michael wong and janet ma

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 June, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 June, 1998, 12:00am

MICHAEL WONG and Janet Ma are regularly described as Hong Kong's most beautiful couple. She is a model; he used to be categorised as a model/actor but these days he prefers to jettison the first word of that job description. At the moment his acting ability shines brightest in commercials: you may have seen the dramatic Ericsson mobile phone ads in which he summons up fireworks for Maggie Cheung, or carries her off on his motorbike as she flees her own wedding. Indeed, his conversation is so cheerfully peppered with products he has endorsed ('I'm sponsored by Omega ... that was for Chivas Regal ... it was a De Beers commercial') I felt I'd met a talking billboard.

We had lunch at the Ritz-Carlton's Italian restaurant, Toscana. Wong and Ma are currently the faces of Cerruti, a task which requires them to wear Cerruti clothes and look good which, given their joint pulchritude, isn't exactly a thespian stretch. They were about to go to Milan and Wong was determined, Method-wise, to get into the mood. Every time there was a pause in the conversation he said, 'Man, I'm gonna go to Italy' in tones of joyous disbelief. He discussed types of pasta with the chef, he planned his Italian itinerary aloud and he yodelled along to the opera which Toscana had thoughtfully piped into the room. He doesn't actually speak Italian but then he doesn't speak Thai either, and he managed to release an album in that language a few years ago. Meanwhile, Ma watched him with an air of resigned amusement and silently ate her steamed vegetables. It was a remarkable combination, like dining with a three-month-old puppy and a sphinx.

The Cerruti connection came about because ... 'Here's the story, I'm a storyteller,' cried Wong. 'I'm a Levi's and T-shirt kind of guy. I don't like to dress up, I don't have the time for it.' I asked why not, imagining a packed schedule of commitments to advertisers. 'I mean, I have plenty of time, but not for that. Then someone asked me to do the opening of the Cerruti shop in The Lee Gardens, they gave me a nice suit and all I had to do was show up and participate. And then they said they had an interest in sponsoring my clothes. I went to the showroom and there were two lovely ladies helping me to dress - nothing wrong with that - and it was a lot of fun. And I started feeling comfortable and that's my motto: Be Comfortable.' I couldn't help wondering how comfortable he's feeling with his acting career which has been sputtering along for about 15 years, since he first arrived in Hong Kong from Los Angeles. As he couldn't speak a word of Cantonese, he used to be dubbed until he learned enough of the lingo to speak his own lines. These usually included the chilling command 'Don't call me gweilo' which, though it lacks the force of, say, a Clint Eastwood directive, apparently became a catchphrase amongst his fans. Then there was a blip: a drink-induced decline, a bolt back to America for a year. In 1990 he returned and met Janet during filming of the first in a long line of commercials.

'I'm a bit of a space cadet, I said to everyone 'Who's Janet Ma?' and the next day this woman, Janet Ma - sitting here on my left - asked me out on a date and I couldn't believe it! Wow! Fantastic!' Wong turned to his wife, who was on his right, and cried, 'Did you even ask me to marry you?' Ma looked at him, murmured 'Crazy!' in Cantonese and shook her head. What did they think of each other? 'He had lots of charm ...' began Ma, but her husband leaped in, crying, 'She thought I was orange! I was drinking lots of carrot juice and I'd turned orange!' They now have two daughters, Kayla, six, and Irisa, three. The possibility of a trip to New York for Cerruti next March came up at lunch and while Wong was ricocheting off the walls in, like, wow-mode, Ma said quietly, 'But there's no holiday in March.' Wong looked at her fondly and said, 'We'll make it a holiday, honey.' 'But Kayla's in Primary One,' his wife reminded him.

I approved of that, I thought it showed commendable good sense and said so. Wong became serious. 'Me, I've no practical or organisational make-up in my body. Certain people do certain things at certain times. I'm not structured in that way. I just go out and do stuff, like this flight thing. I just gotta fly.' He'd already told me about this passion: about how he loved flying, how he'd met the Apollo 17 crew (courtesy of Omega), how he was getting his pilot's licence this year, what it was like in the sky ... So when I'd asked him how many lessons he'd had, I was slightly taken aback when he replied, 'The first one is next Thursday morning.' Right, I said, once I'd rallied, so what about the acting? 'Being a celebrity - you know, this acting thing has wonderful perks but I need some activity that's using my brain. I really need to do this, it helps to build character. But I don't want to get out of the industry, I hope it's lucrative enough to support my flying habit.' Anyway, he has two films coming up. I'm afraid I can't tell you the name of one because he didn't know it himself; the other is a Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle called Knock Off directed by Tsui Hark, whom Wong met when he and his brothers Russell (who was in The Joy Luck Club) and Declan first arrived here.

'I gave Tsui Hark a cigar in the Regent one night and a few weeks later he said, 'Do you want to have a part as the chief of security for the handover?' So I did that. But lately ... it's been quite slow. I think I might be going through a bit of a change.' I made soothing noises about the luck of the Irish - his grandfather was Irish, which explains the gorgeous genetic cocktail, and Wong's middle name is Fitzgerald - and this cheered him up. 'Jay Leno might ask me about the name. I'll say, 'Jay, I tell you, my mother was in love with John F. Kennedy.' That gets me into the whole American thing. But when I become famous, people will eventually refer to me just as Michael.' Ma laughed, silently, at this whereupon Wong, undaunted, leaned over to her and cried, 'She's so cute!'