The night before the interview, I made myself finish reading the play Equus as a last-minute brush-up. Not that I was planning to ask Anthony Wong Chau-sang any questions directly related to his upcoming performance, debut production of his theatre company Dionysus Contemporary Theatre, in which he plays Martin Dysart, the psychiatrist.
I always read the original text of an English play before going to its Cantonese rendition, though I could have left Equus a bit later (still two weeks before I’d see it). But I’d feel a little more secure, if only to get a feel of the many monologues Wong has been studying. Perhaps it’s also the least token of respect I could manage for an actor who is able to go off book by the first rehearsal session.
And just in case. I didn’t want to add up to his negative impression of local reporters, even though I am reluctant to consider myself as one. In fact, I am representing just myself in this interview, rather than any publications as I used to. Thanks to the liaison of Cecilia Ng Kit-yan, veteran theatre actress and teacher, one of Wong’s close working partners and a friend (and former interviewee) of mine, I got a positive reply for my interview request in less than an hour. She must have put in a good word for me.
My apprehension might seem unnecessary. But you never know. It’s Wong Chau-sang.
And it’s my stupid questions. Chances were he’d either love them or be repulsed by them. I was somewhat prepared that the interview might halt anytime he sensed anything idiotic. I imagined idiocy is worse than bad film scripts, which he has learnt to live with and surpass in his nearly 30 years of acting career, despite his loathing. His eye for the mediocre cannot be underestimated.
The thought of interviewing him would have come earlier if Wong weren’t a star— a fact both of us wish to deny, probably for the same reason. However, lately he has been as visible off-screen, being the Chairman for the Alumni Association of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA) and the Representative of Drama for the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and making stage appearances. He goes to see theatre productions too. Though when invited to be the guest for the Hong Kong Drama Awards (whose credibility has been under debate), he didn’t care to dress up or tone down his attitude. He is always seen wearing a cap.
Visible but not quite approachable. Little do I know when and why this on-screen villain has gradually built up to a real-life image as a quick-tempered, disagreeable man in me and many people. (It isn’t a very good idea either to visit, before the interview, his Facebook page, where his blunt opinions on current affairs receive equally impertinent responses from haters.)
Two weeks earlier, I attended Theatre du Pif’s sharing session. Wong and Fredric Mao Chun-Fai, his teacher at HKAPA— Wong is one of the first-batch graduates— were the guest speakers. Talking to his mentor, Wong was at ease and friendly, though not exactly humble. His earnest views on the theatre were expressed insouciantly. The way he said ‘thank you’, after Mao had complimented him on his knowledge in Chinese culture, was almost childlike. He wasn’t wearing a cap that day.
Maybe I could try interviewing Wong Chau-sang, I thought that day.
In fact, I've learnt about Wong far earlier than that in a semi-personal way. So, even before the interview became reality, I had already known how I was going to start the write-up (as appears in the opening paragraphs in the original Chinese version of this interview):
“One day during a lesson with my private English expat tutor at a rather unassuming learning centre in Hong Kong, she told me that Anthony Wong Chau-sang had been her student. And a hard-working one. I was also told a little classroom episode that took place just after the release of the crime thriller The Untold Story (or more graphically as ‘Human Meat Buns’ in its Chinese title), in which Wong plays the serial killer: fellow students flinched at the sight of Wong the moment he entered the classroom.
These anecdotes have been kept inconspicuously in my mind for more than ten years. I couldn’t recall my feelings at the time. It’d probably be something like, “Ah, that Wong Chau-sang in ‘Human Meat Buns’ is a hard-working English learner as well.” (All along in my impression, Wong isn’t really a mixed race person. Perhaps it’s an unspoken sense of Hong Kongness he inspires. That’s why I didn’t question why a British-Chinese needed to learn English.) Only recently have I learnt that Wong didn’t speak English in his childhood.
Incidentally, he received his very first Best Actor award from the Hong Kong Film Awards for his performance in The Untold Story (1993). A film I was too faint-hearted to watch. I still am.”
