Wong Cho-lam: From Small-Time TV Host to Variety Superstar
It was a long climb to overnight success for Wong Cho-lam (王祖藍). The 36-year-old Hong Kong entertainer, who is now one of China’s most sought-after variety superstars, worked behind-the-scenes for many years before he was asked to face the camera for a children’s TV show.
“I studied performance at The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts,” said Cho-lam as he recalled the years prior to his onscreen debut. “I started voice acting when I was 17.”
Cho-lam, who had some years of voice acting experience for radio dramas during his time with the HKAPA, shared that he was actually the Cantonese voice actor for Takeshi Kaneshiro (金城武) in 2004’s House of Flying Daggers <十面埋伏> and Jay Chou (周杰倫) in 2008’s Kung Fu Dunk <功夫灌籃>.
“I didn’t want to tell anyone that because that would just ruin the picture! How can you imagine Takeshi Kaneshiro’s face with my voice? It’s horrible!”
Peking Opera Enthusiast
Cho-lam found his love for singing and opera when he turned 18. While participating in a Hong Kong performance festival, he was introduced to King Lear. Cho-lam was immediately drawn to the male lead and the play itself, which was a Peking opera adaptation of the Shakespeare tragedy. “I’ve never seen such a thing before. Our culture is seriously so diverse and deep.”
He took a leave from school and went to Beijing, where he met the 90-year-old Peking opera Dan master, Yu Yuheng (于玉蘅). While studying under Teacher Yu, Cho-lam had the privilege to become acquainted with Mei Lanfang’s (梅蘭芳) son, Mei Baojiu (梅葆玖). “I still have the photo I took with Teacher Mei,” he said.
Cho-lam loved Peking opera so much he was close to quitting his education at the HKAPA so he could continue his lessons with Teacher Yu. However, the untimely death of his father in 2002 brought Cho-lam back to reality. Unable to afford his lessons, Cho-lam returned to Hong Kong and joined TVB.
Early Struggles at TVB
Cho-lam’s early years with TVB was confusing and chaotic, but it nonetheless trained him to be an adaptable and efficient artist. Originally a small-time TV host for children shows, Cho-lam’s flexible voice acting caught the attention of director Patrick Kong (葉念琛), who casted him in the movie Marriage With a Fool <獨家試愛> in 2005. In 2006, TVB transferred Cho-lam to the acting department, and he made a small appearance in Glittering Days <東方之珠> as Roger Kwok’s (郭晉安) singer.
Cho-lam earned his first major role in the 2007 sitcom, Off Pedder <畢打自己人>. His popularity spiked in 2010 when he hosted Fun with Liza and Gods <荃加福祿壽>, a variety show featuring the main hosts doing various impersonations. The series was so successful it spawned several sequel series, including a television drama and a film. Before he could actually begin to process its impact, Cho-lam was already receiving pages after pages of casting offers. Everyone in Hong Kong was beginning to know who Wong Cho-lam was.
But being popularity did not make his life any easier. “If I never had that experience, I probably wouldn’t be around today,” said Cho-lam. “During those days, I had to come up with my own ideas myself. One new idea every week. Clothes, hairstyle, makeup… I had to manage everything myself. Sometimes, I even have to do the video editing myself. If I wanted to get famous celebrities on my show, I had to call them personally. I literally didn’t have time to do anything else.”
His endless list of projects to do practically gave him no time for himself. The money was piling before his eyes, but it was at the expense of his health. “There was one time when I didn’t sleep for three days and three nights. I trained myself to sleep like a guerrilla warrior.”
Every passing minute was precious. Cho-lam said he would always use that five minute break in between takes to sleep. He would use his lunch time for a 30-minute power nap. He could even fall asleep while sitting in an uncomfortable position during a long car ride.
Overnight Stardom in Mainland China
A single performance in a popular Chinese variety show made Cho-lam one of the fastest-rising stars in the Chinese entertainment industry. In 2012, Cho-lam became a regular guest in the Mainland Chinese variety show, Your Face Sounds Familiar <百變大咖秀>. Cho-lam found instant fame overnight after his impersonation of Huluwa from the Chinese animation Calabash Brothers <葫蘆兄弟> went viral in 2013. Since then, Cho-lam has become a familiar face across many Chinese variety platforms.
After leaving TVB management in 2015, Cho-lam signed with TVB’s partner, Shaw Brothers, and started his own personal studio to produce his own works. While his days at TVB were tiring, his days now as a boss are “mentally exhausting.”
“I can’t not do well,” said Cho-lam. “As a boss, not only do I have to take care of myself, I also have to take care of others. If I have no jobs, what would happen to them [his staff]? I am a very disorganized person. I wouldn’t exist without them.”
“I Just Want To Grow Up With You”
Among the general public, it is believed that variety stars do not work as hard as film or television actors, due to the shorter schedules and lucrative pay. Cho-lam insisted that doing variety is not as easy as it looks.
“What we do on these shows stem from years and years of experience,” he said. “The scene I shot today isn’t something that I just came up with today. A single performance takes weeks to plan and years to master.”
As someone who has closely followed the entertainment industry since a young age, Cho-lam was pleasantly surprised to see how much the idol culture has changed over the last three decades.
“When we were younger, we treated the celebrities as people who have halos above their heads. But nowadays, celebrities are expected to interact with fans more frequently and closely, such as through social media. There are pros and cons to this. While this makes the celebrities more approachable, it’s also harder for idols to achieve that Leslie Cheung (張國榮) aura.”
What kind of celebrity does Cho-lam want to be?
“I just want to be someone who has grown up with you. Someone who gives no bad influences. Someone who can suffer happiness and hardships with you.”
This article is written by Addy for JayneStars.com.