O father, where art thou?
THIS YEAR LOOKS set to be a watershed for award-winning actor and musician Anthony Wong Chau-sang. Not just because he has a new album, Bad Taste, released next week but because he hopes this will be the year he finally traces his long-lost father.
The main catalyst for change is Wong's realisation that, after 20 years, the film industry is no longer his preferred medium. Wong's still working in movies and will be seen next alongside Jackie Chan in the US$35 million (HK$273 million) Highbinders, currently in production. But family and music are the top priorities now for the man whose portrayal of a cold-blooded murderer in the 1993 film Untold Story earned him the title of best actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards the following year.
Looking back over his film career, Wong admits not every movie he has made was a winner and that he took many inferior roles simply to pay the bills. 'Many of the films I have been in were low-budget productions [The Story Of Prostitute, Return To Dark],' Wong says. 'Some scripts were terrible. But I had no choice. I had to do it for the sake of my family.'
Wong has often been cast as an angry man, a gangster or thug. In real life, he hardly seems easygoing and admits he has lived under the shadow of an unhappy childhood. Born to a British father and a Chinese mother in Hong Kong in 1961, he says his father abandoned them soon after he was born. 'The father's name in my birth certificate was left blank. I only inherited my mother's surname,' he says, bitterly. 'I had nobody when I was young. I had no friends, no good teachers, nothing except a good mother - maybe because I'm an Eurasian and in those days mixed-blood kids were seen as aliens by both local Chinese and Westerners.'
His mother brought him up on her meagre earnings from singing Cantonese opera. From an early age, he knew academic work would take second place to earning a living so he left school to help his mother out financially.
'I was not good at studying at all,' he says. 'When I finished primary school I was already 15 [the usual age is 12]. Then I did a bit of secondary school to fill the time until I was 16 and could work legally.'
He did many odd jobs, working as a delivery boy and office assistant, until he joined the ATV acting class at the age of 21. This change of direction brought him recognition and money. His family life now is a far cry from what he endured growing up. Home is a spacious rented apartment in Tai Hang. His two small sons, aged five and three, suffer none of his privations, and he and his wife Jane look forward to supporting them through international schools. 'I'm very jealous of them,' he says, 'because they know how great it is to have a father.'
He is adamant he will never abandon his children the way his father left him. Wong met his father only a couple of times when he was very young. He knows his father worked for the Hong Kong Government until leaving for Australia in the 1980s. His mother hasn't been in contact since then and Wong can't help but wonder where he is.
He says, half-jokingly: 'I know it is not right using an interview as a missing-persons advertisement, but if anybody has any idea of where my father, Frederick William Perry, is, please let me know.'
Wong's mother has told him of two older half-brothers and a half-sister fathered by Perry before his birth, but he hasn't met them and has no idea of their whereabouts. 'It would be very interesting to meet them,' he says. 'I wonder whether we look alike.'
Wong's new album has been a long time coming. His second LP, Underdog Rock, came out in 1996, following his solo debut the previous year. He finds the music production process absorbing and enjoyable. 'I'm more suited to work on my own than with a big bunch of people,' he says. 'I've always been passionate about music. I have been listening to rock'n'roll since I was a teenager.'
Bad Taste has been a particularly satisfying project, he says, because it has finally established his style, though he's at a loss to describe what that is. Featuring a mixture of old and new songs, covers and originals, many well-known local musicians have helped out, including Anthony Wong Yiu-ming, Paul Wong Koon-chung, LMF's drummer Davy Chan Hong-wing, Joannes Lam Kin-wah and Clayton Cheung Kai-tim, former members of Black Box, and Edmund Leung, former guitarist of indie band Huh!?
His favourite song on the album is Coincidence, produced by Wong Yiu-ming. It is an old tune, originally sung by Chan Chau-ha. In fact, the lyrics are a poem by a famous modern Chinese poet, Hsu Chih-mo. 'It was very difficult to sing because the melody twists a lot. I kept trying for four hours, but it wasn't good enough and had to be edited in the end. But I have figured out how to master this song.'
Wong also pens his own material. The one currently gaining radio exposure is Jobless 40-Year-Old, which he has dedicated to Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. 'Many people are in serious debt because of the negative equity. They have no choice - these people cannot escape from it,' Wong says.
In style, the song is reminiscent of the catchy Sam Hui Koon-kit tunes of the 1970s and 80s. Wong admits that Hui was one of his main childhood influences, along with Kiss, the Sex Pistols and Bob Dylan. With inspiration coming from such irreverent sources, it's no wonder Wong includes bad language in his songs. Forget the recent furore over local hip-hop group LMF's foul-mouthed lyrics, Wong was singing songs with colourful language long before them.
'Foul words are an important element in Cantonese. It is a grassroots language, but it is expressive and captures the emotions if it is used appropriately. Banning this language is a kind of suppression,' Wong says. 'OK, say you run into someone you know very well then you say f*** to them. It isn't meant to be rude but a familiar way of saying hi. Or f*** can be a simple word to express your anger.'
Wong is one of many independent musicians to produce their own albums in the past year, joining the ranks of indie bands the Pancakes and Uncle Joe. 'The music industry is hopeless,' he complains. 'Big record companies won't help us produce the music we like. All they want is money, and singers are merely models. They are just sex symbols. They provide their fans with fantasy and their CDs merely provide background sound while they drool over their idols.'
In spite of his desire to focus on music, Wong will remain an actor, having been a professional since 1982. After his ATV stint, he attended the Academy for Performing Arts for three years and then joined Television Broadcast (TVB). In 1991, he graduated to the big screen, making films such as An Eternal Combat and Casino Raiders II. Family business and music permitting, he still wants to fit in some acting this year, but preferably in the theatre. 'Every play is a literary work. The relationship between each theatre cast member is so intimate and that helps to bring out good performances. That does not exist in the same way in the movie world,' Wong says.
He will not refuse a decent movie if something suitable comes along, though he has become a little disenchanted with the local film industry. Working with Western crews on Highbinders has made him aware of the shortcomings of their local counterparts.
'[Western crews] are absolutely professional. From costume fitting to make-up, they pay attention to every detail,' Wong says. 'My character has to look like a British gentleman and they made sure I had precisely the right hat to put on. In Hong Kong, I think the crew would have just given me any old straw hat. Their lack of attention to detail shows they have no respect for my profession or the audience.'