Ben Wong On Poverty and Repaying Father’s Lifetime Gambling Debts
Note: The below article was originally published in Chinese in East Magazine’s December 2011 issue, days prior to Ben Wong winning the TVB Best Supporting Actor Award for his performance in “Lives of Omission.”
Portraying Charmaine Sheh’s (佘詩曼) reserved husband in When Heaven Burns <天與地>, Ben Wong (黃智賢) was actually quite talkative in real life. The 38-year-old often flashed bittersweet smiles. The only time Ben Wong truly smiled happily was when he heard that he was the hot favorite in winning the Best Supporting Actor Award at the TVB Anniversary Awards for his role as “Spicy Ginger” in Lives of Omission <潛行狙擊>.
Ben said excitedly, “I have confidence in winning the Best Supporting Actor Award! My role as ‘Spicy Ginger’ was often praised by the production crew and colleagues. When I read that netizens referred to me as an ‘actor with acting skill’ and said that I deserved the award, I was extremely happy! It is as if everyone worked together to give me the award! I have a soaring feeling! Perhaps it has been a long time since I heard so many praises me, thus I wish to savor this moment. I will be happier with this attitude. In the past, I often thought, ‘What is there to be happy about?’”
Ben’s childhood and the past few years have been extremely difficult. After listening to Ben’s story, the reporter thought about Hollywood movie, 50/50 in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt was diagnosed with cancer. In the film, it was said, “You can’t change your situation; the only thing you can change is how you choose to deal with it.”
Sometimes the situation was not clearly differentiated between heaven or hell. However, a person’s attitude will likely influence the outcome of one’s life. If you were Ben Wong, how would you face life?
Lacking Confidence As a Child
Ben Wong was born in a family of 9 children, in which he was the fourth son. Although his father owned a roast meats’ store, Mr. Wong’s gambling habits resulted in Ben lacking confidence as a child. Ben recollected, “My family was poor when I was growing up. All of my siblings had to take turns to help out at my father’s roast meats store, taking customer orders, clearing tables, and working as cashiers. All of us knew how to handle those duties!
“From primary through middle school, each morning I would go to the farm to kill chickens and ducks before going to school. My father’s roast meats store was situated very close to my school. After school, numerous classmates would watch me go to work at my father’s store. Even before I had a chance to take off my school uniform, I was working as a cashier.
“Afterward, I had to go grocery shopping to cook dinner! My friends attended school and social gatherings, in which I was unable to participate and unable to explain why I could not go. I always felt that my body reeked of a strong, stinky roast meat smell. From this alone, it was enough to make a primary school student lack confidence!
“At the time, I did not understand why there was never enough money at home….. When I was older, I found out that my father owed many gambling debts. There were numerous loan sharks who stormed into our house to collect the debts. One time, my family did not dare to even go to work at the roast meats store, while my father worked as a temporary security guard. Since my father could not open his shop, my mother brought home jeans to sew, working tirelessly to help out with finding money to pay the bills. She was very frugal to stretch the money we had.
“My father wanted his children to continue running the roast meats store. When he told us that, we did not want to follow his footsteps. We wanted to take destiny into our own hands!”
In order to quickly leave his chaotic family life, Ben decided to become a police officer at the age of 15. Dorming at a youth cadet school, Ben experienced a new life. “I had a new beginning in life at cadet school! Each of the trainees came from very different backgrounds and regions. Since everyone was strangers, I no longer possessed that insecure feeling. During my training years, I enjoyed living with the other students. After cadet school, I worked in the PTU.
“In my first week at the job, my elder brother said to me, ‘Since you have a government job, it will be easier to borrow money!’ It turned out that my father owed several millions (HKD) in debt at the time! I realized that my elder brother had been repaying my father’s gambling debts for a long time and truly wished that I begin lessening his burden. The debts totaled several million dollars and we are just normal citizens, earning several thousands (HKD) per month! You are telling me that there are several millions in debt? In my first job, why do I have to straddle myself with several millions in debt? I did not agree to pitch in for the debt repayments at the time.
“While I was working as a police officer for one to two years, TVB recruited for a ‘Youth Ambassador,’ upon which I applied for consideration. As a child watching television, I had always aspired to become an actor. Due to the family situation while growing up, I was unable to tell my father or siblings what my dreams were. When TVB offered me a job, I resigned from the Police department.”
Entering TVB marked a new beginning for Ben. Hosting a children’s variety program, Ben’s next assignment was portraying “Ah Hoi” in A Kindred Spirit <真情>. The character left a deep impression with viewers; from outward assessment, Ben appeared to have achieved glory.
“When I first entered the entertainment industry, I earned only $300 HKD per show appearance, with a monthly salary of $3,000 HKD. When I spent too much money, there was only $100 HKD left in my bank account at the end of the month, forcing me to ask my friends to transfer me several dozens of dollars to me. I always told myself that I do not have to explain to others what I ate for meals. Eating two buns each day can sustain me. As long as I have the energy and strength, then I can pass each day!
“After filming A Kindred Spirit, I had many show appearances, improving my financial situation. My base salary was meager; even coupled with my show earnings, I did not make a significant income. Since I needed to continue repaying my father’s gambling debts, my money disappeared quickly.
