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Saturday, April 22, 2006

Michael Tong: A Survivor In The Entertainment Industry

Michael Tong Man Lung started out in the industry as a singer at Capital Records at the same time Eason Chan Yik Shun and Miriam Yeung Chin Wah joined the company. Eason and Miriam have now become top selling singers with established movie careers as well.

After his music career fizzled, Michael turned to the movie industry at the same time Ekin Cheng and Louis Koo Tin Lok attained fame playing in gangster movies.

Michael then joined TVB at the same time Moses Chan Ho signed TVB. Moses is now a top leading actor at TVB, while Michael is still playing supporting roles.

Ten years have passed since Michael has joined the industry, but at least he is a survivor. In this Ming Pao interview, Michael spoke about growing up in the United States, his earlier struggles, and the time he had to borrow money from Raymond Cho Wing Lim in order to pay rent.

In 2006,
Michael decided to leave TVB and turn to mainland China. "Biter Bitten" is Michael's last series with TVB. At first Michael considered signing with a Taiwanese production company. But he filmed a television drama in Shanghai earlier and discovered the mainland market had greater potential, so he changed his mind.

Michael said, "In the coming months, I will be staying in Shanghai. I will meet with some friends and see if there are opportunities for cooperation." Heading to China on his own, the first thing that Michael has to do is not refine his Mandarin skills, but rather increase his alcohol tolerance. "In China, people often drink alcohol to show their friendship. They don't like to drink beer, but prefer wine spirits. Their drinking capacity can not be underestimated."

At TVB, keeping good relations with management is quite simple. It may involve having dinner with Ms. Lok Yi Ling or saying Lunar New Year greetings to Sir Run Run Shaw. In the world outside of TVB, Michael is not sure how things operate, how to keep good relations with the right people. But to make the right connections, he has to down 3 glasses of wine first.

"One time I went drinking with a 'boss' in China. There were 24 shot glasses placed in front of us. We played drinking games and if you win, you still have to drink one shot glass. If you lose you have to drink double. In the final round, the bet was waged to drinking 8-10 shot glasses of Whiskey in one shot. I got so drunk that I vomitted. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable night, but if you bring a 'work attitude' with you while hanging out with the 'boss,' then you won't enjoy it."

Did Not See Showgirls In China
"We only went to sing at a karaoke bar. There was no strip show. It's hard to explain. When you go to China, it is impossible to avoid the night spots when you hang out. If the 'boss' wants to celebrate, you can't expect us to go to libraries or museums. I don't want to pretend to be innocent-minded."

Whether tabloid readers believe the rumors or not is not important, as long as Michael's girlfriend believes him. Michael and his girlfriend have been dating for 3-4 years and have long established mutual trust. Since his girlfriend was formerly a flight attendant, they had to endure long periods of separation. Tabloids wrote that Michael will be getting married this year, but he only said, "I have not made achievements in my career yet, how can I consider other things?"

Michael worked at TVB for many years without a lot of fame and leading opportunities. He didn't make significant income until last year, when he filmed a 40 episode series in Taiwan, as well as a series in Shanghai. Michael is now in a cheerful mood more than before. "In fact, I have no grievances about my past experience at TVB. I can only blame myself for not knowing how to self-promote myself; that's 100% my fault."

Growing Up in the USA
When Michael filmed "Biter Bitten" in Panyu, tabloids took photos of Michael and Benny Chan Ho Man attending a strip show and bringing the girls up to their rooms afterwards.

Michael grew up in sunny California in the United States. After graduating from university, he returned to Hong Kong. In his spare time, Michael is usually lifting weights or relaxing at home.

In his acting roles, Michael often plays rough, uneducated characters, which is a far cry from his cultivated background. In his junior high school years, he emigrated to San Franciso, USA. At the University of California (Davis campus), he graduated with a degree in textile design. After graduation, Michael worked in fashion design in women's apparel for half a year in the United States. Later he went back to Hong Kong and worked as a designer for 2 years before entering the industry. "At first I worked at San Po Kong and Mong Kok, then later I found a fashion designer position at a Japanese company, which was a good job."

