Michael Wong Doesn't Like Being Called a Gweilo
The veteran actor may be Eurasian, but he’s known as the “stereotypical gweilo” of local cinema. He keeps his Hong Kong roots close to his heart, and talks about the language barrier, his showbiz career and his passion for the sky. Photo: Kirk Kenny / studiozag.com
I’ve been in Hong Kong since 1983. My brother and I were invited by Cinema City, the hot production company at the time. There weren’t that many Asian actors in Hollywood in the early 80s, unless Marlon Brando decided to play an Asian. [Film producer] Nansun Shi was the one who found my brother Russell’s picture in the only Hollywood agency at that time that handled Asian actors. Russell said he had five brothers, and a few of them wanted in as well. We met, and a month later we were on a plane to Hong Kong.
My father came from Shandong province [in northeast China]. He moved to Hong Kong, and from there went to America, seduced by the American dream. He met a gal there—my mother, whose family is French Canadian. My roots are in Hong Kong, but most people don’t realize that, because I’ve been known as “the gweilo from abroad.” It was a bit of a culture shock when I first came here.
I speak poor Cantonese and have never tried to improve it because language is just not my passion. More now than ever it bothers me. I kick myself because I would be able to speak Mandarin and Cantonese if I put any effort into it. I’m sure if you spent six months on building a foundation in a language, anyone could do it. It’s just like the piano—I’ve been trying to learn the piano for a decade, it’s just a matter of discipline. I lack discipline, unless it’s something I’m really passionate about.
A lot of directors and people in our industry ask if I’m improving [my language]—they want to hire me but they know the problem they’re gonna have on the set. That’s definitely affected that part of my life in the entertainment business. Maybe I should just go back to Shandong, stay there for a year and not speak a word of English.
I do identify myself as a Hongkonger. I’m more patriotic about Hong Kong and China than for the U.S. I’ve no identification with what’s going on there. I’m sure that, even though they haven’t mentioned it, kids in school refer to my daughters as “gwei mui.” I recently took them to visit their great-grandparents’ graves. It’s important to me to let them know where their family’s from, why they have the last name “Wong.” Regardless of what the world tells them: [Their roots] belong to them. As a father, it’s important for me to pass this to my children.
I’ve been called a gweilo pretty much every day for the past 33 years. Do I like it? No, not necessarily. I don’t think anybody likes it—it is a racial comment no matter how you say it. In the US, if a white guy calls a black guy a “n*gger,” there’s some deeper-rooted nastiness to it.
“My most famous movie line is ‘Don’t call me gweilo.’”
They banned the word [“gweilo”] on TV in Hong Kong. I remember going on many shows where Eric Tsang would say “hey, gweilo!”—That was my name. They changed that, which I think was the correct thing to do. My most famous movie line is “Don’t call me gweilo” [in 1994’s “The Final Option”]. That’s haunted me for the rest of my life, because it’s still one of the strongest characters I’ve played. I can’t shake it. Maybe the Asian Gods played a joke on me with that.
[My wife Janet Ma and I] have been married 24 years. [My family] looks perfect, but we’re no different from any other family. We have our struggles, and each individual has their own issues or shortcomings. When I heard about Kayla [referring to his daughter’s homosexuality], it just seemed so odd that she had to “come out.” Come out to where? People don’t go and say “Hi, I’m a black man.” Maybe it will take another 50 years before people don’t talk about that term as a thing. She’s my daughter, whether she’s with a man or a woman.
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It may look like I’m doing a lot of different things [launching a whisky collection; collaborating with fashion brands and so on], but when you look at it, I’m building a brand, an intellectual property. The brand name “MW Michael Wong” is a registered trademark. It’s nothing new; we’re all branded somehow. On the branding side, it just seemed the natural thing to do. I’ve endorsed so many brands over the years as an ambassador—why not spend some effort to promote my own brand?
Aviation is a passion of mine. During my ambassadorship with Omega in 1998, I got to meet Gene Cernan, the Apollo 17 astronaut and the last man on the moon. I was hooked. When I got back, I told my wife I was going to Canada. I went to Toronto and stayed there for three months to fly every day. I built up 80 hours of flight time. I then went to a school in the US, studied there and got my PPL [private pilot license].
It was my dream to work for Sir Michael Kadoorie’s company, Heliservices. It took me nearly a decade and a half, and at the end of last year I started working for them. It didn’t come easy. It’s a tough industry to get into. It’s challenging and you’re responsible for people’s lives.