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LUNAR NEW YEAR: The Orientalists

Bull run in China

Globalised Singapore personalities share how they reconnect with their cultural heritage in myriad ways
29/01/2021 - 05:50

Lawrence Wong
Actor & entrepreneur

CHINA IS WHERE IT'S AT, as far as Lawrence Wong is concerned.

In 2016, the one-time bit actor packed his bags and left for the bright lights of Beijing. After years of playing extras on Singapore TV for S$40 a day, he was prepared to "starve and not find work" in China for months.

But, as luck would have it, he snagged a supporting role in the 70-episode historical drama Story Of Yanxi Palace. It drew 530 million viewers worldwide and became the most Googled television show on earth in 2018. It propelled Wong's star into the firmament faster and higher than he ever imagined. Now famous, Wong is seeing to it that his star stays there: He revved up his Instagram presence for his now over 352,000 followers.

He debuted new music videos – yes, he sings too. And he makes his own publicity videos for social media, meticulously lighting, shooting and editing them himself. He says: "China is a very, very competitive market, so I don't take my success for granted. If you think you're good-looking, there are many other guys better looking than you. If you're hungry, the next guy is hungrier, younger, more talented. China is huge and there are so many kinds of people… Why should anyone hire you, especially if you're a foreigner?"

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Wong is treading the path that other mega-successful Singapore entertainers have taken. Singers JJ Lin and Stefanie Sun worked very hard to earn fans in Taiwan and China. Actor Aaron Aziz didn't find huge success until he left for Malaysia. As with everything else in Singapore, its small population size can limit the potential of any kind of enterprise or career to scale up. 

The emergence of transnational streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, which provide high quality programmes for all demographics, has crippled national broadcasters and film industries across the world. Anyone trying to carve a career as an actor in Singapore alone would find it financially less rewarding now than it was before the advent of the Internet.

So, should every budding entertainer leave these shores for a bigger country? Wong phrases his reply carefully: "I have a lot of people coming up to me and asking me if they should go to China. And I hate to be a wet blanket and stop people from chasing their dreams – because I hate it when others stop me from pursuing mine.

"But you need to know your skill set, if your look is what the market is looking for, what kind of role or genre you fit in, if you're ready to put in the work… If I told you that it's easy and that you should definitely go to China, then I'm not accurately representing the picture. You have to look at yourself objectively and see how you can fit into the Chinese market."

WORKING DURING CNY

Beyond the glamour shots and lucrative endorsements, however, the work of a Chinese TV actor is genuinely gruelling. For his upcoming supernatural series The Ferryman: Legends of Nanyang shot in Malaysia for Chinese streaming service iQiyi, he plays a man who can communicate with ghosts. Throughout the shoot, he worked between 14 and 16 hours every day for four months, and was given only seven days off. "I fell sick multiple times," he says. 

Last year, he applied for leave from a shoot to see his family during Chinese New Year. The management granted him one-and-a-half days. "So I literally took a flight back to Malaysia, had dinner with my Dad, and then took a flight back to China to resume work." (Wong is Malaysian-born, but became a Singapore citizen a few years ago.) 

This year, because of the pandemic and Malaysia's quarantine rules, Wong doesn't think he can be with his family for Chinese New Year. He regrets this profoundly. He says: "When I talk to my Dad, I realise how much he's aged. I remind myself again and again that I need to spend more time with him."

His father is in his 70s, while his mother passed away in 2016. He recalls fondly, "When she was still alive, we would have really good steamboat for Chinese New Year. We would have extra good ingredients like huge prawn, scallops, abalone and all these things that you wouldn't have outside of the festive season.

"And then we would go outside and play with fireworks (which is legal in Malaysia) and Mom would join as well. The image of her lighting the fireworks with a joss stick and then running away and laughing – all these are really good memories that stick in my head and make me smile.

"Sometimes, when I'm having a bad day, or I'm not feeling too good, or I'm going home after work and I cannot sleep, I think of all these memories and they make me feel better."

He laughs as he relates how relatives and neighbours have become friendlier than usual since the success of Yanxi Palace: "For Chinese New Year 2019 and 2020, we had a lot more relatives coming over to our home. You can tell they are there because they're hoping to get a photograph with me. And I understand that, of course, and I'm happy to do that. But sometimes neighbours too would pop by to give food – neighbours you don't really know very well – and they're really there to get a photograph with you."

While Wong duly obliges in these instances, there are others that "cross the line". Last year, Wong gave up his Singapore condominium and purchased a landed property in an area he doesn't disclose. Nonetheless, some fans found out its location and have casually dropped by to "see see look look" while it's undergoing renovations.

An annoyed Wong took to his Instagram to rant: "I feel so, so violated… It's really rude to enter anyone's house without asking for the owner's permission, and, not to mention, that's trespassing and it's illegal. Please have some respect for others!" He's since installed CCTV cameras as a deterrent measure.

Still, the attention he draws in Singapore is nothing compared to the multiple stalkers and mobs he attracts in China. He says: "I can't really go out alone in China. I have to draw the curtains permanently at home and switch on the lights."

A self-professed introvert, Wong is clear about needing a lot of alone time. "I value my privacy very much," he says. But with his commercial engagements surging and his fans expecting a social media post all too frequently, the line between public and private has become hazy, he says.

BULLISH IN EVERY WAY

Most recently, he launched his own skincare brand – a move that many celebrities have made, from Rihanna and Kylie Jenner, to Cheryl Wee and Fan Bingbing. The difference, of course, is that most of these celebs are female.

Wong, whose glowing skin is the envy of many, has smartly launched a skincare line called Grail targeted at the busy individual who has little time for grooming. He describes it as a "holy grail beauty product that does it all", doing away with the multiple-step regime for achieving great skin.

Asked if he was vain as a teenager, he says: "I was very introverted, with thick glasses and curly hair. I was the perfect candidate for being bullied in school". But if Wong had been in the gutter then, he was always looking at the stars, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde.

He says: "I've always had an appreciation for beautiful things. It could be a sofa or a lamp, a building or a painting. I have an innate sense of appreciating beautiful design, and an eye for picking up things that other people would find beautiful too."

He envisions Grail, a brand he wholly owns, to someday expand beyond skincare into other lifestyle categories. He says: "Grail comes from ‘holy grail', which I interpret as all things that are necessary and good in life.

So it's not just about skincare, but also the little quirky things that make life so much better. I have so many ideas for the brand… and I hope to make them a reality."

Considering that he attained mainstream success just three years ago, he seems remarkably certain about the directions he's going career-wise – from creating his own lifestyle brand, to strategic engagements with fans on social media.

But tell that to him, and he offers a deeper perspective: "People say I lucked out with Yanxi Palace. But I think it's a little shallow to boil it down to luck. The truth is I've been struggling for the longest time. I started right at the bottom. And I'd spent years and years accumulating experience, working on my craft, overcoming obstacles and understanding the market... And these experiences, plus luck and timing, are what got me here."