The Legend of The Unicorn

January 24 2016 at 7:30 AM
LJF  (Login LJF)

Unicorn Chan (1st Aug 1938 – 31st Mar 1987) also known as Little Unicorn and Siu Kee-Lun whose real name was actually Chan Yuen-Chung. Having worked in the HK film industry for more than 3 decades, Unicorn had played in a total of 111 HK films (excluding 6-7 uncredited movies made overseas and a dozen TV series made in the 70s and 80s). Unicorn was also credited as an action director for 8 films.

Perhaps, Unicorn was better known as Bruce Lee's best friend in HK. They have known each other since childhood. Both of them were often cast as juvenile delinquents in HK Cantonese films during the 50s. In 1959, when Bruce pursued his studies in the U.S., Unicorn continued his movie career in HK. He often played minor and supporting roles, usually as villainous sidekicks or hoodlums. When Bruce returned to HK in 1971 to revive his career, which would make him a martial arts icon later, Unicorn was often given film roles or jobs in Bruce's projects. When Bruce passed away on 20th July 1973, Unicorn Chan was one of the pallbearers at Bruce Lee's HK funeral.

Birth of The Unicorn
Unicorn was born in 1938 (the year of the tiger) to an opera group family in Canton. His father, Choi Fai-Lam (real name: Chan Fai-Lam; 1910-1965) was also a well-known Cantonese opera comedian just like Bruce Lee’s father, Lee Hoi Chuen(18th Feb 1902 - 8th Feb 1965). In fact, they were very good friends and the two family had a very close relationship. According to the HK film archive record, Both Lee and Choi had acted in 2 Cantonese opera films together, i.e. “Bloodshed In The Chu Palace”(1952) and “Martyrs of Ming (1957), while Unicorn got to play in his father last film “The Skelton Under The Sea (Part 2)”in 1965.

Due to poverty, the Chan family sent Unicorn to an opera group to learn opera cum martial arts skills at a young age of 5. His Sifu, Sun Hwa taught Unicorn the Northern Style martial arts and various somersaults skills. At the age of 7, Unicorn began to perform on stage together with his elder brother, Chan Yam-Lun (1935 – 1963), a martial arts opera actor who was 3 years older than him.

Days of the struggle
After the Japanese occupation ended in 1945, the Chinese people celebrated the World War II victory. The opera which was the only entertainment for the country folks then, was very popular and thus, the business bloomed. After some performances on stage, Unicorn gradually became a little well-known in the opera circle. However, in late 1949, due to the change in political climate, Unicorn and his whole family escaped to HK. At that time, the popularity of the opera in HK had already significantly declined and it was replaced by the pugilist action movies (like Huang Fei-Hung starring Kwan Tak-Hing) which were becoming more and more popular among the HK residents. Unicorn thus, turned into the movie industry and became a child actor so did his father, Sai Fai-Lam.

However, misfortune struck the Chan’s family not once but twice. First, Unicorn’s elder brother, Chan Yuen-Lun, an outstanding martial arts opera actor, died at a very young age of 28 due to an accident. The whole family was saddened by the lost of a dear family member. Then, Unicorn’s father, Choi Fai-Lam who was a famous senior opera actor and the main pillar of the Sun-Ma Sze-Tsang Opera Group since 1940s, also died at a middle-age of around 50+ years old due to severe sickness. The remaining two members, i.e. Unicorn Chan and his mother, Mrs Chan (1912 - ?) were heartbroken. Unicorn had to work hard to support his mother. Being a filial child, he treated his mother extremely well. Unfortunately, 14 years after Bruce’s passing, Unicorn died in a car accident in Malaysia in 1987, at a young age of 49, leaving behind his old mother and a Filipina wife. Unicorn had no children.

