Why Gregory Charles Rivers, also known as Ho Kwok-wing, is the ‘Real Hongkonger’
Singer-actor from Australia who has fully assimilated into his adopted home here discusses his Canto-pop dreams, high rents, and a happier 1980s Hong Kong he once knew
Gregory Charles Rivers – or Ho Kwok-wing as some may know him by – has been dubbed the “Real Hongkonger” by countless local internet users for his decades-long dedication to promoting Cantonese culture. The 50-year-old Australian singer and actor has been in local showbiz since he first arrived in the city in 1987 and has become arguably one of the best-known Western faces in Hong Kong.
Not only is Rivers able to speak better Cantonese than most Hongkongers, he has also appeared in more than 200 different local television series. But Rivers said his passion still lies in singing Canto-pop songs. His recent hit, Forever ATV, which satirises the demise of the now defunct broadcaster, has gone viral on the Internet. It earned him the title of “Most Popular Male Singer in Hong Kong”, given by internet video platform, TV Most.
What brought you here in 1987?
When I was studying in Australia, I spent a lot of my time with people from Hong Kong. There was a Hong Kong Students Association. They had a disco and talent competition. I was always there helping out. I discovered Canto-pop when I was in university and fell in love with it straight away. I was actually singing Canto-pop and reading the Chinese lyrics before I came to Hong Kong. In my third year as a medicine student, I failed my exam because I spent so much time with friends instead of studying. I decided I didn’t want to be a doctor. I wanted to go to Hong Kong and become a Canto-pop star. I worked three or four part-time jobs for a year and saved some money. Then I bought a one-way ticket and flew over.
What was it about Hong Kong that attracted you?
It was the people. When I arrived here, I didn’t feel like I was in a strange place because for two to three years before coming over, I already spent most of my time with Hong Kong students. [I also spent] a lot of time in Chinatown, watching Hong Kong movies at the cinema and listening to Canto-pop songs. It’s not the place in terms of concrete and steel that attracted me to this city. I always had an affinity for the people of Hong Kong from the very beginning. I find that not only are they very friendly, they are also cooperative. When they have problems, they try to solve those problems. Their first reaction is not to pull out a gun or to raise their fists and get into a fight over a small disagreement. They are more likely to use words to diffuse an argument and settle one. They have a lot of respect for each other. In Hong Kong, there is this queue culture where people will queue up. Some people might want to push in but most of the time, people just queue up and wait for their turn. You will always have some bad elements but in Hong Kong, that’s a relatively small fraction. You can generally talk to a lot of people if you remain humble.
How did you end up choosing Hong Kong as your home?
I didn’t choose Hong Kong. Hong Kong chose me. In university, I was never like ‘oh, you are a Hongkonger, I want to be friends with you.’ [When I was at last recognised by many as a native Hongkonger], I felt that it was extremely moving, and also a huge privilege. I have been here for over 29 years now. Unless I look into the mirror, I am not reminded that I am a foreigner. I consider myself as a local in terms of language, attitude and my work. Everything I have done in the last 30 years is really Cantonese. But the last thing I would expect is for a group of people, or even society as a whole, to actually give me the label of “Real Hongkonger”. That was a huge surprise and it was extremely moving. When you value a group of people and they openly accept you, it always feels extremely special.
What do you love and hate most about the city?
[What I love the most] is always the people because the city changes. They tear down buildings. The harbour gets smaller and smaller. The city keeps changing but the people are always great. So the thing that I always love about Hong Kong is the people. The thing I don’t love about Hong Kong, I guess, is that it’s changing. It’s not the Hong Kong that I used to know. As we get older, we remember the things that made us so happy when we were younger. For some of us in Hong Kong, it’s going to be the street hawkers selling their food. I used to really enjoy getting up in the morning and having freshly deep-fried ‘yau ja gwai’ (fried dough sticks), which you can’t buy this way anymore in Hong Kong. You can get it in a restaurant but not at a stall. I miss buses that have windows that you can open. If you have been living here for so long, what you don’t like is change. And it’s the same for me. Because of various reasons, the general atmosphere of the city is changing and people are becoming sadder. People are becoming more depressed, anxious and pessimistic about the future of Hong Kong.
There are surveys showing more and more Hongkongers want to leave the city, what do you think about that? Do you feel the same way?
A lot of people wanted to leave before the 1997 handover because they were so afraid of what was going to happen. And a lot of people want to leave now. For them, it’s probably a reasonable choice. For those who want to have a future in Hong Kong, they have to know that the future is going to be a little rough from hereon. But if you are like me and you appreciate the people as much as I do, I’d rather choose to stick around and to see what I can do to help others out. When you get into really tough times, it’s very easy to dip down and look after yourself and nobody else. But if you go against the automatic reaction and you work hard to help each other out, there’s a chance that you can all survive. And I would rather stick around.
