Much hasn’t changed for Angela Mao since last fall, when she became famous all over again. Business at Nan Bei Ho, one of the three Taiwanese restaurants she manages in Queens, has proceeded as normal. And she’s only seen a slight increase in fans visiting the restaurants, slight being the operative word; it’s been nothing resembling an influx.
Few of Mao’s admirers had known to make the trek to her restaurants before last November, when she was the subject of a profile in The New York Times. Metro reporter Alex Vadukul visited Nan Bei Ho to confirm rumors of what many fans had heard about Mao’s whereabouts since she made her last film in 1992. Inside, behind this unassuming storefront on a street in Bayside, Queens, he stumbled upon a great secret, finding a former star of kung fu cinema who’d essentially collapsed into anonymity. Few knew what had become of Lady Whirlwind, as Mao was once nicknamed, or where she’d gone; they just knew what she left behind.
Her new habitat was the food service industry. Mao opened her first restaurant, Flushing's now-defunct Mama King, in 1996, three years after she had arrived in America from Hong Kong with her son. She and her family have since evolved her restaurants into a network that expands and contracts like an accordion, with different ones opening and closing every few years. Today, three, all in Queens, still stand: Nan Bei Ho, the recently-opened Shiba Hotpot, and New Mei Hua. The Times article was a classically involving piece of newspaper reportage that offered an intoxicating narrative, staring agape at Mao's past, treating her present-day life as a mystifying addendum to her career in front of the camera.
“Yes,” Mao responded laconically, working through her son who translated her Mandarin into English, when I asked her if she felt the Times profile portrayed her accurately. “I'm living the simple life now.”
Born in Taiwan in 1950, Mao was raised by parents who were opera entertainers. She was trained rigorously in both voice and martial arts, developing astonishing facility in both. Her proficiency eased her migration into the world of film, which began as a way for her to rid her family of its financial woes. When Mao was still in her 20s, she left Taiwan for Hong Kong.
After toiling away in opera for a few years, she caught the eye of producer Raymond Chow, on the hunt for a woman whose gravitas could rival that of Bruce Lee. With his help, Mao became quite famous quite quickly.
Mao didn’t just belong to this cinematic movement; she actively shaped it, establishing a blueprint for female stardom that previously didn’t exist. In 1972’s Hapkido (also titled Lady Kung Fu, the source of another one of her sobriquets), she plays one of three Chinese students in 1930s Korea who are pit against occupying Japanese adversaries. Mao is balletic, leveling and thrashing her opponents without mercy, rendering strenuous gestures with elegance.
Beginning this Friday, the Old School Kung Fu Fest at the Metrograph theater in Manhattan's Lower East Side will honor Mao's brief, but bountiful, film career. Organized under the thematic “Wonder Women of the Martial Arts,” the series opens with Hapkido, an established and revered classic, but contains a few deep cuts, too, like 1973's The Fate of Lee Khan, where Mao plays a crucial role. There are seven films total in the series, and Mao is in two. Others are headlined by Mao's female contemporaries, Cheng Pei Pei and Kara Hui Ying-Hung. This was an era of cinema, as the program’s liner notes explain, that featured “some of the fiercest female warriors to ever grace kung fu cinema, a wellspring of tough gals.”
Mao, who turns 67 next month, will introduce Friday night’s screening of Hapkido. The series is capitalizing on the renewed interest generated by the Times article nearly a year ago, and Metrograph expects the crowd to be populated with fans of her work, especially ones who’ve never seen this legend in the flesh.
Aliza Ma, Metrograph’s Director of Programming, was one of these devotees. She’d grown up watching Mao on film, enraptured by her onscreen displays of violent grace.
“I feel like kung fu is one of those rare genres of cinema where women were able to be upfront and center as these really aggressive presences,” Ma told me. “Ironically, for such a masculine genre, the kung fu film has always starred women from the beginning. That’s really interesting in an age when we’re celebrating female empowerment. I just thought it’d be great to see these films again.”
Mao wasn’t an avid cook growing up. In fact, she didn't really even get into cooking until circumstance demanded she do so. Mao fell into the restaurant industry out of financial necessity, just as she did with movies. She got married in 1974; in 1983, her husband moved to New York to begin a construction company. Mao and her son followed him to America, and she took up work in food service because it seemed like a financially stable vocation. The food she serves in her restaurants is mostly a reflection of what her husband and children liked during their first years in America.
“The restaurants were started primarily to support the family financially. Now that they've been around for awhile, it's really just to maintain that stability,” she told me. “I don't think my love of food really had much to do with it. Maybe my husband and kids and their love for food drove it more.”