30 April 2014, around 11:30 am
Wong Chau-sang smiles at me when we meet. He takes the trouble to fetch a chair with better back support for me. Yet, my apprehension hasn’t dissipated accordingly. He is wearing a cap today.
Like many of my interviewees, Wong shows interest in my bulky, unusual-looking recorder. On the other side of the rehearsal studio, the cast of Equus is stretching. Wong talks in a voice softer than usual.
Before the recording begins, I tell Wong that my questions are different from those in other interviews (I purposely avoid the sensitive word ‘stupid’).
“Really?” he retorts. After one second of thought, I reply, “yes.”
winnie chau (w) anthony wong (a)
notes on translation: The interview’s original version is written verbatim in Cantonese. The following English translation is done as closely to the Cantonese wordings as possible, without compromising English grammar (too much).
1. If you could retrieve one thing from the past, what would that be?
a: [thinks in silence for 10 seconds] My mum’s health.
2. Do you think your character can be reflected in the way you dress?
a: [one second later] Think so.
w: You think so. Why?
a: [seven seconds later] ‘Why it can’ or ‘why I think it can’?
w: Er.. [quickly distinguishes the difference while quietly appreciating her interviewee’s sensibility]
a: [voice still soft] Two different things— ‘why it can’ and ‘why I think it can’ are two different things.
w: ‘Why do you think it can’.
a: [immediately] ‘Cos I’m sensitive.
w: You’re sensitive.
a: I’m sensitive.
a: I’m aware of there’s some... aware that it can, that’s why.
w: Then, could you give an example? Say the colours, or the style?
a: For example some people wearing leather jackets have no idea why they’re wearing them. You got to give some thought to it to understand why you wear a leather jacket, how you wear it and why you look good in it. This isn’t something you can master in a short period of time. It’s long-term practice.
a: And in fact, in fact the way you dress is itself a message. This applies to everyone. Actually this applies to everyone. Just that… just that they don’t do it consciously.
a: Actually, you can see it. The design or colour you’ve chosen or how you match has something to do with your character, as well as your state of mind that day and your attitude.
a: Which means, Tsang Chun-wah (the Financial Secretary of Hong Kong) wouldn’t wear [a T-shirt with the face of Che] Guevara.
3. If you were to fight in a MMA match, who would you like to be your opponent?
a: What is MMA?
w: Mixed Martial Arts. Which is—
a: [to the staff member near us] That thing my son… That thing my son does…
w: (Actor) Cheung Ka-fai—
a: That thing my son does… You roll around on the floor.
w: It’s what Cheung Ka-fai does in (sports drama film) Unbeatable—
a: That thing my son does, that is… Brazilian jiu-jitsu that sort of thing. You roll around on the floor and grapple each other. That thing, isn’t it?
w: Right. It’s mixed with boxing.
a: Yes, it takes in all sorts of things.
w: Right, right.
a: Yet mostly about rolling around on the floor really. Like what I did in fights when I was young.
w: Yes… [chuckles]
a: Which opponent?
a: Where can I possibly find an opponent?
w: What if you could choose one?
a: [a bit reluctant] Where can I possibly find an opponent… choose one… how do I pick, [is that person] still alive, or not?
w: Could be someone not in this world.
a: [brief pause] How can I possibly fight these days… how can I possibly fight… futile, such a question. There isn’t even space for imagination.
w: [chuckles] None really?
a: Not even space for imagination. How can the fight be possible? I’ve tried these things, so I know it. You can’t even imagine it. You can’t suppose there could be such an option— whoever I choose I’d be beaten.
a: Even if it’s my son, I can’t win.