Little Dragon and Little Unicorn
As Bruce was also a child actor and both families were neighbors, hence, Bruce and Unicorn knew each other from young and both were very intimate childhood friends. They had appeared in the Cantonese film, “Blame It On Father”(1951) together and had an intriguing fight scene. It was actually Unicorn who taught Bruce how to do somersault which was why Bruce was able to perform a series of beautiful bicycle somersaults in “Kid Cheung”(1950).

Both Bruce and Unicorn stuck around very often. They would play, fight, dance together and confided to each other frequently. Sometimes, Wu Ngan or Ngan Chai (son of Bruce’s house servant) and Lee Fa (Bruce’s cousin) would join them and they would hang out together. When Bruce left to the U.S. for study, Unicorn continued to stay in HK to work as a stuntman cum actor, mainly playing supporting and minor roles. After their departure, both Bruce and Unicorn continued to communicate with each other through mails and kept themselves updated with each other's life. Whenever Bruce returned to HK from theU.S., he would surely look for Unicorn for reunion and stuck around as often as possible just like the good old days. Bruce trusted Unicorn a lot and vice-versa.

King of Somersaults
In the mid 60s, costume martial arts films were big hits in HK and Southeast Asia's cinemas. Shaw Brothers instructed action directors like Chang Chieh, Tsu Tsang-Hung and Cheng Kang to make a series of martial arts films. Especially after Jimmy Wong Yu’s “One Arm Swordsman” broke the HK box office record in 1967, suddenly, the entire HK movie industry rushed in to make all sorts of “Wu Hsia” (pugilist) films. Cathay Organisation, a rival of Shaw, also reaped the opportunity to make action films. Its director, Sun Kar-Man was impressed by Unicorn’s agile performance and employed him to be the action choreographer for Jade Dragon (1968), Iron Bones (1969), Lotus Camp (1969) and Eight For The Border (1969) etc. Besides choreographing for the movies' fight scenes, Unicorn also played minor roles in these movies.

As Unicorn frequently performed the spectacular and continuous somersaults, thus, he earned himself the grand title of “King of Somersaults”in the HK movie industry. Unicorn seemed to control his somersaults’ timing and accuracy very well and had never lost his direction or balance because of the difficult feats he had to perform. At that time, there were two Somersault Kings, one was Unicorn Chan and another was Leung Siu-Chung, the paternal uncle of Bruce Liang. Moreover, the people in the HK movie circle all commented that Unicorn’s flipping was flexible, his somersaults’ movements and styles were fanciful and sophisticated, and he could performed forward flip, backward flip, upward flip, bicycle’s circular flip, windmill’s rotation flip etc. Before the camera rolled, Unicorn could execute a dozen more flips consecutively at ease. Although Leung Siu-Chung could also flip very well but his somersaults were not as fanciful and amazing as Unicorn. Check out for Unicorn somersaults display in Fist of Unicorn to know more of his feats.

Overseas honors & Reverend’s prediction
In 1966, Unicorn Chan performed at the opera stages in Singapore and Malaysia, together with one of the gorgeous HK Movie's 7 princesses, Nancy Sit Ka-Yin. Their performances were very popular and successful. Nancy Sit was very active and lovely, and she could sang and danced wonderfully too. This gained the popularity of the Southeast Asian audiences. In addition, Unicorn’s Eight Striking of Flowery Pile as well his extraordinary flip, flap and flop sort of somersaults, were incredibly awesome. He was as agile as a monkey and as lightning fast as a leopard. No wonder the audience applauded for his stunning performance.

It was during the performance in Penang, a state in Malaysia that he met a high reverend who was also a ghostbuster called Ghost King - Master Tek. He studied Unicorn's face, palm and eight Chinese characters of his birthdate and horoscope (fortune telling) in details. Subsequently, he told Unicorn that because of bad Fengshui of his ancestor’s grave, his father and elder brother met their ends very early and soon after it would be Unicorn’s turn. So, he advised Unicorn to put down everything and become a monk so as to avoid the early death’s misadventure. However, Unicorn replied that he still need to take care of his old mother as there was no more siblings at home to look after her. In addition, he still needed to get marry, bear a child so as to carry on the flame of Chan’s family. He politely refused reverend’s request. Exactly twenty-years later, Unicorn met his mishap in the same place in Malaysia while preparing for filming there.

