If you’ve ever purchased a VHS of your favorite Shaw Brothers film from your local Chinatown area video store, chances are that you’re already unknowingly familiar with our next guest. He’s partially responsible for tracking down and securing some of the rarest Martial Arts films of the time that some diehard collectors were actively searching for while others never knew existed. Not only has he been around the genre since the beginning, he’s also a walking encyclopedia and archivist of knowledge and memorabilia on the subject of all things Shaw Brothers
NK: Your introduction to Shaw Brothers films began right from the beginning with seeing these movies in the theaters, but when was it that you started to search for these movies to own on VHS?
TF: During the early 1980s, I had already recorded many of them on to videotapes from the Metromedia “Drive-In Movie” on WNEW-TV channel 5 which was shown Saturdays at 3pm here in NY long before they were ‘made available’ on VHS. (Actually, it was theses televised Shaw Brothers movies that prompted me to get my own VCR after recording a couple of them onto audio cassettes with the ol’ tape recorder!) Sometime between 1983 & 1985 Johnnyray Gasca made his way into the offices of World Northal Corp. where he pirated away prints of about 45 Shaw Brothers films from Larry Bensky’s office and went into business with George Tan and a couple of other guys distributing them to Mom & Pop video stores throughout the 5 boroughs. (*I didn’t know Johnnyray yet in those days, I met him a few years later through a mutual friend of ours, James Lawrence. Once I discovered these “SB Videos” at a local Royal Video rental store, I immediately set out to acquire them all. Official U.S. releases were sporadic, but not impossible to find. The New World Pictures version of “Seven Blows Of The Dragon” was made available on VHS & Beta by WB and could be found in any video store in that big ugly black box, while World Northal released “Master Killer” and “The Chinatown Kid” (along with “Dynamo” and “The Three Avengers”) on video thru Embassy and later Fox Lorber video. In 1987 Vista Home Video released a handful of movies including “Ten Tigers Of Kwangtung”, “Super Ninjas”, “Fists Of The White Lotus”, “Shaolin Challenges Ninja”, and “Shaolin Executioner” (at the hefty price of $59.99 each) and I snatched up all of those. Shortly afterwards, beginning in 1990, Southgate began releasing Shaws in pairs including “Two Champions Of Shaolin” and “Challenge Of The Masters”, “Duel Of Fists” and “King Boxer”, “The Bells Of Death” and an uncut English dubbed version of “The Chinatown Kid” in full Shawscope! During the late 1980s & early 1990s, I also acquired numerous movies from Chinatown when Tai Seng and World Video & Laser Co. began releasing titles. My friend James Lawrence turned me on to a couple of tapes he obtained from Taiwan from Kings Video, namely “The New One Armed Swordsman” and “The Deadly Duo”, both had great covers with David Chiang & Ti Lung movie posters representing each movie. I was inspired and immediately set out to score a connection in obtaining a couple dozen titles from Kings Video in Taiwan for myself! And so, needless to say my first Kings Video tape became “The Shadow Whip” starring Cheng Pei-Pei – with that great poster image right on the front cover! My one gripe about Kings Video was their tapes were copy-protected, and even when you would be successful in breaking the copyguard, their logo (a red box with the King’s Video logo) appeared throughout the movie. This was the period I first saw SB films other than their swordplay and kung fu movies, such as their Huangmei musicals starring Ivy Ling Po, and spy dramas such as “The Brain Stealers” starring Lily Ho, as well as “Asia-Pol” starring Jimmy Wang Yu, among others.
NK: Just like DJ’s would “dig” for records your were scouring the world in a pre Internet age looking for and finding original copies of these films. What were some of the methods that you had to go through to track them down?
TF: Penpals! In those days before there were websites, we had to resort to old-fashioned methods such as trading! Cinemart was the last of the HK movie magazines and had pages of contact information for fans from around the world. I managed to correspond with a few and made a few trades here and there, including building up my Southern Screen magazine collection. In the early 1990s, in addition to the Kings Video releases, Shaw titles started popping up like crazy over in Europe, so I began to secure a lot of rare and unusual movies from France, Germany, and the UK.
