Everything changed in Hong Kong after 1997, actor Anthony Wong laments
Anthony Wong says it’s time he shut up – but not before taking another shot at the state of Hong Kong’s film industry, the lack of democracy, racism and ‘stupid’ teachers
Outspoken actor Anthony Wong Chau-sang claims he is becoming more reclusive and careful with his words.
After several decades as one of the most recognisable Hong Kong actors in the film industry, the 55-year-old is these days focusing on his stage career through his role as co-artistic director of Dionysus Contemporary Theatre company.
Born to an English father, who abandoned him when he was young, and a Cantonese mother, he is one of the most prominent graduates of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA) and has starred in more than 100 films and television shows. He won the Hong Kong film award for best actor in 1994 for his portrayal of a sadistic serial killer and pork bun maker in the horror film The Eight Immortals Restaurant: The Untold Story (1993).
He spoke to City Weekend about being typecast, learning to cook Chinese food and Hong Kong’s lack of democracy.
When you look back on your career, which professional project are you most proud of? And which would you most like to forget?
I’m never proud of anything. It is only a job. You only do your best every time. I like Ip Man: The Final Fight (2013). I spent one year to study the characters and kung fu in the style of wing chun [a form of martial art].
But I don’t think it is what I’m most recognised for. The box office was no good. I got nothing. Every time I’ve liked something, I’ve gained nothing. For example, The Eight Immortals Restaurant: The Untold Story (1993), I hate that movie. And it gave me a lot [Wong won best actor for the role at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 1994]. I don’t like the script, I don’t like the character. It is selling violence, blood and sex.
Back then, you signed the contract first, then when they wanted to make the film, sometimes you would get the script and sometimes not. It was based on a true story, it was very simple. They changed it a lot in the set; even the rape scene, they made it again. The boss thought it was not violent enough.
You have said you struggled to get work you wanted despite winning best actor for Untold Story – why do you think this was?
[The film] was crap. People liked it; but just because a movie is popular, it doesn’t mean it is good. Drugs are popular. In Hong Kong movies, I was typecast, so I don’t have many choices. I had to do it for a living. That was why I liked Ip Man. I thought it had more cultural relevance.
I had a lot of projects after Untold Story, but they were the same characters, like killers.
I was cast in The Mission (1999) and I did like that; it was commercial but cool. The picture of that one always come to my dreams in these few years. I would get flashbacks, because I’m going to change my life and my career. I think it signifies a new start; that’s why the picture keeps coming back to me.
You are moving more into theatre; why do you want to do that?
Yes, what can I do? I have been shut out [of film]. Before that, I started my company. Four or five years ago, I worked with someone who graduated from HKAPA after me. The whole thing sucked. We called someone to help. I spoke to my classmates. We said why don’t we start a new company together? Because being on the stage, in the theatre, that’s my dream. We started and we had one production each year. After one year, I was shut out [of film]. I had more time to work on it.
At the very beginning, the goal is to translate the script because I think the script is good, and they have already had some success. So it is easy to put on the market. Now we are thinking about having our own script.
In my life, I always follow the path. If something happens, I have to do it. I don’t think too much. But if you enjoy it, you have to do it, and if you don’t, you have to do it also. Why not make yourself happier to just do it?
I like stage and I love to act on stage. It is challenging and intelligent. After your performance you have got something. You study the script; the language, character and everything. Every time it is a learning process. It is not like films, especially Hong Kong films the scripts are normally terrible.
I like that feeling of having a live audience. And having a process where we are all working together.
What do you think of the current state of the Hong Kong film industry?
At the moment, it is finished. When you say Hong Kong film industry, that means Hong Kong investment and Hong Kong people make it, Hong Kong actors, just like in the early 1990s. But now they have gone to the China market, so they have to censor the script, control the story, so more of the artists are from China.
Does that make you sad?
C’est la vie; that’s normal. We are always out to go forward. The past is dead, so you have to move forward, that’s just the society. After 1997, the government changed and the political environment changed, everything changed, the film market changed.
Before we had Thailand, we had Asia, the whole Asia market, and now we have less and less. At the end, it is gone, so now we only have the China market. There is no money to be made in Hong Kong films, you will only get HK$3 million or HK$4 million, it’s a very small budget.
Before we had a lot of styles; kung fu, drama, comedy, we could say anything that we liked, mocking people. There was no limit. But now that’s gone. In Hong Kong in our society, we are sensitive, I don’t know what happened.
And what do you think about films like 10 Years, which was banned in mainland China?
I haven’t watched it yet but I bought it. If it had been released before 1997, then it might have been a sign of optimism, but it’s only a film. It was only put on for two or three weeks and nobody will talk about it again. It is not worth to put so much effort just to look at it. It is only a movie, no matter if it is good or not good. It’s too much effort to ban it even; but nowadays we are too sensitive.
Hong Kong is preparing for its next chief executive to be selected; what do you think of the candidates competing for the position and how would you characterise the state of Hong Kong democracy?
Democracy? We don’t have a say. Well before, people used to say “Anybody but CY Leung”, and now they are actually saying “Anybody by CY Leung”. Are you satisfied? They gave you anybody but him. I think it may be better than before, no matter who goes on.
But I can see the influence from mainland China increasingly. It makes me feel like I should shut up, do my job, grab some money and then go. Every generation has a job to do. If I was in my 20s or 30s, maybe I would do something more. But now I’m too heavy to run, to fight, even to think. I did my best.
Do you imagine you will retire in Hong Kong?
I have to take care of my mum here for the moment. Her health is not very good. But the good thing is that my children are not in Hong Kong; they are in Canada and the USA. They don’t like Hong Kong either. The education system is better over there.
I went to primary school here and did a couple of years in secondary school, then went to APA, but I couldn’t speak English fluently until I went to the UK for one year and studied acting and I started to talk. I found out that my classmates from everywhere were worse than me.
I didn’t enjoy school in Hong Kong; a lot of teachers are stupid. They were conservative. They wouldn’t like the little boy to do this and do that, they want him to sit still. Children are always running around and screaming, it is normal.
You also said you suffered professionally after voicing support for the Umbrella movement – do
you regret this?
I don’t regret it; I did my best. It was not a revolution. I just never agreed with using violence to get what you want; I don’t think the police used the right method, they just made it worse. I was not in Hong Kong at the time, I was working in mainland China. But for some reason I could use Facebook, so some people transferred my writing to Weibo. After that, I was shut out for three years.
So now I will go back to my shell. I will enjoy my life. If not necessary, I won’t talk; I won’t say anything. I’m trying to change my language and my lifestyle. I have to go to Lan Kwai Fong and meet some new friends, change my hair. I never thought I was so important.
You’ve said that in the past you’ve faced some discrimination in Hong Kong for being Eurasian. How would you characterise that?
I used to, yes, but not any more, because I’m not really doing movies. In Hong Kong movies, someone with very clear features and who is strong would be cast as the bad guy. But if you are short, fat and baby-faced, 40-something, then you will be a good guy.
Do you consider racism to be an ongoing problem in Hong Kong society?
Race is always a problem in Hong Kong. 100 years ago, Indians and Pakistanis came here, and people called them cha – “police” – they never get into the majority in society. They are always silent. After that, the Filipinos and Indonesians came. They are not slaves but they are treated like lower than us. Even Chinese and Chinese are fighting with each other.
In a movie, you never have anyone from a minority can be cast as a leading role, after all these years. They are part of our society; they build up Hong Kong. I’m potentially working on a small-budget film which has a Filipino woman as my romantic partner, and I hope we use a real Filipino actress.