After the performance in Southeast Asia, Unicorn’s reputation escalated when he returned to HK. In 1969, Jimmy Yeung, the boss of Indonesia’s Hoi Hwa Movie Production Company, invited Unicorn Chan to Jakarta to be the action choreographer for its movie called “Seven Well Pugilists.” Unicorn also got a role in that movie which was a box office success in Indonesia and Philippines. Thus, Unicorn also began to have fans in Philippines and his reputation in Southeast Asia grew.

Enter The Shaw
Due to this reason, Mona Fong of Shaw Brothers, the "right-hand woman" of Run Run Shaw, decided to invite Unicorn Chan over from Cathay Organisation to Shaw. As the boss, Datuk Lok Wan-Tho, of Cathay Organisation, died in a tragic air crash in 1964, the business in Cathay had gradually declined since then. On the other hand, Shaw had become one and the only super power in HK movie industry in the late 60s. Thus, in order to pursue a better future prospect, Unicorn quitted Cathay after his contract ended in 1970 and then joined Shaw.

In May 1971, Bruce wrote a letter to Unicorn to express his wishes to return to HK to make movie for Shaw, it was Unicorn who did the groundbreaking work for him. Unicorn used his relationship to help Bruce negotiate with Shaw producer, Mona Fong who represented Run Run. Mona not only was a great career woman, she was like the Empress Wu Ze-Tian (Chinese First Lady Emperor) of the Shaw Brothers, who held full power and rights to Shaw’s Empire. Any actor/actress who wanted to make movie for Shaw all would have to go through her screening.

It was not easy for Unicorn to finally meet up with Mona through some internal arrangements. But the first thing that Mona said to Unicorn was, “Bruce Lee? Who is he? I’ve never heard of this name before!” She straight away called her marketing and promotion department to check up the background of Bruce. The department staff later told her that Bruce was a Cantonese child star whose well-known film was “The Orphan” (1958). At that moment, Mona’s face showed that she despised Bruce and asked Unicorn how much did Bruce want for shooting a film. Unicorn replied according to Bruce’s request of US$ 10,000 per film. Mona sneered and said, “Bruce Lee is a nobody and he wants US$ 10 grand? Is he out of his mind!? Our No.1 action movie star, Jimmy Wang Yu only gets a pay check of HK$50,000. Don’t tell me Bruce Lee is better than Jimmy Wang Yu? Hahaha... You go and tell him, Shaw would only pay him HK$25,000 per film which excludes the air ticket. He needs to pay the ticket himself, Shaw won’t pay a single cent for him.”

Bruce worked with GH
Unicorn sent a telegraph to Bruce and told him exactly what Mona said. Bruce was furious and said Shaw really looked down on him and treated him as if like a beggar begging for food! On the other hand, Raymond Chow of GH heard about the news of Shaw’s rejecting Bruce’s request and Bruce was mad by Shaw’s insult, so, he quickly sent Lau Leung-Hwa (Lo Wei’s wife), Chief GH producer, to go over to the U.S. and personally invited Bruce to join GH in which Raymond Chow was willing to offer him US$20,000 for 2 films (later reduced to US$15,000). After much persuasion, Bruce was moved by GH’s sincerity and eventually decided to join GH. He flew over to Thailand in July 1971 to film “The Big Boss.” The film smashed HK box office record when it was released in late Oct 1971 and subsequently broke all office records in Southeast Asia. Bruce became an overnight sensation in Asia. The rest is history. Mona Fong and Run Run Shaw soon lost their face and the people in HK sarcastically said that Shaw had lost a gem which made them even more embarrassed.

