Chinatown Capers is the sequel to the 1973 Polly Shang Kwan action comedy Back Alley Princess. In that one, Polly played the feisty street urchin “Chili Boy”, whose true gender was the worst kept secret in all of martial arts cinema. That did not, however, prevent the entire cast from being gob-smacked when, at the film’s conclusion, it was revealed that Chili Boy was in fact a guh… a guh… excuse me (hastily takes a drink of water, and in best Don Knotts voice) A GIRL! Not the least stricken was Polly’s co-star Angela Mao, who had started to find herself getting Beiber Fever for Polly-as-a-boy.
By contrast, Chinatown Capers doesn’t bother itself with such issues, preferring to leave Chili Boy’s troubling androgyny just that, and instead devoting its attentions to a showy shift in scenery. The trailer for the film touts the fact that the Hong Kong production was “filmed entirely in U.S.A”. And indeed it appears that all of it, interiors included, was shot in and around the San Francisco Bay Area. For a native of that area, that makes the film a treat on two levels. For one, there’s the thrill of seeing one of my favorite stars moving through an assortment of warmly familiar locations. For another, there’s the time capsule aspect that preserves both landmarks currently fading from memory -- the long gone Chinatown Wax Museum, Capwell’s -- and those that predated some current destination spots. For instance, who knew that, back then, there was a grassy park where the New People Theater and Super 7 now stand?
That Chinatown Capers’ location is somewhat intended to be the star of the movie is reinforced by the prosciutto thinness of its plot. Chili Boy and his/her dimwitted partner from the first movie, Embroidered Pillow (Samuel Hui), arrive in San Francisco and take jobs as waiters at the restaurant run by family friend Uncle Wang (Wong Sam). Hilarity ensues as a result of Chili Boy’s overconfidence in her(his?) English language skills, not to mention white people’s ignorance of Chinese cuisine. Polly haltingly directs one round eye patron to the chop suey and sweet and sour pork, only to have him respond in Chinese that he doesn’t want food for “foreigners”, while a Caucasian dining party later reinforces his(her!) prejudices by ordering those very items absent her/his prompting.
Amid all this culture clash humor, director/writer Low Wei establishes, albeit in the most leisurely manner imaginable, that Chili and Pillow have a secret purpose for their visit. It turns out that they’ve been entreated by a wealthy Hong Kong businessman to track down his daughter, Sylvia (Sylvia Chang Ai-Chia), who, after coming to the states to pursue her studies, has fallen off the grid for one reason or another. This being the drug and hippy infested San Francisco of the early 70s, you can probably guess what that reason was. And sure enough, it’s not long before our two bumbling amateur sleuths have found out that Sylvia’s crippling marijuana addiction has lead to her being kicked out of school. Now heavily in debt to the scummy band of pushers who got her hooked, she has been forced to square accounts by acting as their runner.
Meanwhile, Chili and Pillow must deal with problems resulting from their combined lack of money and our city’s stringent new “sit/lie” laws. After being rousted from the park by officer whitey, they decide to go with the flow of things and become street musicians, entertaining our city’s beardy inhabitants with songs about Americans’ loose mores and provocative clothing. Ironically, this only earns them enough money to lodge in a rat trap inhabited by a bunch of mini-skirted whores who act more like overzealous groupies. Finally, the two stupidly tip the scales by informing Sylvia’s unsavory associates of her moneyed background, which leads to the gang deciding to hold her for ransom.
And it is at this point, once Chili and Pillow have themselves become targets of the gang and feel the need to resort to disguise, that Chinatown Capers’ enters its most worrisome phase, ignoring the transgender issues that have been screaming from its sidelines since the very first frame in favor of exploring entirely other aspects of, um, identity. First the two profane our Christian holidays by dressing as Santa Claus. Then, for some reason, they find it best advised to dress up as a pair of soul brothers with huge afros and blackened faces -- Polly going for added authenticity by affecting an exaggerated pimp strut while repeatedly shouting “anybody there?” in what I think is supposed to be a Southern accent.
Sadly, the filmmakers deemed this above described act of minstrelsy in itself sufficiently comedic to warrant a long sequence consisting entirely of the two stars walking through an assortment of locations in their get up, occasionally stopping to crack up at each other because it’s all so manifestly hilarious. And while I have to admit to laughing at it myself, if only in utter disbelief, it’s every bit as awful as it sounds. Not even Polly’s infectious energy and good natured charm, abundantly in evidence throughout the rest of the picture, can save it.
I can’t be sure, but I would guess from the look of things that a lot of Chinatown Capers’ location scenes were shot without permits (this is unmistakably the case with the murky footage taken at San Francisco airport that opens the film), which would explain why so many of its fight scenes have a decidedly improvised, spur of the moment feel to them. It’s like everybody just piled out of the bus and got to it the minute they found a suitably unsupervised spot. This is especially true of the climactic fight, which has an absurdly high number of participants, including an eleventh hour, cross-promotional cameo by Slaughter in San Francisco’s Don Wong, who I assume happened to be in town at the time. The chaotic, backyard throw-down aspect of these sequences actually makes them a lot of fun, despite -- or perhaps even because of -- their lacking the type of showy choreography we’re used to seeing in HK films from this period.
At Chinatown Capers’ conclusion, in the wake of that final, dizzying melee, Chili, Pillow and their allies stand over a prostrate field of assorted hippies, thugs and doper scum, all blanketing the landscape like a sodden quilt woven from Richard Nixon’s worst nightmares. And speaking of, with congratulations in order, the film then bids us farewell with a horribly composited shot of Polly Shang Kwan and Samuel Hui being photographed alongside Tricky Dick himself in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building. Thus was Chinatown Capers cemented in my mind as the most unutterably bizarre thing yet to bare the Polly Shang Kwan brand, which you know is saying an awful lot.