How Hong Kong singer-actress Ivana Wong blazed trail to stardom - but 'success comes at a price'
First as a singer, now more of an actress, Ivana Wong is at the top of her game, and, as Vanessa Yung writes, it's all a big surprise to her
Ivana Wong Yuen-chi is clearly on a roll as both a singer-songwriter and an actress. At her sold-out Coliseum concerts last year, the usually demure Wong impressed fans with a sexy pole dance routine, and then went on to pick up best supporting actress and best newcomer gongs at the Hong Kong Film Awards in April for her convincing turn as a mainland prostitute in Golden Chickensss (one of the four movies she appeared in last year). Last month, she brought the house down in W Theatre's stage musical Little Hong Kong Season 5. And on Thursday (September 3), she will return to the big screen, playing an undercover police officer in Love Detective.
As if that weren't enough, Wong will make her debut with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra on October 16-17 for a pops concert that reunites her with long-time collaborator and former classmate Alex Fung Hon-ming. Wong, 36, has grown into that rare artist who can shuttle comfortably between acting and singing and between pop, classical and other musical forms. She is as confident in front of a movie camera as she is commanding on a stage.
But if she's conscious of her growing versatility - and popularity - there's no sign of it. For the moment, Wong, whose parents are both classical singers, is more focused on preparing for her concert with the Philharmonic than charting her rise to stardom.
The singer was so thrilled when the orchestra suggested a collaboration, she said yes straight away. She quickly called Fung to see if he could join her on the project. Wong, celebrating her 10th year in show business, says she and Fung have created much of the music in her repertoire together.
She describes her upcoming show with the Philharmonic as "a dream coming true"; that's because, for the first time, her compositions will be performed by professional musicians in a proper setting and scale. Titled Fragrance of Music, the concert aims to take audiences on a journey down memory lane.
"Music is therapeutic, just like flowers. Flowers bring you memories, and I believe music does the same thing," says Wong. "We're going to divide the concert into chapters, and each is represented by a scent. The audience won't actually smell anything, but I believe all senses are connected in a way.
"As people listen to our music, maybe they will start to think of their precious memories that bring back certain senses or inspires feelings. There's a storyline [underlying the programme], so we hope the audience will create imagery in their own minds as if they're watching a movie or listening to soundtracks."
The set list isn't final yet, but she promises signature tunes such as Water Lily and I Am Really Hurt - which she wrote for Canto-pop veteran Jacky Cheung Hok-yau and which practically launched her own career.
However, fans can expect new arrangements of their favourite Ivana Wong songs, Fung says.
"We're not trying to do the generic pop music meets classical [event], where a philharmonic accompanies the vocalist. It'll feature a mixture of the musical genres we grew up listening to, from electronic to nu metal and [other edgy] sounds," Fung says.
"Working with Ivana is something special. We explore music. We might disagree on some points, as music is pretty personal thing, but we embrace each other's ideas instead of compromising. Her melodies makes my arrangements shine, and my arrangements push her tunes forwards musically."
The two friends describe the upcoming concert as a party in which orchestral musicians will jam with a pop band.
The pair met as 14-year-olds, when they were students at Cheung Chuk Shan College. Both joined the school choir and would often get together to sing or write music and take part interscholastic music activities.
They lost touch after leaving Hong Kong for further studies. Wong read economics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and Fung studied music production and engineering at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. A mutual friend who knew Fung was in the music business put them in contact again after Wong had won a Composers and Authors Society of Hong Kong (Cash) songwriting competition in 2000.
"We started exchanging e-mails and demos. And then she came by my so-called studio, which was actually my bedroom ... We started making a demo back then," Fung recalls. "I think that was at least 10 years ago. It was fun, and she's really the only woman back then who was allowed to sit on my bed."
Over the past decade, Wong and Fung have worked together on more than 70 compositions, a dozen albums and two sold-out concerts at the Hong Kong Coliseum (2011 and 2014).
As a nod to her economics degree, Wong did a brief stint in a bank, but music has always been her true calling. Despite winning the songwriting contest, Wong didn't debut as a singer until 2005, when she joined Cheung at his concert on a duet of I Am Really Hurt, which highlighted her angelic voice as well as a knack for writing ballads.
Wong got off to a great start in the mid-2000s: her eponymous debut album was a hit and, together with her second five months later, garnered her awards from Commercial Radio for singer-songwriter and newcomer.
The accolades were completely unexpected, she says: "My music has never been on the very commercial side of the market, and in the past I sometimes struggled with how to position my own music."
But an even bigger surprise is how her acting career has taken off in the past year, as Wong revealed a wonderful sense of comic timing.
"I couldn't believe it myself that I would start to act one day," Wong says of her recent awards for Golden Chickensss.
"I never imagined that I would generate so much noise with my acting rather than my music. In the very beginning, I really worried whether taking comical roles would ruin my image in music. But I've been so touched by how people seem to love my acting.
"People do laugh a lot. It's like I'm giving them positive energy. I feel as if I'm doing something good. So it's all worth it. To grow as an artist, I've learned not to put so many boundaries in every performance. And you shouldn't.
"It's all art. It's just in a different form ... I hope my audience will feel that way, too."
Wong's earliest film assignments were for Cantonese dubbing in such movies as The Simpsons (2007) and as the character Sadness in Inside Out.
But her first acting job was for the stage in 2010, when she took a leading role in W Theatre's musical Octave, for which she also wrote the music.
She credits the founders of Windmill Grass Theatre - Joey Leung Jo-yiu, Edmond Tong Chun-yip and Shaw Mei-kwan - for recruiting her into acting. This led to roles not only in musicals such as I Love You Because (2011) but also TV drama ( Inbound Troubles, 2013) and film.
Her four movies last year - Temporary Family, Break Up 100, Delete My Love and Golden Chickensss - only sealed her status as versatile performer.
However, success as an actress has its price. While Wong used to devote all her time to music, she now splits her time between movies and music.
"Sometimes it is disappointing to hear comments like I'm not doing music any more, I'm not focused any more or I probably don't make good music any more," Wong says. "[But just because] I have to take longer to produce an album - every two years instead of one, for instance - that doesn't mean I'm sacrificing the quality.
"I'm growing as a performer. And as I said, all our senses are connected. The experience I got from movies and drama also helped in my singing. Right now, when I come out on stage as a singer - I'm sure I'm very different from years ago - I have more power, projection and imagery in my head.
"I'm still more comfortable on a music stage. But I'm learning and embracing every kind of performance. Before [making] a movie I have to take lessons and read books to get prepared. It's a different mentality. But that's my style: either I don't do it at all or once I've decided to do [something], I'll give it my all. And they end up inspiring each other. It's magical."