“At the time, a tabloid report regarding Leon Lai’s (黎明) wealth surfaced, upon which my elder brother asked me how much I earned in one month. In our family, I realized that we constantly stressed over money matters. However, I never considered that some people will waste money in such ways! Although ‘Ah Hoi’ was one of the central characters in A Kindred Spirit and the role improved my financial condition, I frequently asked myself, ‘What is there to be happy about? It’s not fame or fortune!’
“After A Kindred Spirit, TVB continued to cast me in roles which were limited by my ‘Ah Hoi’ image. Suddenly, TVB revised my contract terms, lowering my salary by $10,000 HKD! I asked myself, ‘What did I do wrong? Why do you have to treat me in this way? When my family need money the most, you reduce my salary by $10,000 HKD? Did I lose my value? I had many questions in my head.”
“Due to my dissatisfaction over my salary reduction, I left TVB. The first series I filmed afterward was Wai Ka Fai’s (韋家輝) Divine Retribution <世紀之戰>, featuring Sean Lau (劉青雲) and Adam Cheng (世紀之戰). From all accounts, it appeared as if I were improving myself.”
After leaving TVB in 1999, Ben filmed numerous dramas on a per series contract. Since the series were all broadcast on ATV, this lead to the common misunderstanding that Ben had worked for ATV. At that time, Ben got married with his girlfriend, whom he had dated for over ten years. Ben also became a Christian. However, returning to TVB in 2004, Ben felt another sense of failure.
“Upon my return to TVB, I only had one show per month, earning only several thousand dollars (HKD) per month. Sometimes, I only had cameo roles in 3 to 5 episodes. There was money if I accepted the job and no money if I refused. Even if I had filming projects this month, there was no guarantee as to how long it would take before the next job surfaced. I was living without any sense of security. Every month, I had to budget my expenses; after paying all my utility bills, I had to see how much money was left. Sometimes, before my paycheck was issued, the bills would come. I had to even borrow money from my former manager!
Refused to Pay Father’s Gambling Debts
“Regarding my father’s gambling debts, when my siblings and I reached near the completion of the repayment, my siblings and I felt that we did not have any responsibility in paying back the debts for my father anymore. There were some debts that we completely ignored. After chasing the repayments for some time, the loan sharks gave up. My siblings and I felt that the person who had borrowed the money should repay it back!
“That period of my life was when I felt was the most challenging. The global Chinese communities recognize me as ‘Ah Hoi’ from A Kindred Spirit and I was the lead in Legend: Dream Called Desire <美麗傳說>, although the ratings were in the single digits. I possess ability and experience, however, why did I have to start all over upon my return to TVB? It turned out that I cannot ask why; I can only work hard while biting back my teeth without any complaints. I can only prove to others my capabilities. If you are satisfied with my performance, you can use me again and I will greatly appreciate it!
“Returning to TVB, I floated for 6 to 7 years in this manner. It was not until the role of ‘Spicy Ginger’ in Lives of Omission that I had a memorable role. Perhaps it was indeed such a rare opportunity that I told myself to live in the moment and to enjoy it!”
When asked if he hated his father due to his gambling debts, Ben replied, “I can say that I no longer possess any anger or hatred. My tolerance level increased after my newfound Christian beliefs. Perhaps he had a gambling habit because he wanted to earn more money for the family? He lost money due to his bad luck. Or perhaps he needed to use gambling to numb out his stress? My father had to earn money to feed 10 people in the family. His education level was not high and he possessed a lot of stress. He was human after all and possessed weaknesses.”
Despite his tolerance level increasing, Ben was still annoyed by other people addressing him incorrectly as, “Wong Yin Chi 王賢誌 (Vinci)” instead of “Wong Chi Yin 黃智賢,” Ben said, “Both our Chinese names are our real names; thus we will not be changing them! Fortunately, Vinci’s hosting image is deeply ingrained in the audience’s mind, while I film more television dramas.” Ben smiled bitterly, while stating seriously, “Actually, I do mind! My name is my brand! If the brand were stated incorrectly, do you mind? Remembering a person’s name is a form of respect! For people in the industry, you can see whether they are professional or not. If you put your mind to it, you can remember the proper name! For example, if you continue to refer to me as ‘Ah Hoi,’ I would not like it either; that implies that I have not improved all these years!
If it turned out that people did in fact confuse his name with Wong Yin Chin, then the best remedy was to simply call him Ben.
Source: East Magazine
Jayne: While my family had little financial resources in our early years in the United States, we never starved. We did not have trouble paying our bills. We did not live paycheck to paycheck. Although we had to weigh every purchase we made, we never lived on two buns a day alone (poor Ben). Thanks to my parents, I never experienced true hunger.
However, I can understand Ben’s childhood, where money was indeed a constant, daily pressing matter and needed for basic survival. The very practical means that money serve and how family relationships can ride on money and cause endless arguments and tense emotions. How lack of money to afford the most basic things can make you insecure for life. How money continues to be that fleeting thing you continually chase; how it can make or break you, where you attach more meaning to your personal happiness than you should. Growing up under such circumstances, a child grows old before his time, as the very practical lessons in life are learned early. Add in the constant presence of loan sharks who threatened Ben’s personal safety and indeed there is very little to feel secure about in life.
After winning the Best Supporting Actor, hopefully Ben’s situation will improve, where he will be able to save more money each month and build that security he lacked for many years.