When Mao opened Nan Bei Ho in 1997, she figured it was one of the first restaurants in the city (outside of Chinatown in Manhattan) that catered to consumer desire for Chinese home-style cooking. Her routine has remained static for the last several years: She works mostly on weekends, waking up at 7:30am to get to work at 9am, manning customer service and monitoring food quality. When I asked if running restaurants for the past two decades has changed her approach to cooking at all, she told me, rather plainly, well, no. She still cooks the same dishes the same ways.
Ma, a longtime admirer of Mao, has been planning this series for the better part of a year. During the conceptual stages of programming, Ma stumbled upon the Times profile of Mao. She decided then and there that she’d have Mao as the anchor for the rest of the program. Ma had been utterly flummoxed by the fact that this woman, a “pioneer figure in international filmmaking,” just decided to quit one day and start a restaurant in Queens. She wanted to bring that history forward through the program.
“She really moved to New York to start a new life and raise her sons,” Ma said of Mao, awestruck not only by Mao’s jagged trajectory but also by what it seemed to be emblematic of. “This was such a part of the immigrant experience, too. So many people started working in restaurants and opening their own restaurants to survive.”
She fought tooth and nail to get Mao’s blessing to participate, but found Mao and her family somewhat evasive. So Ma and her team took matters into their own hands. They piled into a car bound for Nan Bei Ho. Not many patrons were in the restaurant; the party would later learn that they had just missed the Bruce Lee Fan Club, who came to eat lunch a bit earlier that day. Mao greeted the party at the door, which alarmed Ma. The woman Ma encountered that day was nothing like the spitfire she’d seen on screen. Mao, in her new avatar, was diffident and soft-spoken, at odds with the outsize persona she projected on celluloid.
Mao seated the party at their table. Ma remembers what she ate that day: a plate of stinky tofu; xiao long bao; and Taiwanese stewed beef noodles with cilantro. The food that day was, by Ma’s estimation, "perfect. A very good afternoon meal.” Mao’s grandchildren had been milling about the restaurant while she sat at a table nearby, sifting through chives, inspecting her produce, folding and creasing dumplings by hand.
At the end of the meal, Ma approached Mao and revealed the real purpose of her visit, explaining that she and her team wanted to program a film series to recognize Mao's contributions to cinema. Mao suddenly became bashful, seized by disbelief that this cabal of strangers had recognized her. She told Ma that her son brought the topic up and that she was sorry she didn’t get back to the team sooner.
As they spoke more, though, Mao became suddenly loquacious: Once she agreed to the appearance and passed the logistical burdens off to her son, Mao asked what films they were going to show. When Ma's team told her they’d been planning on screening Hapkido, she nodded with approval and then remarked that she’d wear her favorite cheongsam to the screening. “She already started planning her outfit so early on,” Ma remembered, noting Mao’s enthusiasm. “She was showing us her moves by the end of the conversation.” When Ma asked her if she still did kung fu, she responded that “people like her” do kung fu for life, that she performs her moves while she’s doing the dishes.
Since confirming these logistics, Ma and her team have gone to great lengths to organize the opening night. Because this was effectively a tribute screening to Mao, Ma wanted to introduce a new element to the programming that wasn’t so fixated on Mao’s past: She wanted to highlight Mao’s current life in food and what she’s been doing since she disappeared from film.
“A lot of people know Hapkido and sought out the screening for that reason, because we’re showing it on film,” Ma said. “But I don’t think a lot of them know about her restaurants.”
The opening night of the series will have food specials curated specifically for the film. Metrograph constructed the menu after direct consultation with Mao and her son, who made the initial suggestions on what to serve. What’s resulted largely preserves the initial vision they had: “Taiwanese-style mala wings,” pork belly bao, and pork dumplings—all popular dishes cribbed from the menus of Mao's restaurants.
“If you told me when I first started programming that we would have Angela Mao cater an opening night program,” Ma told me, “I would’ve died.”
Ma realized that one unintended outcome of the Times article was that the world seemed more concerned with Mao’s past as a film star, and the long shadow she cast, and less interested in her career in the food industry. As an inevitable consequence of its structure, a series devoted to Mao’s film work would risk encouraging the mythology of Mao as a woman who walked away from the world she once commanded.
Ma didn't want to feed this fascination further; she wanted to redress it. She realized you can't consider Angela Mao without considering her food and the people it's nourished. These two seemingly divergent paths in Mao’s life—film and food—demand to be seen in concert. This is the curatorial ethos behind the series, and the unspoken hope that drives it: That the night will draw a horde of Angela Mao fans. They'll remember what they saw that night, and they'll remember what they ate there, too.
Metrograph and Subway Cinema's Old School Kung Fu Fest runs from August 18 - 20. Learn more about the series here.