mao said, she effectively concluded her film career in 1983, when her son was born. By this time, her husband had moved to New York to start a construction company. Ms. Mao and their son joined him in 1993. She opened her first restaurant, Mama King, on Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing three years later. She opened Nan Bei Ho in 1997. New Mei Hua, in Flushing, and Guo Ba Inc, in Bayside, would follow.
“After I got married,” she said, chuckling, “I had to keep a lower profile so my husband could be the leader. But in film? I was the king.”
Ms. Mao’s lack of regard for stardom may have been apparent from the start. “It is evident that success has not spoiled Angela Mao, or that she is too simple to know the extent of her popularity,” a 1974 profile in a martial arts magazine reads. “But, there is a small indication she is finding all the strings of kung fu movies a bit monotonous since she constantly repeats her plans after retirement. She still considers herself Mao Ching Ying, the Chinese opera actress and loves simple clothes.”
The article ends: “Angela Mao gets up to leave. She runs her hands down the sides of her Levi’s, crushes a last Silva Thin on an ashtray and picks up her purse.… She did not say goodbye.”
If Ms. Mao has tried to part ways with her past, she has never been able to fully shake it. The occasional customer recognizes her to this day, and sharp-eyed kung fu fans still stop her in the street.
“It always happens,” Ms. Mao said. She recalled the time years ago when, while she was sitting in Central Park, a man shouted “That’s Angela Mao!” “He wanted to know what it was like working with Jackie Chan,” she said. “I was so surprised.”
Mr. Meyers considered her legacy. “She didn’t have the ego of Bruce Lee,” he said. “He didn’t feel justified unless he was a star. She didn’t need that. She left Hong Kong on her own terms. She was a pioneer unconcerned with her own stardom.”
May Joseph, a professor at Pratt Institute who wrote an essay about Ms. Mao as a feminist hero, encapsulated her influence this way: “She was a radical feminist cinematic presence before there was a language for that,” she wrote in an email. “She is the Lauren Bacall of kung fu.”
Ms. Mao, however, bristled at grandiose notions about her legacy; she was not interested in hearing that she had become the subject of feminist literature.
“This is not a gender situation,” she said with a baffled expression. “I just played myself. I am strong and I am powerful. That is how I became the most important female kung fu actress of my time."
CreditAn Rong Xu for The New York Times
One story told in kung fu circles is that she was paid only $100 for her role in “Enter the Dragon.” The subject obviously fatigued her. “I’m more focused on the quality of the movie than how much money I got paid,” she said. “I am very traditional. I don’t want to argue for special things. I don’t think much about male power and female power.”
Grady Hendrix, a founder of the film festival at Lincoln Center who endured the challenge of tracking her down, suggested that Ms. Mao was part of a bigger story.
“She’s one of those martial arts ‘What happened to?’” Mr. Hendrix said. “Lots of Hong Kong talent ends up in places like New York or Vancouver. One of the ‘Five Deadly Venoms’ had a kung fu academy in New York. For every Jackie Chan, there’s ones that aren’t.”
“You get the sense it was all embarrassing to her,” he added.
As evening approached at Nan Bei Ho, Ms. Mao seemed to have had enough of reminiscing. While her family and staff took a break to feast on barbecued meats in celebration of an autumn Chinese festival, she fed mashed potato on a soup spoon to her granddaughter. Later, she chopped snails in the kitchen to make a soup for her son, George King.
Over the years, Mr. King, 33, has become his mother’s reluctant point man, handling occasional inquiries from kung fu pilgrims who track down his cellphone number. He shares her indifference to the past. “I just don’t think about it,” he said. “That generation thought about things differently. I think she was just blind to gender inequality. She was too busy working to support her family.”
He said he was aware from a young age that his mother had some kind of glamorous past, but the level of fame was a mystery to him until a Japanese media company offered to fly them to Tokyo for a celebration of her films in 2007. “Thirty years after her career ended, we’re eating yakitori at this restaurant,” he said. “Two fans are just standing outside in the cold. All they wanted was her autograph.”
“When people ask me ‘How does it feel to have Angela Mao as your mother?’” he added, “I say, ‘Well, you just said it: She’s my mother.’”
But he seemed to find some poetry in her improbable path to Queens while visiting a mall on Long Island some years ago. A video rental shop there had a selection of kung fu movies dedicated to the greats: Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Jet Li. A section was also dedicated to Angela Mao.
“A whole section is devoted to Mom,” he said. The shop owner noticed his interest.
“The man who ran the place said, ‘Call me; I have many more.’” said Mr. King. “But I just smiled and walked out.”