The Heavenly King

Aaron Kwok

In an exclusive interview with The Official Ferrari Magazine,Hong Kong’s superstar Aaron Kwok, one of the biggest names in the Chinese film industry and Cantopop singing sensation, talks about culture, his stellar career and his love of Ferrari

Estimated reading time: 13 minutes

For actor and singer Aaron Kwok, driving, and racing provide a sense of liberation, but also one of humility. ‘It gives me a joy like being with family, and also of being very free: you can go wherever you want, you control it, not the other way round,’ he explains. ‘Race car driving was my dream when I was younger, but when you really get to know racing, you then will see how difficult it is.’ A doyen of Hong Kong’s cinema and pop music industries, 46-year-old Kwok has enjoyed an illustrious career spanning two decades of ongoing cultural transition in Greater China. Chatting in a crisp afternoon in Hong Kong’s semitropical winter, amid the upscale residential beaches of Repulse Bay, Asia’s consummate entertainment professional prefers to eschew shoptalk to reference animatedly his amateur-racing career. Kwok’s first race was in Australia, on the Albert Park Circuit. ‘I spun three times, and got a warning flag, for danger. He particularly recalls the second time he raced, on the Macau circuit in the mid-1990s. ‘It was very upsetting. It was a supercar race, and the car in front of me, a Malay Ferrari, overheated. I drove through the explosion. The second car, behind me, a Porsche, crashed into it. I was very careful, but there was a lot of oil, and I was thinking, “Oh no!” It was unforgettable, the worst possible scenario.’

The experience prompted Kwok to undergo more formal training in racing, and did little to dampen his enthusiasm. ‘I liked cars from when I was little, as all boys do. Cars are more of a sentimental item to me. Back then, there was nothing much else to play with; we just had toy cars, puzzles, and toy bricks to play with. Puzzles are for quiet people – which I was not! Cars for me were a passion, and I dreamt of being a racer,’ he recounts. His first car, when he was about 20, was a secondhand Toyota Cobra that cost around HK$10,000. ‘I had no money,’ he laughs, ‘and it was cheap. But I always liked Ferrari,’ and as his star took off in the early 1990s, an extensive car collection soon followed, including a prized Enzo. Kwok’s fixation with Ferrari was founded with the F50. In the late 1990s, he reminisces, ‘I was inItaly to shoot an album cover, and I went to a Ferrari factory, where I first saw the F50. Later I saw a lao bobo [“old grandpa”] in Rome, maybe 60 or 70, driving one. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. I imagined myself being old, driving an F50, and owing an F50 became my dream.’ A year or two later, that model came out in Hong Kong, but the dealer only made it available to buyers with two other Ferraris, so he first got an F355 for racing and a F512M before the coveted F50, in bold red. ‘It was very traditional, at the time Ferraris were not so bespoke here, you just got them as they came. Even now, no matter how busy I am, I still want to drive my Ferraris,’ he continues. ‘I like the sound. No other car can compare, in the technology, and you can see its evolution. I came to know and own Ferraris fairly late, but from the 355 to the 512, you can see the difference between the V8 and V12 engines. For the past 10 years, every time Ferrari has new arrivals, I try to own one.’ His collection includes a 730, and a 16M. When the Enzo came out, ‘I thought, “Awesome!”… But in the new era, maybe there will be a super, super car; it is hard to beat the Enzo, but someday there will be the next Enzo.’

‘‘I had no money,’ he laughs, ‘and it was cheap. But I always liked Ferrari,’ and as his star took off in the early 1990s, an extensive car collection soon followed, including a prized Enzo’