Although it was unsuccessful for Unicorn’s attempt in helping Bruce to join Shaw but Bruce was very grateful to him. Thus, he asked Unicorn to come over to GH and appeared with him in Fist of Fury (1972) and Way of the Dragon (1972). Unicorn was also listed as the martial arts choreographer in WOTD. Bruce told Unicorn, “Yuen-Chung (Unicorn’s real name), you are my good buddy, if I, Bruce Lee, were to make it one day, you too, would be the same!” In fact, Bruce had intended to cast Unicorn in his future films such as Sai Fung and the famous GAME.

Fist of Unicorn
In appreciation of Unicorn’s effort, Bruce rendered assistance to help Unicorn in getting his first lead role in Fist of Unicorn aka The Unicorn Palm which was produced by Si Hoi Company. Initially, the bosses of Sing Hoi Company – Cook Shing-Hwa and Si Chiu-Yam were to invite Bruce to be in that film but Bruce kindly rejected because of his contract with GH. However, he recommended Unicorn Chan to replace him and also promised to give them a script to make a movie. In addition, Bruce would be the movie's martial arts consultant/ choreographer.

Both Cook and Si were extremely delighted. Bruce kept his promise and handed over a script later called “The Unrivalled King Boxer” to Sing Hoi Company. On the actual day of the opening scene, Bruce appeared on the set and choreographed the fight scenes. He told the company to rename the movie title to “The Unicorn Palm” so as to match Unicorn Chan’s name. Unicorn was the proudest person on that very day in his life.

“The Unicorn Palm” later re-titled to “Fist of Unicorn” also starred Meng Chiu, Meng Hoi, Hwang In-Shik, Ji Han-Choi, Yasuaki Kurata etc. Bruce acted as the technical (martial arts) consultant in this film. However, Si Hoi Company secretly filmed Bruce and inserted the choreograhing footage into the actual film. Later, Bruce was listed as an actor in the movie. This annoyed Bruce who immediately took legal action against Si Hoi Company. Moreover, the lawsuit had not been over and Bruce had already passed away. So, Linda Lee withdrew the law suit later on.

Unicorn & JKD
It was said that Bruce had taught some essential skills of JKD to some of the stuntmen like Bee Chan, Lam Ching-Ying, Yuen Wah, Wu Ngan, Tony Liu and Unicorn Chan. Unicorn had received instructions on JKD from Bruce Lee himself personally during his last years in Hong Kong, As they were good friends from childhood days, the atmosphere was much less formal.

Unicorn remembered vividly the unique and interesting ways in which Bruce taught him. Bruce first asked Unicorn to jog on the beach daily as running in the sand would build up his stamina, strengthen his calves muscles and give him more power in kicking. Other exercises included sit-ups, push-ups, pulling of springs and weightlifting.

As for the actual techniques, there were no traditional boxing forms, only loose but simple and practical movements. Bruce set a very high standard for Unicorn, he demanded speed, power and accuracy in the execution of every movement, and to maintain the very essence of JKD, i.e. to be free, fluid and mobile.

Much of the training was in Bruce's Kowloon's home. In his house, Bruce set aside a big room as his daily training gymnasium. It was well kept and well-equipped with all kinds of training apparatus and some of them were electrical equipments. Bruce not only taught Unicorn, but also sparred with him in order to maintain his own sharpness. Bruce also emphasised the importance of consistency in training. He drew up an agreement with Unicorn that he must be punctual on every practice session when he broke that rule.

Under the guidance of the top calibre instructor and the most ideal condition, Unicorn worked as hard as he had never done before so as to enhance his fighting skills and to perform better martial arts in his action roles.

Death of Bruce Lee
Bruce and Unicorn still maintain contact through phone calls whenever they were filming distance apart. When Bruce passed away on 20th July 1973, Unicorn was abroad filming. He heard the news and immediately rushed back to HK. The untimely and mysterious death of Bruce was a great shock and personal loss to Unicorn. Amongst Bruce Lee's friends in HK, there was no one closer to him than Unicorn. Unicorn was someone Bruce Lee could confide to. With the sudden death of Bruce and the decline of martial arts film in HK, Unicorn Chan’s Fist of Unicorn also did badly in the box office. His career in the movie industry soon fell to the bottom.

