More than just a pretty face: Hong Kong star Gregory Wong says actors must speak up on social issues

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 April, 2015, 1:46pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 April, 2015, 1:35pm

Rising Hong Kong film and television star Gregory Wong Chung-yiu believes that with great power comes great responsibility.

The actor, 36, says there is more to his job than stardom and the worship of fans. An actor, he says, must speak up about social issues.

“I always want to do work that reflects what’s going on around us, put a message out there. Actors have a responsibility … [we’re] not just pretty faces who go out, pose, and put our emotions out there for no reason at all,” he says.

That explains Wong’s choice of roles over the years. He has played a young man who introduces his friend to prostitution in mainland China in Due West: Our Sex Journey, an adaptation of a hit internet novel based on true stories.

Last year, he got his first taste of politics, playing the role of a chief executive election campaign manager in The Election, the controversial political drama set in 2022 that featured in the inauguration of Hong Kong Television Network’s internet television service.

WATCH: Gregory Wong: 'The Election is the drama that best represents Hong Kong'

Most recently, Wong plays the role of a newspaper reporter in HKTV’s hit series The Menu, which enters its final chapter this week. The acclaimed show, unlike the usual local television series aimed at housewives, has garnered much attention and debate, despite only being shown on the internet.

Plots revolving around under-the-table dealings among the media, politicians and society’s elite, threats to press freedom and violence against reporters echo real life events in Hong Kong today. The portrait of journalists struggling to uncover the truth for their readers not only allows viewers a glimpse of the cut-throat media world but has won praise from reporters who are glad their stories can be told on screen – albeit on the internet rather than TV.

“Each time I play a different character I always want to get acknowledgement from those in that certain industry,” says Wong, whose new film Imprisoned: Survival Guide for Rich and Prodigal is also based on a hit internet novel.

“I wanted to make it as compelling to the audience, and be as real as possible to those who are watching the show, especially the real reporters … or even politicians,” he says.

Is Wong surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response to the The Election and The Menu? “If you pick a good story and a good role, the role and the story will have their own voices and speak for themselves,” he says.

I had never seen Hong Kong so beautiful
Gregory Wong on Occupy Central

Wong’s performances in those hit HKTV series were important breakthroughs in his decade-long career. The Hong Kong native left Ying Wa College at the age of 14 for Britain to study at a boarding school. He came back when he was 23 after graduating from University College London, where he studied statistics, a subject he calls “typical” for Hong Kong Chinese students.

He landed acting opportunities with NHK in Japan and Taiwan, and a starring role in 2007 film Shanghai Baby, opposite actress Bai Ling. He then returned to Hong Kong in 2009 to develop his acting career.

The Election synced with the political atmosphere in Hong Kong when it debuted in November last year at the height of Occupy Central, as thousands of young pro-democracy protesters camped out in Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mongkok.

Wong’s controversial role in the show, in which he plays dirty tricks against his political enemies, earned him a great deal of attention. The actor also openly supported the protests that were dubbed the “Umbrella Movement”. A photo of him wearing a helmet standing among demonstrators went viral. He then became a household name among the young generation, earning him the nickname “boy god”.

“It was a historical moment … the biggest and longest protest [in Hong Kong] based on a local cause. It left a mark in people’s minds,” Wong says.

“I always strolled down Admiralty [during the protests]. I had never seen Hong Kong so beautiful,” he recalls. “The Umbrella Movement brought out the kindness and ugliness of people. [Protesters] slept in the streets, and had to endure violence conducted by people or forces we are supposed to trust. But there was kindness and trust [among protesters], some kind of a dying virtue of Chinese people.”

Politics has always been taboo in Hong Kong showbiz. Singers Anthony Wong Yiu-ming and Denise Ho Wan-see were high-profile members of the 79-day protest, but their action cost them their recording contracts, forcing them to go independent. The singers were also among a list of celebrities who were allegedly banned from mainland China for their support for Occupy.

That has not stopped Wong from being vocal about politics, despite him being “advised” not to talk too much.

“Why can’t we have our own thinking and voices on events in society?” asks the actor, citing George Clooney as one of many foreign celebrities who use their fame to draw attention to social and political issues.

“In the case of politics, it is fundamental human social interaction. When the political tension escalates, you can’t avoid it [because] it affects your everyday life.”

The right to television is one example. The government pulled the plug on beleaguered Asia Television’s free-to-air licence on April Fool’s Day, while granting a licence allowing PCCW’s Hong Kong Television Entertainment to operate via a fixed network. Some say this might launch the city’s television industry into a new era. But Wong has a different view.

There should be a vision – you want people to be bold, to speak their minds
Gregory Wong

“In Hong Kong, people are always given just the choice between set A and B: it’s either ParknShop or Wellcome; Watsons or Mannings; and TVB or ATV. People are not allowed a third option,” says Wong. “Now it is just an elimination of the old B and putting a new B there, but is it in the position to challenge TVB?”

Wong says the culture industry should connect with young people, and reflect reality and their voices.

“There should be a vision – you want people to be bold, to speak their minds. You want the young generation to be greater than us. If we don’t show them [a good example] or bow down, we are giving in,” he says.

“If not, we are isolating ourselves. They are our future.”