NK: You created “Venom Chamber Imports Distribution” back in 1986 which was responsible for finding a lot of the rare Shaw films during that time, what were some of the harder to get ones that your responsible for introducing to the collectors market?
TF: I unearthed copies of some lesser known swordplay titles such as “The Bloody Parrot”, as well as classics such as “Tiger Killer”, and then I was all excited when I discovered what I deemed a ‘lost ‘ movie with the Venoms mob known as “The Weird Man” from private collections and exploited them. In addition to those (and the previously mentioned Kings Videos), I also circulated German dubbed versions of “Killers On Wheels”, Chang Cheh’s “7 Man Army”, “Friends”, “Police Force”, and “Na-Cha The Great” (*Fu Sheng’s 1st three movies) that were in widescreen ShawScope. I also offered clean, widescreen copies of movies such as “The Battle Wizard” and “The Sentimental Swordsman”, not to mention upgrades of movies such as “The Flag Of Iron”, “The Guerillas” (*”Rebel Intruders”), and “The Deadly Angels”, albeit they were dubbed in French. I debut all of these at the 43rd Chamber in New York City to mixed reactions. Most of the guys there didn’t like the swordplay movies I turned up and said they were ‘weak’, while most of them did like the quality of the foreign, letterboxed versions but they complained about the language barrier and coined the phrase “Tom’s Nazi Shaws”, lol. I turned a few heads in the martial world when I turned up English dubs from Turkey & South Africa for “The Anonymous Heroes”, “Legend Of The Bat” (as “Bat Island Adventure”), “Heaven And Hell” (as “Shaolin Hellgate”), and “Na-Cha The Great”. But still, it always came back to those same movies that were shown on channel 5 back in the day, and during the 1990s after having seen the same 50+ movies over and over, the fans were hungry for the remaining movies that World Northal distributed. I obliged them with my edited for television copies of “Avenging Warriors Of Shaolin”, “Strike 4 Revenge”, “Demon Fists Of Kung Fu”, “Kung Fu Warlords”, “Claw Of The Eagle”, “Iron Fingers Of Death”, “Karate Exterminators”, and “Battle For Shaolin” – believe it or not, these tapes were much better received than the stuff I obtained from overseas.
NK: You created some of the greatest sleeve art for the clamshell boxes done in a cut and paste style before photoshop and before finding images online. How important as a selling point was it to do that and how much work went into putting them together?
TF: Thank you for that compliment, I merely continued the layout format Johnnyray and George Tan started previously at Dragon Video, but the only difference is they actually cut-up original stills and pressbooks, wherein as a collector I could never do such a thing to such highly prized memorabilia, so I’d spend my nights at Kinkos copying my lobby cards, and posters to assemble those covers, which was no easy feat! To do that you had to lay the poster on the screen and scan it at a reduced size into quarters and then cut out the pieces and re-assemble them like a jigsaw puzzle and then glue that reproduction onto colored paper – and that was just the front of the cover! The back was usually scans from a couple of lobby cards or Southern Screen articles, and the titles were stickers made with a portable Brother P-Touch labeling machine. I, like many other collectors, feel the original one-sheet movie posters used to advertise and promote the movies are the best representation of the film and a perfect choice for a video cover, and some people would even collect my covers even though they already have the movie!
NK: As a collector as you still searching for anything? Possibly a better or uncut version of a film or one that has yet to be released on any format?
TF: I am always on the lookout for elusive Shaw Brothers films that have not yet been released by Celestial Pictures, especially English dubs that were made by Ted Thomas’ Axis International group during the 1970s. In other movie genres there still are things I’m still searching for, such as Nick Adams in the Toho spy film “The Killing Bottle”, and of course upgrades of rare movies and shows I’ve had on VHS for a quarter century are always a plus!
NK: What is the rarest piece of Kung Fu memorabilia (VHS, Book, Poster etc) in your collection that would make other collectors open up their wallets and offer you top dollar for?