Filming in Philippines
In 1975, Dai Si-Chung, a Chinese Filipinos and a movie producer, invited Unicorn Chan and Meng Fai to Manila to make a Philippines'style action film, “Black Glove.” Subsequently, they made “Black Overload,” “Hero’s Blood,” altogether about 4 to 5 movies (never screened in HK). It was during this time that through Meng Fai introduction, Unicorn met his future wife, Jenny Kwong (1952 - ), a Chinese Filipinas. Her father was Kwong Shu-Hin, a Chinese Filipinos while her mother is a local Filipinas. It was love at first sight for Jenny Kwong. Soon after, they got married and Jenny moved to HK with Unicorn to build a family. Jenny Kwong then became Jenny Chan. She was a gentle and polite lady, and treated her mother-in-law very well. Jenny could speak fluent Cantonese and she worked in the HK’s England Barclays Bank. Although Jenny was a Catholic and Unicorn, a Buddhist, they still lived harmoniously regardless of the difference in their religions. Many of Unicorn’s friends envied Unicorn and praised him for marrying a virtuous wife.

From Movie to TV
In the mid 70s, Unicorn’s career rose from the bottom and began to pick up. TV series became a common and popular entertainment in HK other than movies. It had become a new trend in HK. RTV director Johnny Mak Tong-Hung’received top billings for his “Ten Mysterious Cases”TV series. He then needed many good stuntmen cum actor for his next TV series – “The Ten Assassins.” Thus, he persuaded Unicorn to join RTV as a contract actor. During Johnny Mak’s era, Unicorn became the pillar for RTV’s action TV series, such as “Great Man,” “Big Sister,” “Big Sister & The Big Devil” etc. He usually played the significant supporting roles, one moment he would be a CID who would go through a lot of troubles and hardship to arrest the thugs and their gang, another moment he would turn into a rogue, bullying the good people and did all the bad things.

Subsequently, director Gary Chow Sai-Haau shot “Superstar” TV series (story based on Bruce Lee’s biography). Dominic Lam Kar-Hwa played the lead role while Unicorn Chan played the bad guy, a Thai boxer. He played extremely well in this role and won the applause of the TV audiences. Generally, Unicorn was very versatile as far as acting was concerned.

Unfortunately, entering into the 80s, the management underwent a drastic change. Johnny Mak left RTV and Unicorn no longer appeared on RTV (later changed to ATV) TV series anymore. During those dark days, Unicorn was seen walking lonely on the street of Kowloon Tsim Sha Tsui.

Videotapes era
In 1983, many videotapes companies began to emerge in HK and Taiwan. They produced a big volume of TV series videotapes. Suddenly, Unicorn saw a light in despair. The martial arts action TV series was the most popular variety as they could be supplied to the vast overseas markets. Hence, many videotapes companies rushed to invite Unicorn who was well versed in martial arts action, to play in their TV series. One of them was “The Dragons of Chu Sea” videotape TV series which starred Unicorn and famous HK action star Wong Yuen-San. The sales volume for this videotape show was amazingly high and the videotape company, thus, earned a lot of money.

Death of Unicorn
From 1983 onwards, Unicorn suddenly became a busy man in shooting videotape TV series. He was very busy flying to and fro from HK to Southeast Asia. Then in early 1987, he was invited by director Chung Kwok-Yan to go over to Malaysia to film the movie “Never Surrender.” Unicorn had long time never been in a movie, so, he was hoping to use this movie as a stepping stone to return to the silver screen and revive his movie career.