4. What do you think politics is?
a: [raises his head slightly. deep in thought. 18 seconds later] Economics, military affairs and policies— that’s politics. Three things combined. It’s related to these three things. [brief pause] There’re the broad sense and the narrow sense. What is being said here is the broad sense, not the narrow one. Many think, say, how to… parenting is politics too— that’s not what [I’m] trying to say.
w: Hm, hm.
a: [sips a mouthful of coffee] So actually most of what Hong Kongers are concerning isn’t politics. The issues that many are sensitive to nowadays aren’t related to politics. [brief silence before continues in his soft voice] If you aren’t convinced, go pick up a book on political science. [brief pause] There’re actually many notions about [the concept] of politics in political science. I just summarised… summarised the many different given ideas out there, which are after all concerning these few aspects.
5. Why do you think most foul language is related to sex?
a: [turns his head to the opposite side in silent thought for 8 seconds and, without warning, turns to winnie] Ah, very different indeed— your questions, eh? [winnie can’t make sense quick enough of this seemingly sarcastic remark to tell if he is annoyed. Her anxiety emerges but soon she hears…] Okay, quite interesting. Each [question] is a topic for a book. [Wong gives a friendly smile. winnie smiles too, though a little embarrassed] Which means, they’re something that can’t be discussed in a few words. [Each of them] is a subject matter. [continues thinking]
w: Or have you ever thought about this or wondered about the reason yourself?
a: ‘Most foul language is related to sex’. Because sex is a taboo. And sex is able to be highly offensive. [brief pause] Highly offensive and it’s something full of vitality.
6. Has there been a moment in your life you really wanted to hide in a hole?
a: [immediately] Aw, a lot! [winnie chuckles] Not just having [that thought], done it too.
a: Always hiding in a hole. Hiding in the fridge; hiding in the closet; hiding under the bed; covering myself with a blanket. Too many [examples]. And going up the hill alone.
w: What was your state of mind in those moments, driving you to do that?
a: I don’t like this civilised world. And I hate the outside… loathe the outside world. Makes me very uncomfortable, this world.
w: What do you dislike about this world?
a: Oh too many things! How can I list them all.
w: What about now?
a: Dislike people’s… narrow… points of view.
a: Too many things really! Just at random… see the pollutions, noises, people’s hypocrisy, ignorance, slaughter and wastefulness. Hey anything you can write really!
w: Then, you don’t want to face—
a: [suddenly recalls] Forgetting human nature. [corrects himself right away] Well, can’t really say that. Human nature is like that. Since right from the start human beings, our species… is like that fundamentally.
a: [We are] fundamentally homicidal animals. [We are] fundamentally cruel and homicidal animals. This is our nature.
w: Er, just now you said you’d hide in places like the fridge. Was it a time when you were small?
a: Yes. Nowadays too: I don’t go out. I seldom go out.
7. What was your first memory of your life like?
w: Which means, at the very very beginning, the first—
a: [interrupts] How can I recall if it’s the very beginning? Very muddled. How can I recall if it’s the very beginning? You’ve many childhood memories, but you can't tell which is the very first. What is ‘very first’?
w: Then could you give one—
a: [puts down his coffee, continues] Memories are muddled up. Very often, memories are inserted. As days pass, you basically can’t recall. It’s only when others tell you about them, you think you can remember. When you understand the unreliability of memory, you can’t trust your memory. [brief pause] Some memories have been edited.
8. Do you consider yourself an artist?
a: Claiming yourself ‘an artist’ is as mawkish as calling yourself handsome. [winnie chuckles] ‘Artist’ shouldn’t be something self-proclaimed, should it? Arts worker— I'd say that's what I’m doing. [drinks coffee] ‘家’** essentially means having already developed a branch or school [of knowledge/ skills]. You possess something unique in yourself—that’s what ‘家’ refers to. Not those with so-called ‘artistic temperament’, pretending to be cool! Those people. Deceitful. [They’re] merely impostors.
w: Then, in Hong Kong’s theatre, who do you consider artists?
a: Mao Sir (Fredric Mao Chun-Fai); Chung King-fai; Lee Chun-chow; Ho Wai-lung. [pause] And many more, not only these.
** (‘Artist’ in Chinese is ‘藝術家’. ‘家’ can be used as a suffix equivalent to ‘-ist’ in English. Standing alone, the word means ‘home’, ‘family’ or ‘branch’.)