Although Michael has left the fashion industry for a decade now, he has not given up hope in the design industry. He hopes to save enough money to open up his own fashion business one day. "Over the past few years, if I wanted to return to the fashion industry, it wouldn't have been a difficult move as I still have connections. I still retained the skills I learned as a fashion designer. But I do not want to abandon the entertainment industry yet. In the future, if I come across the right opportunity, I would like to open an apparel factory in China."

In 2003, Michael had collaborated with a friend who owns an eyeglass factory. Michael had designed some clothes for the collection. Although the clothes were already made, SARS struck. The overall plan was dropped, but the designs were sold to a company in Europe. After this incident, he has not given up hope. "When I film in China in the coming months, I will pay attention to the domestic apparel market."

Borrowing Money from Raymond Cho to Pay Rent
Michael has an optimistic American spirit and despite his past failings, he is still unafraid of future challenges. In the past, Michael suffered many setbacks and even had to borrow money from Raymond Cho Wing Lim in order to pay for his rent. But Michael is still full of goals and vision in the industry.

Twelve years ago, when Michael first entered the industry as a singer, he underwent many hardships at Capital Records. Within 3 years, there were management changes 4 times. As a result, Michael was "deported" to Taiwan. In 2 years, Michael released 3 albums. Due to his attractive outer appearance, his first album in Taiwan sold 100,000 copies.

"There were certain times in which I was not happy when I was a singer. The company's offices in Taiwan and Hong Kong would compete for the same artists. For example when I was filming Aaron Kwok Fu Sing's 浪漫風暴 (Romantic Turmoil) in Hong Kong, the Taiwan office has not done LP publicity. Halfway through the filming in HK, the Taiwanese team flew me back to Taiwan because they knew that the HK team would not let me go back before my filming was completed. I was only one person, but I didn't dare voice my opinions in the competitive fight between the Hong Kong and Taiwan offices. I was very tired as a result of all the internal struggles within the company."

Michael was busy for only a short time. After his idol-image lost novelty in Taiwan, he returned to Hong Kong. Michael's manager said he/she didn't have time to help Michael with managing his career, so Michael had a lot of idle time on his hands.

"There were still 2 years left on my contract. But I couldn't ask openly for them to give work for me to do. Since I had free time, I worked at a bank and only earned a few hundred dollars. Raymond Cho Wing Lim helped me pay rent for 2 months. He even lent me money to buy lunch. I first met Raymond when we were filming the movie 現代古惑仔; he was my elder brother."

"I have been lucky since I don't have to provide money to feed my family. My parents have a comfortable living. So this is my debt to them. If I have to support the family, I would not have been able to be become an actor [with the unstable income]."

Almost Appeared Nude Onscreen
When Michael was suffering through tough financial times, many producers contacted him to appear in movies, revealing his butt onscreen. But Michael stuck to his principles and refused to do so for money.

"If Yang Fan, Stanley Kwan, Ang Lee or a renown director required me to jump off a mountain into the water nude, I would not mind. If the film is for artistic merit, I might try."

When director Stanley Kwan filmed "Hold You Tight," he was looking to cast a male actor in full frontal nudity opposite Chingmy Yau Suk Ching. Stanley considered Michael for the role at the time, but in the end Sunny Chan Kam Hung was cast instead. Michael said, "He [Sunny] revealed himself for artistic merit. If there is a right opportunity, I wouldn't mind doing so either."

In Michael's memory, he only filmed 3 [lower-quality] films in order to help out on his financial needs. "Nam Yin movies saved my life [by offering me income at the time]. I can't say they are very good productions, but I wouldn't say my work was a sacrifice at the time."

The reporter asked if any rich ladies have offered to "take care" of Michael? Michael immediately changed the topic, "No. Are we almost done with the interview; it's almost time to go?"

Epilogue: See You Next Time
The reporter felt that throughout the interview,
Michael's communication skills are quite blunt. Perhaps aside from his alcohol tolerance, there is more room for improvement required in other areas.

Michael seems to have regarded this Ming Pao interview as his farewell to the Hong Kong audience. At the outset, he said politely, "Thank you for giving me the opportunity to do a Ming Pao interview. Unfortunately once I have the opportunity, I will no longer be at TVB." Michael shook hands with the photographer and said to the reporter, "See you, man. Take care."

[X] credit: Jayne @
Ming Pao #1951


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