The Hong Kong actor straddling two cultures
Michael Wong is best known for his roles in action movies, but he says he has never been totally accepted as a Hongkonger even though he has lived in the city for many years
Actor Michael Wong has been a favourite of the Hong Kong screen for more than three decades, making his debut in kung fu film Invincible Obsessed Fighters (1983) before going on to star in multiple action films, often as police officers. Born in the US to a Chinese restaurateur and an American artist, the 52-year-old star lives with his supermodel wife Janet Ma and three children Kayla, Irisa and Kadin. He spoke to City Weekend about the film industry, typecasting, discrimination and government bureaucracy.
WATCH: Actor Michael Wong on typecasting in movies
You were born in the US but moved to Hong Kong for your acting career. How much of a Hongkonger do you feel these days?
Both my grandmother and grandfather on my father’s side are buried in Hong Kong, but because of the nature of being Hong Kong Chinese, if you are not the right kind of Chinese then you are not a Hongkonger. That is a very prominent attitude that exists here. But I still consider myself to be a Hongkonger. Human beings are very tribal. People are always trying to deny you your identity. That’s just the way we are made up. There’s still a lot of conflict in the world.
I don’t go back to the US that often, but I did grow up there, so the way I speak and sound has all been shaped by American culture. I guess you could say I have been able to have the best of both worlds. Whatever my character is and what people remember me for, hopefully it won’t be defined by what race I am – the Chinese or the European side.
You’ve said in the past that you wish you were fluent in Cantonese. How has this impacted your career here? And how do you think being mixed race has affected it?
I can speak about 30 or 40 per cent Cantonese. I have to be one of those people who is really interested in learning a language. People ask me how I don’t know it when I’ve lived here for 30 years. If you wanted to learn any language, and you could discipline yourself, for example if you went to a language course for six months every day, you could build a foundation in it. I could do that for Japanese and Russian and I would probably be able to speak Russian better than Cantonese. My Cantonese was basically learned on film sets. I would rather sit at a piano for four hours than take a 30-minute language lesson. It’s one of those things.
Do you think your mixed ethnicity has led to you being typecast in films?
I think actors get typecast in general. I just finished a television series for TVB based on a 1994 film The Final Option about a Swat unit in Hong Kong. Even in this series, the girl who plays my daughter, they have to write in the script that we’ve recently come back from the UK, for some reason! I don’t know if they do that intentionally to always keep me in that pocket. Maybe that was a decision that the industry made that “we can’t have another American-born Chinese upstage the local guy” because Bruce Lee was really a hard person to surpass – even now his legend lives on. It seems like the industry always wants to keep me there as the “foreigner”. The industry is very small, behind the scenes there are a lot of controlling factors.
Beast Cops (1998) is one of the films you are best known for in Hong Kong. What are your memories of making the film and how do you feel now about the reaction to it?
That was a well-directed film. The script brought out all the cultural nuances of Hong Kong and all these groups of people in conflict with law enforcement in the underground. Even to this day, people still ask me if I’m still driving the Hummer that appears in the film. It was quite a new car to Hong Kong – that was iconic in itself. I also remember vividly some of the action scenes and running through the streets being whacked by a group of gangsters. I remember actor Anthony Wong’s scenes very well. His character was called Tung, and he was getting chopped up going into the lion’s den. It was very dramatic. It was a great film of its time.
You once worked with actor Jackie Chan in the film Thunderbolt (1995). How was that experience and do you keep in touch with him?
I remember being in Japan and shooting the race track part of the film, as we had already shot the opening in Hong Kong. Jackie, at that time, he was in his prime, but then he’s always in his prime. That guy just keeps going. I remember running up and down on the race track. He was directing everybody even though he had a full production team and a director. But he’s very hands on. It was a lot of fun. There was a full race environment with all the girls dressed up in their racing costumes and all the drivers on the track. We even took the cars out ourselves on our own for a bit, and we had to race them back to continue filming!
It was always a pleasure to work with Jackie. I still get to keep in contact with him. I saw him not too long ago. He is a great inspiration. He is an icon for Hong Kong. He has done so much for the next generation. Bruce Lee has inspired the next generation, including Jackie, and Jackie has created his own iconic persona for the industry.
Is there anyone in the film industry that you would like to work with that you haven’t had the chance to yet?
I have been on the set with most leading actors. People like Aaron Kwok, Andy Lau – there’s so many. I guess director Andrew Lau would be a great person to work with, or Benny Chan, or Johnny To because I fit his genre – he does a lot of police films. So maybe that’s still yet to come. Who knows, maybe I’ll get a second or third wind if I keep myself in shape.
