Actor Anthony Wong swaps outrageous roles for social justice
NO ONE IN THE CROWDED room at the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre headquarters knows what to make of the 50-year-old actor when he raises his hand like a schoolboy.
It is near the end of a rehearsal of 18/F Flat C - a new Cantonese play based on a long-running radio show set around a cha chaan tang in Hong Kong - and Anthony Wong Chau-sang wants to share his thoughts after the actors are told they must finish their coffee at every scene change.
"You mother****ers," says Wong, without referring to anyone in particular. "This is a technical problem for the crew. It shouldn't be solved [by compromising] the health of the actors. What if I asked you to finish seven cups of coffee every night?"
There, in a nutshell, you have Wong, who is known to break into profanity as often as he is known to speak out for justice in the interest of the greater good. More often than not, the two happen simultaneously.
"I don't think I'm speaking up for society at large; I'm just looking at things that are happening around me," Wong says when I bring up his newfound heroic status in the eyes of some Hongkongers. Wong's forthright voice has become a constant presence in social media lately.
"Even if you're in primary school," he continues, "you will take an interest if the classmate sitting next to you is being bullied, and nobody else dares to report it [to the teachers]. The bully may say, 'I'll beat you up if you report me.' But if you do report him, you've already done justice to the people around you.
"It's not only about society; this can happen when you're in a company or any other organisation."
Wong had something of a disconcerting image after playing a long list of psychopaths (in films like The Untold Story), and receiving a lot of negative press early in his career. So his transformation into a voice of social justice has been remarkable. The fact he's the voice of the benevolent headmaster in the McDull animated series has reinforced this view, as has his humanistic take on the title role of this year's Ip Man - The Final Fight.
"I'm neither especially brave nor especially …" he pauses briefly. "I'm just a person who's very much the middle of the road. I'm a very ordinary person."
For all of Wong's outspokenness, before we meet for this interview, I am politely given the message that he is unwilling to discuss in depth the content of 18/F Flat C, a social satire adapted from the eponymous radio play that's been running since 1968. One can only presume he is philosophically at odds with the opinionated, but conservative, play; he is quite willing to discuss other politically sensitive topics during our chat.
Wong elaborates on what he's been describing on his Facebook page (titled "Anthony Perry", after Wong's birth name) as "a cultural war between Hong Kong and mainland China: it's part of our culture to protest on the street, but mainlanders wouldn't know that. They'd ask, 'Hey, why didn't you do it when the Brits were still here?' They don't seem to know that we planted bombs on the street when the Brits were here!
"It's like, how many Hongkongers don't know what happened during the Cultural Revolution? We're looking at a huge discrepancy in knowledge between Hong Kong and mainland China when it comes to each other's culture," he says.
Unlike those who only started to pay attention to China's political reality when it affected Hong Kong, Wong's interest in modern Chinese history developed early on. For a period in his childhood, the actor says, he was dressed as a Red Guard and made to read Quotations from Chairman Mao by his leftist relatives. As a teenager, Wong began to look up books on communist ideology after he was inspired by a teacher.
"It was a hot-blooded era. There were many student movements and leftist trends at the time," he recalls. "I didn't like school, but I always learned from other channels. I was deeply influenced by those ideas."
It was out of a similar sense of curiosity that Wong opened an account on the Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo. But the heated user reaction and censorship of the site prompted him to turn to Facebook.
"I started using Weibo because I wanted to know more about the culture of our friends on the mainland," he says. "It was only later on that I found out how many mentally sick people are attracted to the site."
"When I say they're mentally ill, I mean it," says Wong. "For example, if you say, 'Hamburgers are delicious,' their first response could be, 'You're a traitor! You should go to Japan to eat s***.' Their responses are totally unconnected to what you say. I have no idea how they put the two ideas together."
Wong's activities on Weibo may have been brief, but his involvement in local theatre looks like it'll last for quite a bit longer. Before his current role in 18/F Flat C, he had leading part in a Cantonese adaptation of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt's Enigmatic Variations in late 2012. The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts acting graduate has just set up his own theatre company, Dionysus Contemporary Theatre. He runs it with director Olivia Yan Wing-pui, and several other APA alumni.
"I think it's about time. I'm about the right age," says Wong of his new endeavour. "And if I don't do this now, there won't be another chance."
According to Wong, the company will specialise in translated plays - the "more marketable ones".
"We won't be doing Shakespeare or Chekhov - though they're reputable - because we don't want to bore people to death. We'll be staging more light-hearted works which should have a bigger impact [on the audience]."
The first of these productions, he says, will be a Cantonese adaptation of Peter Shaffer's Equus next May. Directed by Yan, the production is set to feature pop singer Hins Cheung King-hin as the 17-year-old protagonist, with Wong and singer Charmaine Fong Ho-man rounding out the cast.
" Equus is a serious play that has some more marketable aspects," says Wong, who introduces himself as the "boss and artistic director" of the company - although he can't help laughing for a moment when he calls himself a boss.
For all his brazen comments on everything from show business to the politics of Greater China, Wong is - when he's in the mood - sometimes so self-deprecating about his own accomplishments that it sounds like he's parodying himself.
"Nobody in the movie industry thinks I'm especially important," he offers. "I'm still suffering through it. I've never made it to the top rank. I've never been an Andy Lau [Tak-wah] or Donnie Yen [Ji-dan]."
But doesn't he, like Yen, already have his own Ip Man film behind him? Surely that improves his movie star "rank"?
"Well, I did take the lead in an Ip Man movie, but you don't know the full story behind [the production]," says Wong, shrugging and letting out a dry chuckle. "Perhaps I didn't take a dollar to play the role, right?"
The suggestion sounds so ridiculous that he holds back a smile. He looks straight at me: "So what's the big deal?"
18/F Flat C, 8pm, July 23-August 4 Polytechnic University, HK$280-HK$480 HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 3128 8288