9. What do you think is good art?
a: [in silent thought and unwittingly keeping his body still. 10 seconds later] ‘Good art’? First of all, it has to possess unique creativity. Besides, it can make people think. [brief pause] If it can also make changes in people’s way of living, then it’s good art. [brief pause] Those so-called ‘the true, the good and the beautiful’, those clichés, are outmoded.
10. What is good acting?
a: [in silent thought for 21 seconds] Accurately express what you wish to express. Acting is an ability to express. It doesn’t really have to be a faithful interpretation of the text.
w: Hm, hm.
a: Acting is like [being] an interpreter of fortune-telling bamboo sticks (oracles). [The interpretation] doesn’t necessary have to be exactly what the stick refers to, but [as the interpreter,] you are able to convince the enquirer of what you’re saying. What’s more, you have your own understanding and are able to express it. [concretely] Messenger. An actor is a messenger.
w: Is such understanding the actor’s own, or the director’s…
a: Eh both, both. This is a collective form of arts. It’s not just something an actor can achieve by himself.
11. A question you want to ask yourself — even if you can’t answer it, or no one else can.
a: [after 3 seconds, in calm voice] Why am I here? [pauses briefly before pointing his index finger skywards] Only He can answer that.
w: Who is ‘He’?
a: 大能 (daai nang, almighty) [brief pause] which can also be called ‘dao’. He has many names.
w: Could you pick a number from 1 to 62?
w: 13, just a moment. [looks up the 13th question from ‘Stupid Question of the Day’ on her website]
12. If you could only have one photo of yourself taken in your lifetime, what you would want it to be?
a: ‘How would it be like’?
a: What does that mean…
w: [A photo] with yourself in it. A photo of yourself taken by others. One that has your face in it. How would you like it to be then?
a: [two seconds later] Smiling an imbecilic smile. That’s it.
w: Really? [can’t help giggling at Wong’s verbal and facial expressions]
a: Smiling an imbecilic smile, very happily. The photo attached to the front of a hearse (a portrait for one’s funeral). A black-and-white photo attached to the front of a hearse. Smiling an imbecilic smile, facing death happily, facing your life happily.
13. Er… do you have a question for me?
a: [regards winnie for a few seconds] Why is the way you dress so… eccentric? See your head [indicates winnie’s hairstyle] is like that, but you dress like this. So big a contrast, why?
w: You think it's a big contrast?
a: Yes. You don’t think so? [before winnie manages to reply ‘no’, he continues] I think other than the [hairstyle], it looks so graceful… graceful to this point. No difference from a primary school teacher or a kindergarten teacher really. But the same can’t be said about your [hairstyle]. It’s like a parrot… a parrot’s tail. [winnie chuckles]
w: Because… [this] could reflect my character: you can’t guess what I’m like.
a: Huh, I guess you are… wild at heart, that type of person. [winnie chuckles] On the surface, it seems… perhaps it's your background, family or education that makes you the way you are. And, and I think you don’t have much confidence in yourself. [winnie nods slightly and smiles] You haven’t worked out what’s loveable, interesting about yourself. In fact, you can be very interesting.
w: [softly] Is that so?
a: You can be extremely loveable. Because, in this world, not many people possess something so genuine and simple/pure.
a: But you have it. Just that perhaps other people think… you think other people don’t like that. Or, you haven’t met someone who appreciates that. So you’re a little lost and have such a striking look. [emphatically] Very strong. Not just to a small extent. But strikingly so.
a: Some people are mildly so. Despite the fact that they have [an eccentric look]… they aren’t exactly aware of it. Things just manifest in a mild manner.
w: Hm, hm, hm.
a: But yours is very strong. You’ve already become attentive to your own world.
a: But you haven’t sorted out the threads of thought. Hence your look.
w: Is that so? But to me, it's not very striking. Say for example my hairstyle is like this…
a: No. [I mean it’s] your perception towards yourself that is striking. You are very sensitive yourself! You are sensitive to yourself!
