In the 1970s, a Taiwanese martial artist made waves in the U.S. to become known as the “female Bruce Lee.”
Angela Mao, who now runs restaurants in New York, did so well that one of her films even knocked Lee’s “Enter the Dragon” off the top of the box office for a week — while also starring as the sister of Lee’s character in the latter.
Born on Sept. 20, 1950, Mao learned martial arts from her Peking Opera school training. She attended the Fu Sheng Opera School from age 6-14, specializing in playing female fighting roles (wudan). She was known for the way she was able to “defend herself against 12 spears thrown rapidly in succession by using her foot.”
At 17, she met Huang Feng, an action film director known for discovering Sammo Hung and Carter Wong. In 1970, she signed a contract with Golden Harvest and subsequently starred in its first film, “The Angry River” (directed by Huang).
With superb acting and martial arts skills, it did not take long before Mao starred in other Golden Harvest movies. These include “Hapkido” (1972), “Lady Whirlwind” (1972) and “When Taekwondo Strikes” (1973).
Mao’s performance in “Hapkido,” released as “Lady Kung Fu” in North America, led her to Lee. She was cast as his sister Su Lin in “Enter the Dragon,” which her own “Hapkido” dethroned for a week in the box office.
— Bruce Lee The Dragon (@bruceleedragon1) May 22, 2017
“Bruce Lee saw me shooting Hapkido, and that led to the part,” Mao told the Old School Kung Fu Fest, according to the South China Morning Post.
“Originally there was no female role. I was shooting Hapkido at that time, and Bruce wanted to add a female role — it was originally just to be one day of shooting. But after he saw me shooting Hapkido, he added one more day.”
Mao went on to film more successful movies through the 1970s. After her Golden Harvest contract expired, she returned to Taiwan and continued making kung fu films.
Mao effectively concluded her film career in 1983, the year her son was born. Her husband also moved to New York to start a construction company.
“After I got married, I had to keep a lower profile so my husband could be the leader. But in film? I was the king,” Mao told The New York Times in 2016.
While she starred in those films, a teenage Jackie Chan worked on stunts in them — uncredited.
“How famous was I? When I was a somebody, Jackie Chan was a nobody,” she told The New York Times. “Jackie and I started together. We learned to take care of each other. He is my brother.”
Mao moved to New York with her family in 1993. She currently runs Nan Bei Ho, one of three restaurants in Queens, which features plenty of her martial arts memorabilia.
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