Fast and curious
Aaron Kwok's competitive streak has helped him succeed as a singer, actor and owner of horse flesh, writes Mathew Scott
It takes a lot to upstage an Aaron Kwok Fu-shing entrance. Those who have seen the man as a singer in full flight can attest to a sense of showmanship that seems to know no bounds, feathered headdress included. And film fans have watched as over the years Kwok has developed into one of the region's most versatile and consistent actors, with a habit of grabbing the viewer's attention from the moment he first appears - and not letting it go.
But tonight we are seeing - for the moment at least - a different side to the veteran entertainer as he makes his way virtually unnoticed into the AsiaWorld-Expo. For once, Kwok is not the centre of attention. Nor does he want to be. Like the VIPs here kicking back around their tables, sipping champagne, Kwok's focus is on what's happening in the arena, as the riders and their mounts prepare for the Longines Hong Kong Masters showjumping event.
Kwok is happy with this situation because it gives him a chance to look at life from the other side - as a spectator rather than the focus of attention. And it gives him a chance to open up about a few of the passions that flesh out his life away from the spotlight.
"I just admire them so much," the 47-year-old begins, motioning towards the riders in the arena as he settles into a sofa tucked away in a corner and high above the action.
"I am fascinated by horses and their history, how humans and horses have been together over thousands of years. It is also a great chance for me to be here tonight just as a fan and to get close to the action. You can really see what a challenge this event is for everyone and how much work they have to put in before they compete."
It is the notion of preparation then that takes Kwok's fancy - not that the topic is surprising given he has been readying himself over the past few months for the impressively named Aaron Kwok de Showy Masquerade World Tour Encore Live in Concert 2013 series, which kicks off tonight and will play the Hong Kong Coliseum for nine nights before he takes it from our shores.
"With every sport, with everything in life, you start with a little skill and then it is practice, timing, learning, success," he says, clicking his fingers in time as he reels off the words. "Success comes step by step and you have to have patience and you have to put in the work, and to work hard. I like sports because I am a competitor. I guess it is just in my blood."
The thrill of competition is one of the reasons why, Kwok says, he took up a challenge last year by signing on to drive in the inaugural Audi R8 LMS Cup motorsport series.
Kwok's fascination with fast cars has been documented at length over the years, but while it's one thing to own the machines, racing them is another matter. As the series mixes amateur drivers with professionals, there is little margin for error and the entertainer says he enjoyed being pushed to his limit both in training and on the track.
"You have to learn fast. The series was a great learning experience for me as it was a lot of hard work. You can't just get in the car and drive. You have to learn and you have to practise as much as you can, otherwise you'll get left behind. I like to push myself in my career and in my life," he says.
Sports offer Kwok a welcome distraction from that genre-jumping entertainment career of his, one that has now moved into its 23rd year. As well as the Audi series, working with the Longines brand brings him to the equestrian event and to the racetrack as part of the Swiss watchmaker's hook-ups with the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
And Kwok comes alive when mention is made of the feats of his own horse over the past 12 months.
After a long wait, the entertainer last year saw Calling With Love make it to the track for the first time - and win - and he was thrilled by the experience. "I grew up in Hong Kong and like all people who do, horse racing has always been part of my life," he says. "I would watch my father reading the form and watching the television, and I would ask him questions and try to learn what it is all about. But to win a race is a Hongkongers' dream. I almost can't describe what it felt like. The competitor in me came out and my heart was beating so fast."
By now Kwok's presence in the arena has started to create quite a stir. Hong Kong's movers and shakers have zeroed in on our position and have arrived en masse, smartphones raised to the rafters as they try to capture the moment.
Kwok smiles and waves occasionally for the cameras and our conversation turns to the reason for all the commotion - the fact that over more than two decades, Kwok has remained one of the region's hardest-working and successful entertainers.
The current concert series is, he says, a payback for the fans who missed out on last year's 17-night run, which only came to an end because he couldn't book the venue for further dates.
"Other acts had already booked the Coliseum, so we just couldn't get any more nights," says Kwok. "I really felt like I had more to explore with the show and so what we have done this time around is added elements of the things that have been keeping me busy over the past 12 months."
He won't say whether that will involve any fast cars (or any horses), but Kwok will reveal that he has incorporated aspects of the three major films he has been involved in recently, including last year's box office smash Cold War, which is up for a slew of major prizes at this year's Hong Kong Film Awards, including best film.
"I love acting and I love being able to create a character," says Kwok, who has twice been named best actor at the Golden Horse Awards, for his roles in Divergence (2005) and After This Our Exile (2006). "But that person you see on screen is not me. That is why performing is so important to me. People see the real Aaron Kwok on stage. It's me up there and there is nothing like that connection with the fans."
That connection is something Kwok says he first felt when, at the urging of friends, he tried out for TVB studios in the early 1980s and came up in front of a live audience for the first time. He rose rapidly from being a backing dancer to being named one of Canto-pop's Four Heavenly Kings - alongside Jacky Cheung Hok-yau, Andy Lau Tak-wah and Leon Lai Ming.
He puts the fact that he has been able to so easily expand his repertoire down - again - to hard work, and says that ethic was instilled in him from the start, simply because he was never convinced of his own ability. At least, not at the start.
"Your confidence grows," says Kwok. "And fans showing their support makes you want to improve your act every time you get on stage. That's why we keep changing the show and we keep pushing ourselves. Me, the choreographer, the musicians, the dancers. Everyone. That means we get a thrill every night too."
There are more surprises in store for Kwok's fans this summer too, he says, as he tackles a very different role in director Cheang Pou-soi's 400-million-yuan rendering of The Monkey King.
"For the first time I play a really bad guy. I am really looking forward to hearing what people think. The director rang me up and said 'I want you to be bad' and I thought about it and decided, 'Why not?' Life is all about looking for new challenges."
Aaron Kwok live in concert, until Mar 24, 8.15pm, Hong Kong Coliseum, Hung Hom, HK$200-HK$680 Urbtix. Inquiries: 2734 9009