Despite a prolific screen career that spanned 66 years, Kenneth Tsang Kong, who has died aged 87, never played the leading man.
Instead, the former matinee idol is best remembered for being the handsome bad guy in an array of Hong Kong cinema classics such as Teddy Girls, one of 25 films in which he appeared in a single year, 1969. The last of his 220 film roles came in 2021, in The Attorney.
From the 1970s onwards, the actor extended his repertoire to television, starring in some 50 drama series, and he had fans all over Southeast Asia.
He attended Wah Yan College, Kowloon secondary school for boys in Yau Ma Tei before heading to the US for college. Tsang graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in architecture before returning to Hong Kong in the early 1960s – and appeared in Hollywood movies The Replacement Killers (1998) alongside with Chow Yun-fat, Rush Hour 2 with kung fu star Jackie Chan and American comedian and actor Chris Tucker in 2001, and James Bond movie Die Another Day in 2002.
Tsang also dabbled in stage work and appeared alongside another screen veteran, Lisa Lu Yan, in the 2006 and 2008 Hong Kong Repertory Theatre productions of De Ling & Empress Dowager Ci Xi. He finally received the recognition he deserved when he won best supporting actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards for his role in Overhead 3 (2014).
Despite all that, more Hong Kong people – of all ages – will know Tsang as the evergreen face of a 1969 television commercial for Bigen hair dye. It’s one of our five most memorable Tsang screen roles by which to remember the late actor:
A Better Tomorrow (1986)
Tsang plays Ken, an ex-con who runs a taxi company, in the John Woo action film A Better Tomorrow that spawned the “heroic bloodshed” genre of gangster films. The 1986 film was made on a tight budget and unexpectedly grossed over HK$34 million (S$6 million), breaking Hong Kong box office records at the time.
Tsang appears alongside actors Ti Lung, Chow Yun Fat and Leslie Cheung in the film. Lung’s character, Sung Tse Ho, joins Ken’s taxi company after deciding to start a new life following his release from prison.
Bigen hair dye commercial (1986)
In the commercial, one of the most memorable shot in Hong Kong, Tsang stands in front of a blue screen while touting the dye’s ability to colour hair gradually and also instantly.
The Greed of Man (1992)
Tsang plays the Lung family patriarch in The Greed of Man, a Hong Kong TVB series that addresses social and financial issues across three decades. The series is known for the Ting Hai effect (named after Hong Kong actor Adam Cheng’s character), during which an unexplained drop in the stock market occurs after a film or television series starring Cheng is released.
In The Greed of Man, Tsang plays Lung Sing Bong, a corrupt sergeant-major in the Royal Hong Kong Police Force. To escape corruption charges related to the Hong Kong stock market, his character flees to Taiwan in 1973. Eventually, Lung dies of a heart attack on the show’s Miracle Day.
The Replacement Killers (1998)
In his Hollywood debut, Tsang plays crime boss father Terence Wei in the film The Replacement Killers. Also directed by John Woo and starring Chow Yun Fat, the film marked a reunion for the trio.
It opens with Wei enlisting professional assassin John Lee (Chow’s character) to exact revenge for his son’s death. When Lee is unable to complete his assignment because of his conscience, Wei goes on the hunt for Lee and his family, resulting in a cat-and- mouse chase to elude Wei’s replacement killers.
Overheard 3 (2014)
After appearing in Overheard 2, Tsang returned to the film series for its third instalment, starring alongside actors Lau Ching Wan, Louis Koo and Daniel Wu.
In the third film, Tsang plays the powerful Uncle To, who heads up a crime family in the action thriller.
For his role, Tsang won the best supporting actor award at the 34th Hong Kong Film Awards.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.