Hong Kong actors and directors have lamented the end of the heyday of the film industry here in the 1980s and 90s. What do you think should be done to preserve or even develop the local film industry?
I think for Hong Kong, overall promotion for the city, cinema and the entertainment industry is helpful, and we have to come from that angle. Two weeks ago, I was at a dinner with friends from the film industry where this conversation came up, and I heard things about this.
Every industry has its pride and people don’t want to let it go. There are films in China which are killing all the latest releases, even some of those from Hong Kong. In some cases, the Chinese government has taken the best of Hollywood, like all of the action, and put it all in the film and it’s a huge hit. I know a lot of Hong Kong filmmakers were very protective and saying ‘we do it this way’, so maybe there’s a lesson learned there. That’s definitely something that has to change.
Hollywood is still what it is. If you look back on filmmaking history and the filmmaking process, there was a formula of how to put together a three-act play and it was perfected many years ago. It inspired all of these countries which have developed their own cinema. Nowadays, it’s a battle of the business. Mainland China has a good control on the direction of filmmaking, everything needs to be regulated by the filmmaking authority.
In fact I have lost out on a few roles in the last 12 months because at the last minute they will say ‘Oh we need a mainland Chinese actor’. So now Hong Kong is dealing with that. I have dealt with it my whole career.
You are also known for your singing career. Is there any material you’ve recorded that you are particularly proud of?
No not really! I’ve done a few recordings. When I started getting back to music in 2008, I did a big band album which I recorded with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. We called it Cool Rhythm. It was a good effort. At that time, no record companies were doing the same kind of thing – Canto-pop was dominating. I did it myself with my own distribution.
A few years ago, I did an EP of pop music. I love music, but commercially it has always been difficult for someone like me, just because of the shape of the industry. Real artistic expression doesn’t always get a lot of support. I’m a rhythm and blues guy when I’m listening to music, and at night time all I’m listening to is classical music, like Johann Sebastian Bach, Frederic Chopin and Sergei Rachmaninoff, just learning the history of classical music.
The Hong Kong media often report on your children's private lives. How do you feel about that as a parent?
Because I’ve been in Hong Kong for 30 years, we have a good relationship with the media. My wife and I educate our children on the media business, so they understand its value, and how serious you should take it. We tell them there are different publications which have a different tone to their writing. I educate my kids so it will affect them less emotionally. My younger daughter has just been asked to sign for a model agency, to follow in her mother’s footsteps, and my elder daughter has started her own fashion brand, and that requires a lot of promotion and media exposure. Whatever experience I have, I try to pass that on to my children.
Your daughter Kayla identifies as a lesbian. How does it feel that she is not protected by anti-discrimination laws in Hong Kong?
All I can do is protect my daughter. I would rather have whatever discrimination there is in Hong Kong than discrimination we have in other countries, where it is violent. In some countries, she could be beaten up while walking down the street for being a lesbian. We are very lucky, even though there is no anti-discrimination law. Luckily we don’t have that kind of violence. In another place I would have to defend my daughter against a violent response.
I have dealt with discrimination my whole life. For some people it is more prominent than for others. Look how society is created with these boundaries – I just don’t get it. I have free thinking. It’s just the way I think it should be. I have friends who are straight and who are gay.
How do you feel about the future of Hong Kong?
Just in my experience, the Civil Aviation Department and the Government Flying Service [with which he has dealings] have very harsh regulations on what is allowed to happen here. It’s almost like a dictator. If you’re calling yourself a democracy yet you have this bureaucracy that kills freedom and opportunity, is that not hypocrisy? If the rest of these government departments operate like the ones I deal with directly, then I can see why there is conflict.
How do you and your family have fun together?
We are quite simple. We are always having dinners together. We go to play golf or go hiking. We like to work out. My daughters enjoy going to yoga together. The nice thing is we don’t seem to have much conflict. My daughters are learning to push back on us a bit, which is good, because Janet and I can be very strong-willed people. I think we all communicate quite well.
What would be your idea of the perfect date in Hong Kong?
I would probably pick up my date at pier 9 on a 60-foot Predator Sunseeker boat and take her around the island and over to Middle Island for some food. Then I would sail back around to Kowloon, and have a car ready to take us to the Peninsula hotel. At the top of the hotel, the helicopter would be ready, then we would take an aerial tour of Hong Kong. Then maybe we would fly out nine minutes to Ham Tin Wan, Sai Kung, and lie on the beach. To me that’s normal because it’s something that’s quite feasible!