However, before the movie had commenced, on the fateful early morning of 31st March 1987, Unicorn was killed in a car accident while on the way to Penang from Kuala Lumpur. Unicorn’s body was cremated in Malaysia and his ashes were brought back to HK by his wife and his disciple, Chan. Unicorn's only regret was that he and his wife had no children of their own after so many years of marriage. So, there was no son/daughter to attend his funeral and only his loyal disciple, Chan acted as his son and prayed that his master would rest in peace. On the other hand, Jackie Chan and many HK stuntmen raised money for Unicorn’s funeral and gave the remaining condolence money to Unicorn’s wife and mother. Like Bruce, Unicorn died at an untimely age of 49, leaving his 75 years old mother to sob sorrowfully for the lost of her son. Money sure could not buy back his son’s life.

A flashback of his life
Looking back at Unicorn’s life, it seemed like a rugged and rough course, filled with many misfortunes and obstacles. According to Unicorn’s friend, like Nancy Sit Kar-Yan, Lam Kau, Lau Yat-Fan etc., Unicorn was a very friendly and helpful person who never got himself into any scandal. He had never indulged in bad habits like gambling, prostituting, drinking or smoking. He led a healthy life by practicing Chi Gong daily and would meditate as well as recite Buddhist scriptures before going to bed. He had good martial arts skills but never caused any troubles or involved in fights without any reasons. “Endure” is his life philosophy as there is a saying “If one could endure and control temper for a moment, he could avoid worries for a hundred days.”

Photos of Unicorn Chan, Bruce Lee and their fathers:

(Research done, compiled & written by LJF for Bruce Lee Lives! Tribute Forum)

Some videos of Unicorn:

Unicorn Chan on Bruce Lee’s death:

Fist of Unicorn’s opening:

Fist of Unicorn’s full movie:

1. “The Tough Life of Little Unicorn” -- Sin Min Daily dated 11th Apr 1987
2. “Nancy Sit Ka-Yin’s Immeasurable Good Deeds Towards Little Unicorn” Sin Min Daily dated 18th Apr 1987
3. “Lau Yat-Fan Column: Little Unicorn Told Ghost Tales Before Death” – New Life Press dated 8th Apr 1987
4. “Refused To Heed Ghost King’s Advice, Little Unicorn Died 20 years Later Tragically” – New Life Press dated 8th Apr 1987
5. “Unfortunate In Movie, Lucky In Love; Little Unicorn Married A Good Filipina” – New Life Press dated 11th Apr 1987
6. “How Little Unicorn Make A Living In The Movie Industry? Who Was The Lady Behind His Back?” – New Life Press dated 18th Apr 1987
7. “Bruce Lee, Jeet Kune-Do and Siu Kee Lun” – Bruce Lee Daily Dot Com
8. “Bruce Lee & Little Unicorn” -- 70s HK Bruce Lee JKD Club Chinese Magazine
9. “Little Unicorn’s Filmography” – HK Film Archive & HK Movie Database
10. “The Story of Little Unicorn & Bruce Lee” – Late 80’s Taiwan’s Entertainment Book

 Respond to this message   

  • Unicorn Chan: Fortune & Confidant - LJF on Jan 24, 2016, 7:51 AM
    • This one ? - Coliseum1972 on Feb 1, 2016, 8:42 AM
  • Re: The Legend of The Unicorn - Fred on Jan 24, 2016, 10:53 AM
  • Re: The Legend of The Unicorn - jkdragon on Jan 24, 2016, 1:04 PM
  • King of Somersaults? - Davey on Jan 25, 2016, 9:36 AM
  • Pictures of Unicorn in the 80s - HITSteve on Jan 26, 2016, 12:25 PM
  • rare pic from the set of Fist of Unicorn - HITSteve on Jan 26, 2016, 12:30 PM
  • Anymore rare BL's interviews/ articles? NT - Fred on Feb 6, 2016, 12:31 PM
  • Unicorn Chan, The Man. - LJF on Feb 7, 2016, 6:38 AM
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