Listen — when a Taoist priest tells you to “suck the coffin mushroom, now” you best pucker up, because that and the blood of a black dog might be the only things keeping you from dancing atop a bed of sticky rice.
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.
We’re talking jiangshi here, literal translation: stiff corpse. Not much of a ring to it, I agree — but that’s why the term hopping vampire exists. They’re China’s own homegrown bloodsuckers, only you won’t find them sucking blood all too often, they wear the robes of a Mandarin instead of a cape, and transforming into a bat just isn’t part of their skill set. But they do hop, so there’s that.
In fact, one could argue that they’re closer to zombies, particularly of the Haitian variety. Only I’m not out to disrupt the Chinese folklore scene — I’m just here to answer the important questions. Such as: where did they come from, how did they wind up on a crazy safari, and why is Bruce Lee’s former stuntman always biting his damn fingertips? Now to answer the “where” we’re going to have to go back — way back — to a time when the corpse drivers were in business, and business was hoppin’.
The early years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) saw the Han Chinese migrating to the more treacherous mountain regions of the Hunan province in search of work, where they would then drop dead. Being that it was the 1600s, a time when a decent-sized splinter could put you down, crossing anything considered “treacherous” was pretty much tantamount to playing a game of Russian roulette. Only that wasn’t the real problem — the real problem was homesick spirits.
In Chinese culture, burial rites are — simply put — a great big to-do. One misstep, be it feng shui or otherwise, could result in threats ranging from bad luck for generations, to a wickedly smelly grave. High on the list of burial musts is taking a dirt-nap in your native soil. In other words, those deceased Han needed a way home, lest they be left to wander an unfamiliar land. With traditional body transportation being cost-prohibitive — not to mention difficult considering the terrain — families sought out the services of the Xiangxi Corpse Drivers.
Apart from being a black metal band name waiting to happen, these were Taoist priests — or fat si — from the Hunan town of Xiangxi who dabbled in the art of necromancy for fun and profit. For the right amount of cash, they could turn your loved ones into mindless drones who’d hop — due to rigor mortis or limb-binding, depending on who you ask — single file across the countryside by night, the priest at the lead ringing a bell to warn others of the macabre procession headed their way.
Apart from the bell, it was a big ol’ heap of bullshit.
In reality, the bereaved had paid a couple of working stiffs to lug around their loved ones with a pair of bamboo poles shoved under their armpits. The so-called hopping witnessed by bleary-eyed travelers was nothing more than the bodies bobbing up and down as the bamboo flexed under the corpses’ weight. Some believe the corpse-drivers may have even been smugglers, using the dead to cover up their shady dealings.
It’s also possible that none of the above is true, but at a certain point, it stopped mattering what was fact, fiction, or complete bullshit. Because just like when you first heard whispers that your alcoholic high school science teacher was sleeping with his lab assistant, the rumors had begun, and there was no stopping them now.
The details varied from region to region, but the one thing they could all agree on was: hopping corpses were out to get you. Sure, some were content with simply bouncing along until they received a proper funeral — but then there were those other ones. You know the kind I’m talking about: those bad eggs who were buried with their feet pointed in the wrong direction, had a pregnant cat leap over their gravesite, or didn’t exhale their dying breath.
No matter the cause, the moldering miscreants had to be stopped before they could absorb your yang, or stick you with a long blue fingernail. This is where things got even more convoluted. Wood from a peach tree could do the trick, or maybe it was a sword crafted from the peach tree’s wood? No, wait, the sword was made of coins. Or was it that you were supposed to toss the coins on the ground, and sprint off while the OCD jiangshi counted them like Dustin Hoffman would a box of toothpicks?
Probably the only thing everyone could agree on was that these creatures were decked out in the fanciful robes of the Qing Dynasty’s 1% — the Chinese aim to dress their dead for afterlife success. Yet despite the regional disunity, hopping vampire-proof thresholds were becoming standard issue in the entryway of many a temple, and the less said about the hooves of black donkeys, the better. Unless you’re Pu Songling, that is. He wanted to hear about those black donkey hooves — he wanted to hear it all.
Scary Stories to Tell an Old Chinese Man in the Dark
Before you take offense to the above, please know: Pu Songling was an old Chinese man who loved nothing more than to hear a good scary story — and being that he lived over 300 years ago, chances are the rooms were dimly lit at best.