Kwok identifies owning a Formula One car as ‘my ultimate dream’ but, he immediately adds, he is in no rush: ‘It provides a motivation to work hard, to pursue something and then get it – I don’t want it too soon, not yet.’ He hints that he will reward himself with one in four years, as a 50th birthday present. ‘Ferraris have to be driven: I am very lucky, to be able to drive [the Enzo and F50] before they became illegal.’ Roads in Hong Kong drive Britishstyle, with right-side drive, and the transportation department has outlawed left-side cars. ‘At the time you could get a test licence. Now you can’t drive them at all, which is a pity, but I hope it will become more open.’ Kwok nevertheless expresses his affection for Hong Kong’s famously winding and sometimes chaotic roads. ‘I grew up on the island side, and here on Repulse Bay Road it is very pretty. I live nearby and like to drive around here.’ However, his favourite driving spot is the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, ‘which is the most beautiful and safe road, and the environment is excellent, and near a yacht club.’ He raves about a recent visit to Ferrari World Abu Dhabi. ‘Also Italy, which has highways, paths and old roads through the mountains, which are amazing: with a GPS, you can drive your way through Italy, through its beautiful scenes.’ And then there are the races. ‘I’m big fan and a huge supporter of Ferrari F1,’ Kwok declares. ‘I like horses, and the horse logo: like horses they give me a sense of speed, power and are very elegant. The more I mature, the more I realise what I want, and what things inspire me, suit my taste and attract me.’ He admires the skill of the engineers and professional drivers. ‘When I was driving a racing car, all I could think about was how to handle it: it’s utterly different, driving on roads and on the track. You can drive very fast on the track but slow on the road, you have to – racers are all very safe drivers.’

Last year, to raise money for UNICEF through the Aaron Kwok International Fund, a charity he established in 2010, Kwok raced in the Pirelli Classification China races of the Ferrari Challenge Asia Pacific. ‘Every time I go to an F1 race, I get sponsored to earn money for charity. I like to transfer the feeling of racing to other things – it is doing what I love, while helping others.’ He placed fourth or fifth in each race, which he described as ‘OK: I am satisfied because all the other drivers were more experienced, so that was quite good.’ Aaron Kwok may play hard, but he works harder. The multifaceted entertainer’s career shows no more signs of slacking than his impressively age-defying physique – which he bares for adverts ubiquitous throughout Asia. Both are the results of the hard-driving discipline and dedication which Kwok is known for. He studied dance in 1984 at Hong Kong’s TVB, and was a back-up performer in music videos and live performances before continuing on to television bit parts in 1987. But it was 1990 when he broke out as a star in Taiwan, after making a television commercial for a Honda motorcycle. He recorded with Taiwan’s UFO Records three hit Mandarin albums including the hit Loving You Forever immediately after, before returning to Hong Kong and switching back to Cantonese, quickly catapulting to Cantopop stardom (pop music sung in Cantonese, the Chinese dialect native to Hong Kong and nearby Guangzhou) while cultivating an acting career. Kwok’s flashy dance moves channelled the American 1980s to Asian audiences, while the leather jackets and fast bikes of his music videos failed to counteract his sweet features and thesweeter lyrics of his syrupy pop tunes. Through the late 1990s, throughout the Chinese world, he was the nice, ideal boyfriend of millions of “tweenage” girls. Then, the unthreateningly baby-faced pretty boy next-door singer aged gracefully into a chiselled handsomeness with acting chops. It is as if Justin Beiber grew up and turned into Brad Pitt. Kwok’s popularity won him the title of one of the “Four Heavenly Kings” of Cantopop. Buoyed by an influx of refugees from the mainland, particularly former entertainment capital Shanghai, Cantonese film and music in Hong Kong flourished from the 1950s onwards. Its martial arts and triad films, such as Infernal Affairs, which Hollywood remade as The Departed, have become cult classics to Western audiences, while in Asia, Hong Kong’s romances, period dramas, and ballad-based pop music enjoy equal popularity. Cantonese is as distinct from the Mandarin spoken in most of mainland China as German is from English, but Hong Kong’s geographic and cultural proximity, combined with its status asAsia’s entertainment powerhouse, caused Cantopop to be the first global culture to trickle into the Mainland when it first began to open up, after 30 years of Maoism, in the late 1970s. Despite competition from the pop culture of Mandarinspeaking Taiwan, that early influence shaped tastes and continued Cantopop’s advantage, and it became a deluge in the 1990s leading up to and after the 1997 Handover, when Britain returned Hong Kong to Mainland governance. Prescient, or just lucky, Aaron Kwok happened to get his star-making big break in Taiwan, rather than his native Hong Kong, so his early songs came out in Mandarin instead of, or as well as, Cantonese, and he acquired the language back in an era when most other Cantopop stars shunned Mandarin- speaking Mainland fans as poor and backwards. The fans took note. Today, for Hong Kongers learning Mandarin has become de rigueur – to the point of controversy due to fears that Cantonese will vanish, and that Hong Kong film is becoming watered down to accommodate conservativeMainland censors. Mainlanders still admire Kwok for respecting them before the Mainland became such a tantalising market.