TF: Among the pieces in my collection that collectors would most likely open their wallets for would have to be the pair of Super Inframan and Skeleton Soldier 12-inch action-figures set limited to 500 pcs. But still, I’d say my 1979 Shaw Brothers Productions Cannes Film Festival color program ranks among the rarest, and an autographed color photo signed by David Chiang made out to me among my most unique! But with a collection as large as mine, it is hard to determine which one specific piece would be that desirable as different people have different tastes. I tend to favor the Venoms mob so I am partial to memorabilia with them, while the majority of martial-arts movie fandom favors Bruce Lee and would probably like something like my Green Hornet lunchbox, but I’d be willing to guess that if I suddenly posted everything for sale, all of my Gordon Liu movie memorabilia would probably sell first because the “Master Killer” is so embraced by hip-hop culture.
NK: Bonus Question: At one point your were heavy into collecting records and roaming the streets of New York finding all sorts of stuff. What lengths were you going through and what were you looking for?
TF: I was seeking several things, such as Frankie Avalon’s elusive “Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea” theme song on a Chancellor Records picture sleeve as well as soundtrack albums to the Billy Jack movies, the Batman & Green Hornet TV soundtrack records, the Planet Of The Apes movie soundtracks (*NOT the Power Records story albums – I had those!) and whatever other scores I was feeling at the time. I managed to collect quite a lot including the Man From U.N.C.L.E. and the even more elusive Girl From U.N.C.L.E. albums while on a James Bond LP hunt. I was always a big fan of surf guitar music, especially The Ventures, and it took me quite a while to obtain all of their work, the most difficult track I sought after was their “Dick Tracy” theme (which was for a pilot made by Greenway – the same producer of Batman & The Green Hornet) only to learn after an exhaustive search that track was unreleased on vinyl and made its debut on CD in 1990 which I immediately bought when it was released. For a time during the mid to late ‘80s, some friends of mine thought I totally lost it and went off the deep end when they learned that I liked this new-wave group from Liverpool called “Dead Or Alive” and another from Coventry called “King” and thought I was turning gay or something because in addition to their albums (which I simply bought new at Crazy Eddie), I was on a mission trying to track down all of their UK stuff such as single 45s with picture sleeves, International albums with variant covers, and gimmicks such as Dead Or Alive’s “Lover Come Back To Me” in the die-cut shape of a Chinese folding fan, and King’s 12” maxi-single “Love And Pride” sleeve that unfolded into a poster. Living in New York had its advantages as there were lots of record stores in Manhattan in those days and on my days off from work I would take the subway from Brooklyn into the city and get off at Bleeker Street and stop in at The House Of Oldies, then pound the pavement making my way up to Midtown where I’d stop in at Downstairs Records after checking all of the imports bins at all the stores in-between such as the Bleeker Bob’s Records, Love Saves The Day, Record Hut, Kim’s Underground, Record Explosion and even Tower Records.
In a single day I’d have stopped in every new & used book store, comic-book shop, toy & hobby store, record store, video store, and then have to turn around and lug a hundred bucks worth of stuff on the subway back to my house in Coney Island!
This was known to my friends and I as “making the rounds”. What some people don’t realize today is that part of the hobby was “the thrill of the hunt”, in addition to actually finding the stuff. In between sifting thru stores like raiders, we would stop off and have lunch at White Castle – we called this a “Castle Run”. Back in those days there was no eBay or anything like that so you had to search thoroughly and sift through garage sales and yard sales in the suburbs and had to hunt down those closeout liquidation stores, thrift stores, etc. The downside of all this is over the years I’ve blown through paychecks as fast as I received them so I have virtually nothing saved, but I have houseful of memorabilia and know that I had a good time collecting it all. I’ve always thought “what’s the point in saving my money – I can’t take it with me when I drop dead so I may as well use it now to enjoy myself!” It was an era of neat stuff, cool music, great friends, and fun times – the joys of a misspent youth!