More specifically, Pu was a 17th century author who, while highly educated, thought of himself less as a scholar and more an attuned listener of spooktacular yarns. Four hundred and ninety-one of which he collected — with some flourishes of his own — in the posthumous tome Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. Published around 1740, the stories within told of foot-fetish demons, housewives lusting after the family dog, scholars discovering sex-starved ghosts lurking inside of books, and — yes — rigid corpses hopping from their coffins.
Luckily if you have a hankering for Pu, but no patience for musty old books written in Chinese, this omnibus became the standard text for Hong Kong horror films beginning in the 1950s. King Hu’s A Touch of Zen (1971), Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), and recent blockbusters such as Painted Skin (2008) have all drawn inspiration from Pu’s pen. And while many have been spooky, only one could be classified as an encounter…
Close Encounters of the Sammo Kind
When a fat man possessed by a gibbering kung fu monkey deity isn’t even the hardest slapping sequence in your flick, you know you’ve got it going on. And with 1980’s Encounters of the Spooky Kind, Sammo Hung had it going on. Pulling from a grab-bag of Pu Songling stories, childhood frights, and even William Castle’s 13 Ghosts (1960), the portly producer/director/actor crafted — while not the first — easily the most riotous martial arts horror-comedy hybrid to smash onto screens.
The film’s showstopper: a rigor mortis-fu duel with a jiangshi inside a cobwebbed funeral parlor. It wasn’t the first time moviegoers had caught a glimpse of the hopping dead — they had appeared as early as 1936, and as recently as the 1979 Shaw Brothers’ production The Shadow Boxing. It was, however, the first time one brought the house down by performing the “Smooth Criminal” lean while being pelted with chicken eggs.
Encounters of the Spooky Kind was a surprise smash, leading Sammo and his production shingle Bo Ho Films to deliver more gut-busting kung fu horrors to parent studio Golden Harvest. But titles like The Dead and the Deadly (1982) and Hocus Pocus (1984) failed to live up to their predecessor. In order to recast that bit of black magic, Sammo would have to excavate Pu Songling’s crypt once again, and emerge gripping The Resuscitated Corpse.
That’s Mr. Stiff Corpse to You
Formulaic doesn’t need to be a diss, especially when that formula involves a monobrowed Taoist priest, horny dimwits, and kung-fueled hopping vampires bursting from their rancid graves. Toss in a lady ghost looking for love in the land of the living, and you’ve got the equation that was writ large on the blackboard of cinema by the 1985 jiangshi sensation Mr. Stiff Corpse. Or as one savvy fellow in Golden Harvest’s marketing department rechristened it: Mr. Vampire.
Directed by Sammo’s frequent cinematographer Ricky Lau, Mr. Vampire is the simple story of a Taoist priest and his moronic understudies out to stop an improperly buried corpse that’s gone on the hop. Plus sabotaged feng shui, seductive spirits preying on the boners of the stupid, corrupt officials, mistaken identity, and a little whodunnit thrown in for good measure. So maybe it wasn’t that simple, but it earned a then-whopping HK $20 million at the local box office, and garnered fourteen nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards.
A new subgenre was born, and a wave of thirty plus jiangshi films hopped along after it in the years that followed. Some sequels, some rip-offs, many downright unclassifiable — one even boldly claimed to depict The First Vampire in China. Golden Harvest would even attempt to launch an English language spin-off of the franchise titled Demon Hunters. Starring Michelle Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas, shooting lasted for one cursed week before studio boss Raymond Chow reportedly declared — in the most poetic shit-canning of a project ever — “We’ve hardly begun, so we needn’t finish.”
Meanwhile in Taiwan — where films are cheap and the directors are clinically insane — a knock-off series known as Hello Dracula (1985) taught us the dangers of stepping on a jiangshi’s shadow, and introduced us to a kid vamp who wields a Louisville slugger and knocks human hearts out of the park. It inspired its own slew of copycat kiddie jiangshi flicks, including Aloha, Little Vampire (1987) — which while not about a pint-sized hopper gone Hawaiian, does feature a pack of orphans stripping a man down to a thong. All were massively popular in Japan.