How different was the Hong Kong of 1987 compared to the Hong Kong of today?
[The old Hong Kong and the current one] are two different things. Thirty years ago, people in Hong Kong were extremely happy. They knew that if they worked hard, they would be able to secure a future. They would be able to buy an apartment to live in and look after the kids. They would have good education for the kids and a decent lifestyle for themselves. Back in the 80s, that was it. If you worked hard, you would be okay. But today everything is so expensive. The balance between the rich and the poor in Hong Kong and across the world has shifted so much. For most people, even if you worked extremely hard, you can’t save enough for even the down payment on a new apartment. Another difference, which most westerners would not be aware of, is that we used to have these massive Canto-pop concerts here. I was a guest singer at Alan Tam’s show in 1997 when he had a 31-concert marathon. Samuel Hui had a concert which was over 40 shows. That’s never going to happen again.
If you could change one thing about the city, what would it be?
I would put rent control on every single building in the city – every commercial building and residential building. The rent today is really too expensive anyway. I will try to push it back to where it was five years ago and I’ll freeze [rents] for the next 20 years.
You have strong opinions about Cantonese dying as a language. Will it really go away?
We have this saying in Cantonese – “Saam Doi Baat Bou”, meaning things can’t be preserved over three generations. The system here in Hong Kong is [creating] a Putonghua environment in primary schools, and that is the beginning of the end of Cantonese. It saddens me. [Although] we can never predict the product of what we see now, we can only see the trend. Looking at today’s trend, Cantonese could be gone in 60 years. But then again, in this time, a lot of things could happen. It’s going to be up to the people to work hard to retain the Cantonese language. You do whatever you can to preserve what we have. There are a couple of things I really want to do. One of them is to shoot my own series teaching Cantonese. In the last thirty years, I attempted to learn four to five different languages. I have developed my own method in learning languages. It’s not easy to get funding, but somebody has to do it. So if I can produce a show which can teach a non-Cantonese speaker five hundred Cantonese words, I’ll do it.
What is a true Hongkonger in your opinion?
I think a true Hongkonger is someone who cares about the place. It doesn’t matter where they come from. [True Hongkongers] assimilate into the city. They are concerned about the people. They care for the Cantonese language. And in small or big ways, [they] try to protect what we have here and keep it going. That’s a true Hongkonger.
THE LESSER-KNOWN GREGORY--------
●In secondary school, I wanted to be an architect. But the principal of the school convinced me that it was not a good idea. At the time, he thought architecture was becoming more aesthetic than practical. But, besides that, I guess I have always been a performer.
●When I was a teenager, I liked to eat ice cream. So, one day, the young people at my church in Australia went on an outing to a beach. Back then, ice cream was wrapped up in square cups or cartons ... it was at least a litre per carton. My eyes have always been bigger than my stomach, so then I had this whole cup of ice cream. I remember it was passion fruit. That was fine. But the biggest problem was we were at a beach, there was absolutely nowhere to go and all of the bushes were short. I eventually lost control. That was extremely embarrassing to be surrounded by everybody you know and they are watching you dirty yourself in public. It was one of the black spots of my memory.
MEMORABLE MOMENTS LEARNING CANTONESE
●The first song that I was able to understand completely without consulting a book or a dictionary was Never Miss You by Alan Tam. I spent a lot of time listening to Canto-pop songs, reading the lyrics and memorising all the sounds and pronunciations in order to understand what they meant. But for that particular song, for some reason, I was able to understand the whole thing without researching any of the characters.
●The other time, a whole group of Hong Kong Chinese and I were in Chinatown, having late-night snacks at a restaurant. We were sitting at the table, I was concentrating like hell, trying to pick up one word in every sentence so that I might be able to understand what they were talking about. The concentration was so severe that I just had recurring dreams about the conversation all night long. For me, that night where I was dreaming in Cantonese is what I refer to as ‘the language wet dream’. It was the beginning of understanding.
●One thing that I am really scared of are dinosaurs. Jurassic Park scared the hell out of me. They are not even here any more but they scare me. When Jurassic Park 2 was released, it came with a video game. I was having a lot of trouble playing because I was so petrified that dinosaurs were coming out left and right and eating me. So dinosaurs really scare me.”
FAVOURITE HONG KONG DISH:
●I’ll give you four dishes first then I will try to choose a winner. Cha siu rice, beef chow fun, salty zong and sam see chow mein. If it is made with some degree of quality, it would have to be the chow mein. Good sam see chow mein is no longer that easy to find.
●For many years, I was in the scouts. In Australia, every year we held different activities to raise funds, and for one of those we had to sell peanut brittle. So there we were selling these big boxes of peanut brittle, and I remember there’s this girl in school. This was probably something like year eight or nine, and I liked her a lot. So I gave her 10 boxes and paid for them myself.
FAVOURITE FEMALE SINGER:
●Sandy Lam Yik-lin