‘When the Enzo came out, ‘I thought, “Awesome!”… But in the new era, maybe there will be a super, super car; it is hard to beat the Enzo, but someday there will be the next Enzo.’

Talking in fluent, if accented, Mandarin, the ever-diplomatic Kwok plays down the shift, and his part in it: ‘Dialect is an important choice, and all Hong Kong stars have now learned Mandarin – they have to. The two places are now the same: they have their special features, but after the handover, we are all Chinese now. I hope to showcase our talent to all. Hong Kong is very small, with only eight million people, a third the size of Shanghai. But its film industry is strong, and now many Hong Kong investors want to cooperate with Mainland filmmakers, they all want the Mainland market. ‘It is a good thing, an opportunity to increase my popularity. In China it is the most developed time ever, and its film, people and standard of living are all improving. So Chinese cinema is having a golden era. People’s living standard is improving, so they can now appreciate films, everyone is online, you don’t have to travel to a place and stage concerts there to get more people to know you, for you to know your fans. The world is changing; everything is changing, in entertainment too.’ With the rise of the Mainland entertainment market, its own stars, and its own pop, rock and indie music, have emerged, even as Taiwan has made inroads against Hong Kong in the Mainland. Still, the stars of the prosperous colonial city-state turned Chinese territory continue to dominate the buses, billboards and marquees in the Mainland. ‘Hong Kong has its uniqueness, it is an unusual place,’ Kwok muses. ‘Small, but dense, and the competition is something fierce. All actors have to have their trademarks, and build their career. In the entertainment business, the actors and singers are all good, and many excel at both. It is not like the US, where performers do one or the other. In the Mainland it is also separated. But in Hong Kong a lot of us do everything. It is a good example, and also a Hong Kong speciality.’ Of Cantopop’s Heavenly Kings – the others are Leon Lai, Jacky Cheung and Andy Lau – only Kwok and Lau, also a versatile singer, dancer and actor who has courted the Mainland, retain the limelight. Kwok does so by regularly hitting the refresh button on his career, and his varied hats in a juggled rotation. This past December and January, he did the ambitious 2011 Aaron Kwok De Showy Masquerade World Tour Live, with 17 shows, each three hours of intensive dance – no doubts about how he stays in such good shape.
‘It showed a new seriousness, with 80 per cent of the songs fast ones, and a dance troupe,’ Kwok explains. ‘Every two or three years I do a new concert series. The past three years I have been doing more film, so it is a new shift in direction. From 1990 on, I was a singer, and I interact a lot with fans, so I don’t have to produce new songs for them to memorise.
‘I am an on-stage performer, you can’t tell what I’m about from CDs, I require a big stage and dancers. This tour was very well received, many of my friends spoke highly of it. These shows were my most mature yet in every way, and on the whole were shockingly magnificent.’
‘So, during the time I was doing those, I liked singing best. But before, I liked doing films best – I like whatever I am doing at the time,’ he explains. Previously, Kwok spent several years focusing on his film career, and shifting from the action roles of his youth to stretching his dramatic wings.
Successfully: in 2005 and 2006 he won best actor at the Golden Horse Awards, Taiwan’s highest film honour, respectively for Divergence and After This Our Exile. Kwok is only the second actor to receive two consecutive wins. ‘Acting allows me to become a different person, it is like having two breaths at once. It is more mature, and life enriching,’ he describes. ‘My entertainment career was for a long time 80 per cent singing, and 20 per cent acting. Since 2003, it changed over, and now it is half and half. With films, I prefer doing drama, because the singing is already too much action, and I like things that are more internal, emotional, and moving.’ ‘I think, in recent years, my work has become more mature,’ Kwok reflects. ‘It is a question of timing. Everything is. Just like you like different types of cars in different periods of your life. Work, acting skill, they are all a rhythm, all a timing, and all are perfect. From the beginning and up to now, it has all been about timing.
Success is a matter of timing.’

Published on The Official Ferrari Magazine 16

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