In the midst of this, an unexpected star would emerge — one of the non-hopping variety. One dubbed “The Peter Cushing of Hong Kong,” who would go on to don the Taoist yellow robes throughout his best years, and into the beyond…
Van Helsing in a Funky Hat
By any reasonable measure of logic, the breakout star of Mr. Vampire should’ve been the twenty-two year old Chin Siu-ho — with his matinee idol good looks and flair for the acrobatic. But this is the world of Hong Kong hopping vampires we’re talking about, where logic has been washed away by the blood of a black dog, and nothing is reasonable. Instead Chin would eternally remain on the B-list, while a middle-aged former stuntman turned bit player named Lam Ching-ying would go on to become nearly as recognizable as the spooks he sent reeling from our earthly realm.
Born in 1952, Lam skipped formal schooling to train in Peking opera at the rival academy of the one attended by the likes of Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan. Like them, he’d emerge from years of rigorous training to enter a Hong Kong where interest in the theatrical arts was dwindling thanks to film. So at just seventeen he began doubling — due to his slender frame — for female stars at Shaw Brothers, before leaving to join upstart studio Golden Harvest. There Lam would act as Bruce Lee’s assistant, co-fight choreographer, stunt double, and on-screen sparring partner until the legendary star’s untimely death.
Lam was then scooped up by Golden Harvest’s in-house fight choreographer and burgeoning multi-hyphenate Sammo Hung. Sammo had a hell of an eye for talent — Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock are but two of his discoveries — and soon had Lam going from stunt performer to supporting player. Yet despite stealing the show as an effeminate Wing Chung expert in Sammo’s The Prodigal Son (1981), he wasn’t anyone’s idea of a leading man. Except for Sammo that is.
So when it came down to cast the role of the jiangshi-slaying one-eyebrow Taoist priest in Mr. Vampire, the part didn’t go to Chin Siu-ho and his winning smile. It also didn’t land in the lap of Ricky Hui, of the ever-popular Hui Brothers comedy team. It went to Lam, with Chin and Hui towing the rear as his dunderheaded subordinates. They, as the sequels and spin-offs would attest, could be replaced — Lam could not.
It’s Lam who would go on to stop many a vamp in their tracks by biting his fingertips and dabbing their foreheads with blood in a good dozen or more films. Eventually, no jiangshi were even needed for him to perform his fat si schtick, any ghoul would do. He became so synonymous with the yellow robes and ying/yang emblazoned top hat that folks would stop him on the street seeking solutions to their supernatural woes. But as with his UK compatriot Peter Cushing, it also led to frustration. Serious turns in films such as School on Fire or — Lam’s personal favorite — Painted Faces, went largely underrated or outright ignored.
Yet in a way it only speaks to how iconic the man was in the role he would play again and again (and again), to the extent that his filmography acts as something of a roadmap for the subgenre — from its birth, all the way until their death. Yes, the flame at the altar for both burned fast, but before death came…delirium.
The Ultimate Crazy Musical Vampire Safari
Post-Mr. Vampire, things got out of control — fast. The sequels were ripping off the rip-offs, the rip-offs were more faithful than the sequels, and then Lam was riding an ostrich through South Africa.
Allow me to explain.
It all started when 1986’s Mr. Vampire II swiped the kid cadaver from Hello Dracula and planted him in modern day Hong Kong where Lam plays an herb-selling descendant of his unibrowed Taoist priest character who gets mixed up with a trio of idiot archeologists who have inadvertently awakened an ages-old family of jiangshi while fiddling with snakes in their underpants. And that’s just the opening half hour. While mom and pop vampire are busy hopping atop cars in downtown traffic, junior is befriended by a group of schoolchildren who — due to his ancient garb and sensitivity to sunlight — mistake him for a mainland Chinese immigrant. E.T.-lite hijinks ensue, with the little jiangshi slipping on a pair of shades, backflipping off a seesaw, and kissing a boy. In the end, Lam carries off the adorable tyke while assuring all the children that he’ll be given a speedy reincarnation.
Mr. Vampire III (1987) would rewind back to the period setting of the first, but ditch the bloodsuckers for a maggot-spewing witch, and feature the deep-frying of a ghost. Part IV (1988) would bring us possibly the best jiangshi action to date, but swap out Lam with former pop star Anthony Chan and Chin Siu-ho with his considerably less handsome brother. I don’t know what the statute of limitations is on this sort of thing, but a class action lawsuit against Golden Harvest studios should be explored.
