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China Daily

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Friday, July 05, 2019, 11:39
A man of many parts
By Mathew Scott
Friday, July 05, 2019, 11:39 By Mathew Scott

Musician, actor, director, producer — Teddy Robin remembers the milestones of his illustrious showbiz career spanning more than 50 years. Mathew Scott listened in.

Teddy Robin earned fame as a rock star but always knew his path would lead him to films. (ROY LIU / CHINA DAILY)

Teddy Robin carries with him an air of enthusiasm that can lift your mood. 

It has you smiling, before you know it, almost as broadly as Robin himself does when asked first-up if he’s ever thought about the reason behind his run of success in the world of Asian entertainment for more than 50 years.

“Fate!” is the initial, rapid-fire response, before Robin scrunches his face slightly and, after a moment of reflection, expands on this theory.

“One day I just picked up a guitar,” he explains. “Then I found I could sing very well. Who knew? You don’t know these things until you try. When I moved into film, I found I had the right instincts so I guess the best thing is to follow where fate takes you.”

Few success stories can rival that of this diminutive 74-year-old. We’re at Hong Kong Arts Centre to discuss his long career and Robin has arrived, after all these years, full of energy that he says is fueled by the desire to create and the thrill of seeing his ideas come to fruition.

Robin was in high school when he formed a band with his two brothers and two friends. They named themselves Teddy Robin and the Playboys. Soon they were playing to packed houses in Hong Kong and dominated the local radio playlists.

They were the biggest band the city had at a time when the music world was being overturned by a band of floppy-haired lads from Liverpool. 

“The whole world wanted their own kind of this mania and we were lucky, we were chosen as The Beatles of Hong Kong,” says Robin. 

Teddy Robin and the Playboys produced a string of local hits, including a cover of “Pretty Blue Eyes”, first made famous by American Steve Lawrence in the late 1950s. They also dabbled, quite superbly, in psychedelia (“Magic Colours”), as they followed the trends charted by The Beatles. 

“I never thought our band would make it,” says Robin. “I think it was because of Beatle-mania. I don’t think I handled the fame very well. I was shocked.”

Chow Yun-fat got his breakthrough film role in the Ann Hui-directed The Story of Woo Viet, produced by Teddy Robin. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

A life in the movies

Much of the attention, as always in the music world, was focused on the lead singer with the light, bright voice and the film industry in Hong Kong was quick to notice how the fans flocked to Robin.

Super producer Raymond Chow, then still at the massive Shaw Brothers studio but on the verge of breaking free and starting Golden Harvest, offered to make Robin an even bigger star.

What Chow didn’t realize was that Robin had long been dreaming of making his way into the film industry. The hint was in his name.

“Even when my music was a big hit I was thinking about movies,” says Robin. “Ever since I was a child I wanted to work in the movies. I called myself Robin after watching The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), so I guess it was going to happen.”

Born Kwan Wai-pang, Robin picked up his English from the films he watched. 

“But I don’t think I’m an actor,” says Robin. “Raymond Chow wanted to sign me for four films, but I just wanted to try one (1970’s The Price of Love). People already knew me because of my music, so I guess I was a good fit. That film made me famous in Southeast Asia. I had just graduated from high school then. By the early seventies I went everywhere, and people knew me.”

 He was looking to play non-acting roles in the film industry. Although he has continued to act sporadically, Robin is better known as director, composer and producer. The last of these suits him the best, he feels.

“It’s the best job I can do in the film business, better than being a director or acting,” says Robin. “I’ve good eyes. I can judge the script, which is very important, and I am good with judging stars. Andy Lau was in Once Upon a Rainbow (1982), which I produced. It was his first film. I knew he would be big.

“When I finally got into the film industry I wanted to make films with something to say, but you have to make sure people want to see them. Some directors make films that are too arty. If people don’t see your films, what’s the use of them?”

Chow Yun-fat got his breakthrough film role in the Ann Hui-directed The Story of Woo Viet, produced by Teddy Robin. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Seeking out the best

It’s a point that leads us directly to why Robin has come to HKAC. He had a hand in around 50 films across his career, from early box-office hits such as his debut in 1970, on to the best supporting actor nod he received at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2010 for playing an ageing martial artist in Gallants, and then his personalized dabble in horror with last year’s Lucid Dreams

But back in 1981, the Robin touch as producer was showcased in Ann Hui’s acclaimed The Story of Woo Viet. The film was chosen to screen at Cannes and was recently part of the New Waves, New Shores: Cannes Directors’ Fortnight 50 Meets Hong Kong Cinema program at HKAC.

The plot revolves around a Vietnamese refugee who washes up in Hong Kong and the adversities he is faced with trying to make a living. The film helped establish Hui’s reputation, and convinced people that Chow Yun-fat was more than just a TV star.

 “It was a long, long time ago,” says Robin. “Usually I help out as creative producer but on that film I didn’t create that much. It was all about the story. I had three hits before this film, very good box office, and they talked about things that went a bit deeper, other than just fighting or whatever. This film had a little bit of action, a great story with a lot of drama. 

“People forget that at that time Chow Yun-fat was thought of as box-office poison. He was really popular on TV but his movies didn’t make money — except this. Later of course he became a big star. But (in Woo Viet) he had something good to work with. The script is great and Ann is a great director.”

Currently Robin is  helping  a few young filmmakers to get their first productions made.

“They come to me,” he says. “But I have to reject a lot (of them).  I have good instincts. If I can help youngsters I feel good about that.”

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