w: Ah. Right, right, right..
a: [I’m] not talking about your look being striking.
w: Right, right, right.
a: It’s that you’re already highly sensitive to the things about yourself. [You’ve] already perceived many things inside, many… it’s like [demonstrate with hand movements] lava of many colours transmuting, turning, twisting and transforming inside. [You] don’t know how to merge them. [You’re] yet to clarify what these things are exactly.
a: So this manifests in the way you dress.
w: Hm. Er… is that so? I don’t know for certain.
a: You’re fond of thinking, aren’t you?
w: Yes, I’m fond of thinking. Also, I think the way one dresses… The reason why I asked you that is because I quite strongly insist on wearing clothes that represent myself. Or else… What I mean is, why wear clothes that you don’t like? Yet when you’re wearing them, it means people are under the impression that you like them. But then actually you don’t like them, so… yea.
a: Not liking them— you can tell.
w: Huh, is that possible?
a: Yes! If he doesn’t like what he is wearing, you can tell he doesn’t like it.
w: I see.
a: Not everyone likes what they’re wearing. Some people just mindlessly put different things on. You can tell his character still. You can see he is slovenly. You get an idea of his state.
w: Right, right, right. [conscious that both have said what they want to say, or simply because she is still a little nervous, thus hastily she says] That’s all of my questions. Thanks.
The moment I press the stop button I realise our conversation has only lasted 20 minutes and 21 seconds.
And Wong Chau-sang has said to me something that only my close friends would.
I haven’t told you the white floral print navy blue dress I was wearing is a second-hand vintage piece that cost me just eighty Hong Kong dollars (though it looks ten times more expensive). I bought it not just for its price and design, but also the fact that it’s virtually the one and only piece in the world. There won’t be outfit clashes. The black Mary Jane flats I wear are actually those worn by old ladies pushing dim sum carts in an old-style Chinese teahouse. I love them and when the current pair is worn-out, I go and buy a new pair of more or less the same style. As for my hair, I actually like its original colour (black). But I also wanted to try dyeing it so as to look less ordinary and dull. So, I have it done only at the lower part at the back. The blue I've chosen is an uncommon shade. The dye has to be blended and the resultant colour fades quickly. Once, I went to a different salon to re-dye but they failed to reproduce that particular blue. My hair went purple. I was extremely annoyed.
I also haven’t told you about my increasing disappointment with the local theatre.
But I’ve regained some confidence and hope after seeing your company’s revival of Equus.
I don’t know if readers will be convinced that the man I saw at the after-show gathering was you:
That man, still in his cap, blushed when lovingly teased by the cast and crew. That man who said “Every creation/ invention in this world is brought about by humans’ dreams” and “We are all Don Quixote”. That man animatedly telling stories he’d thought up. That man who could answer questions on topics from cookery, acupuncture points to philosophy (including my stupidest question: What’s the meaning of life?). That man who encouraged an aspiring young writer. That man keen to learn extinct and endangered languages. That man mesmerised by the actor in a black-and-white Cantonese old film replayed on TV after midnight. That man who brought home the leftovers as his meals the next day.
What you do off-stage takes more than good acting to pull off.
P.S. I still think caps aren’t your favourite item of clothing.
P.P.S. I think it’s really cool when you showed me, after hearing my stupidest question, what you’ve written with a marker pen on the side of your right boot:
‘Je pense donc je suis’ (I think, therefore I am)
If I saw these words on another person's boot, I'd probably call him pretentious.
But not you.
13 Stupid Questions for Actor Anthony Wong Chau-sang 黃秋生
Anthony Wong Chau-sang (birth name: Anthony Perry), highly regarded Hong Kong actor whose prolific works include English-language films The Painted Veil and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
interview date: 30 Apr 2014 中文版
Sorry, I should have informed my interviewee of the shoot in advance. But I was curious to know how he'd dress without dressing up... Before the shoot, Wong said, "I'm in a shabby outfit today."