To be fair, Lam was busy closing out the ‘80s with his directorial debut Vampire vs Vampire, where he’d stick calligraphy brush bristles up a child jiangshi’s nose and force it to fight a cape-wearing, bat-transforming Euro vamp. Meanwhile, Chin Siu-ho — in a frighteningly accurate summation of his career — would share his scenes with a sentient ass-chomping black blob.
The next decade kicked off with Magic Cop (1990), where a freshly plucked Lam plays a no-nonsense Taoist with a badge in 1990 Hong Kong — working the beat, swinging around urinating children while the hell gate is open. He’s stuck with a pair of horny, bumbling partners to track down a Japanese witch who’s using black magic icicles to create undead dope pushers. The jiangshi here more resemble full-on voodoo zombies, but an evil spirit gets nuked in a microwave, so all is forgiven.
Lam eats mud and talks to the Hell Police in 1991’s The Ultimate Vampire — an ultra-slick, FX heavy spin on the by-then-musty Mr. Vampire formula. A renegade Taoist attempts astral projection rape, only to develop a taste for lunar birth blood after his abandoned body is chewed up by a pack of stray German shepherds. Chin Siu-ho is back to lust after a sexy ghost, but in an unprecedented turn of events, she’s hot for sifu. Before it’s all over Lam stews up a pot of 100% Soup, the Hell Police come calling, and a hopping vampire horde descends on a yellow talisman-plastered compound. It’s the last time things would be this good — or sane.
In the South African hit The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980), a Coke bottle drops from the heavens, sending real-life tribesman N!xau on a pilgrimage to the ends of the earth, and into our hearts. In 1991’s Crazy Safari, a hopping vampire purchased at a Sotheby’s auction drops from the sky, leading N!xau to become possessed by the spirit of Bruce Lee, while Lam saddles up on an ostrich and searches for a proper way to wipe his ass. Maybe the strangest anything to feature either Lam or jiangshi.
Because there’s also The Wizard’s Curse (1992), which saw Lam employing the oft-neglected art of sex magic against the Terrific Vampire — which impales its victims on an enormous, glowing thorny penis. Its classification as vampire is a little dubious, but I would say a multi-gendered shapeshifter born of “the sperm of 99 satyrs, and the period blood of 99 bitches” is unquestionably terrific. Bullets are dipped in the blood of a black dog, Lam turns a pervert’s dick inside out, and a sweater is weaved from women’s pubic hair.
Clearly, like a Mandarin-robed Icarus, Lam and company hopped too close to sun, only to come crashing stiffly back into their stinky graves. A crash in the form of 1992’s The Musical Vampire, which sadly is not about a jiangshi who wins a Taoist’s heart with its stunning rendition of “La Vie En Rose.” The depressingly threadbare affair wielded powerful enough feng shui to keep those big screen hopping corpses in the dirt for the next decade.
Lam would bring his unibrowed priest to television instead for ninety episodes of Vampire Expert. He’d also wave off reports of his frequent hospital visits as nothing more than gossip. In late October of 1997, he’d abruptly split from his actress girlfriend, and move in with his sister — refusing visits from close friends and even his children. Two weeks later, he’d die of liver cancer. Sammo Hung, who once ushered him into stardom, would serve as pallbearer.
Unlike his onscreen foes, Lam would receive a proper burial along with his famed hat and yellow robes.
The Resuscitated Corpse
In 2013, the dead would hop again in a big way with the aptly titled Rigor Mortis. The lead in this glossy reboot: Chin Siu-ho — playing himself as a suicidal, fading actor. The film is drenched in dread-inducing atmosphere, and draws more from J-horror — its producer is Ju-on director Takashi Shimizu — than the likes of Crazy Safari. It’s also kind of a drag, dispensing of the fun to make room for self-serious, po-faced reinvention.
2017’s Vampire Cleanup Department would bring back the wackiness — as well as Chin and other former jiangshi regulars — but still, that old Taoist magic still wasn’t there. I have this theory, though, that we’re being saved the best for last — down in that weigh-station the Chinese call Diyu. That’s where the serious action is, with Lam keeping the ghouls in check on their home turf. And when our ticket gets punched, I bet we’re in for a real classic.