Gregory Charles Rivers Will Not Be a Recycled White Extra
Once TVB’s staple gweilo actor, he sang two Cantonese parody songs at the satirical TVMost awards this year and became a viral sensation.
I grew up in a hobby farm in a very small town [in Queensland]. There were only 20,000 people. It was like the size of a housing estate in Hong Kong. In 1982, I graduated from high school and I had extremely high marks, so I could choose to study anything I wanted at university. I chose to study medicine because I thought: “be a doctor and help people.” University was really important to me. Not because of medicine, but because that’s where I met all these people from Hong Kong. Up to university, I didn’t know anything about Chinese culture, except that there was a Chinese restaurant near my home. I’m not even sure if I’d ever met any Chinese people.
I didn’t even know what Hong Kong was. University was a huge stepping stone. I was exposed to Hong Kong students, Hong Kong pop music, Hong Kong movies, and that changed my whole life. One day in the [dormitory] corridor, I heard this music and it was really amazing. It was Cantopop. I couldn’t understand a single word, but I loved the music. So I just kept listening to it and reading the lyrics at the same time, non-stop. It wasn’t about studying, it was about passion. In three years, my interest in medicine was dropping off while my interest in Hong Kong was increasing. I failed my final exams for my third year of medicine.
“A gweilo in Hong Kong can do anything, be any character. There’s even a gweilo in the New Territories driving a minibus.”
About three months into repeating the year, I decided I didn’t want to be a doctor: I wanted to be a pop singer in Hong Kong. I spent the next year working three different jobs: dish-washing, kitchen work and construction. After a year, I had $1,000 Australian dollars and I bought a one-way ticket to Hong Kong. People ask me if, over the 29 years I’ve been here, there has ever been a moment when I wish I hadn’t come. There hasn’t. Not a single second.
As soon as I stepped off the airplane, Hong Kong was my home. I was on a tourist visa—but I was a resident. I came here to live, I came here to stay. Life is a chain of events. [A colleague] told me that she had seen a poster: TVB was looking for a Caucasian actor who could speak Cantonese. I wasn’t confident, but it was an opportunity. I sat down with the producer: She pulled out a script and asked me to act it for her on the spot. I sat there for about five minutes without saying a word, because I was too nervous. I said to myself, “If you don’t take this chance, you’re going to regret it for the rest of your life.”
The script was about a police supervisor yelling at his subordinates—so I just said as loudly as I could, and I scared the hell out of her. Sometimes, you’ve got to take a chance. If you allow it, life can give you a lot of surprises. I learned an incredible amount of Cantonese when I was acting at TVB. All of my scripts were in Chinese. They were never translated or transliterated. If you love a language, you don’t stop learning it.
The typecasting [at TVB] was a peculiar thing. A gweilo in Hong Kong can do anything, be any character. There’s even a gweilo in the New Territories driving a minibus. But what it comes down to is whether or not the scriptwriters want to put a gweilo in those roles. In the beginning, it was about necessity: the situations where you have to use [a Caucasian actor], when he’s a supervisor, a police inspector, a missionary—those typecast roles. But that’s all changed now. There were a couple of roles that were more “average” than the others that I really, really enjoyed. It’s funny, right? I prefer the average roles to “the superhero” or “the boss.” I don’t want to be the boss. Let me be the underling.
I was at TVB for 20 years, and I knew they weren’t going to give me many significantly different roles. I knew I had two choices: One choice was to stay there and become an old, permanent extra. The other was to leave and see what would happen. I have a saying: “Failure is guaranteed if you don’t try.” If you try, you might fail; but if you don’t try, you absolutely will fail.
I’ve had some really serious tough times over the years. But if you keep going, keep believing, be a little bit naive, a little bit silly, and try to be optimistic as much as you can—at some point, things turn around. I try not to plan things. I’m not smart enough to plan a future that’s going to work.
The TVMost award ceremony, nobody knew about it a year ago. You couldn’t plan for it, it just happened and you made the most out of it. TVMost showed people that I knew how to have fun. People were like, “Wow! Ho Kwok-wing [Rivers's Cantonese name] does that?” That was eight years after I left TVB, so it was eight years of waiting for people to realize that you can do more than what you’ve done on TV. In the entertainment business, a lot of the time it’s a waiting game. Some people said I was an overnight success—but my overnight took almost 30 years.