He left Singapore to further his acting career in China because he felt that local showbiz wasn’t offering him enough opportunities to shine. Now Lawrence Wong (not the Minister for National Development) has turned into a superstar in China with his supporting role as general Hai Lan Cha in the hugely popular period drama Story of Yanxi Palace.
Chinese television churns out soap operas about palace politics all the time, a genre perenially popular for all the nasty schemes that empresses and concubines cook up to tear each other down. But Yanxi seems to have struck a special chord with its audience and has become the single biggest hit in China this summer, having recently concluded its 70-episode run on the iQIYI platform with 15 billion total streams.
The Qing Dynasty drama, which also stars Hong Kong’s Charmaine Sheh and China’s Wu Jin Yan, is currently airing on cable television in Singapore, where it has gained an avid following. The show is also popular in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
The 30-year-old Wong, who is a Malaysia-born Singaporean, has set many hearts aflutter with his good looks and likeable character in Yanxi, who is the comic-relief foil to male lead Fucha Fuheng, played by Xu Kai. Wong told 8 Days magazine that he gets 5,000 pieces of fan mail a day through social media. His followers on China’s microblogging site Weibo have ballooned to 2.4 million, while his Instagram followers now number 232,000.
The bilingual actor broke onto Singapore TV with his first role on Channel U in 2009, starring with actress Julie Tan in the telemovie romance The Promise. He went on to act in several Channel 8 dramas – including 118 and Three Wishes – and also had a stint on Channel 5, playing a techno-villain opposite Pierre Png in action thriller series Zero Calling.
Wong, known to Channel 8 viewers as Wang Guan Yi, took his chances with the Chinese market when he got to know Chinese actress Qin Lan and signed on with her management agency Wow Star in 2016 (the 37-year-old is a partner in the firm). Qin Lan is coincidentally his co-star in Yanxi, playing the role of the kind Empress.
The two actors are on such good terms that there are rumours that they are dating – although their agency denies this and Wong declined to talk about his love life for our interview.
Wong told Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore that he still hopes to return to Singapore to act “if there is a good script and a right role”, but said he had to further his career elsewhere as the tiny local TV industry can be rather limiting for talents. (He previously said in an interview that his salary in China for one drama series was equivalent to what an actor makes in Singapore in two years!)
Story of Yanxi Palace is Wong’s second drama in China, after Love and Passion which is set to be aired later this year.
We caught up with Wong to get his thoughts on his new-found fame and what the differences between the China and Singapore TV industries are like:
Could you describe your character in Story of Yanxi Palace?
I play Hai Lan Cha who, historically, was an imperial guard of the Emperor during the Qing dynasty and who later on became a big general who won many war victories. For the drama, I play him more bubbly and more lovable, and he has high aspirations to fight for his country. He is a loyal friend, and a faithful lover.
How do you feel about the popularity of Yanxi?
It’s been crazy and unbelievable. I expected the series to do well but I didn’t expect it to do this well. Moreover, I didn’t expect my character to be this popular as well. I mean, he isn’t the typical cool-faced, expressionless handsome guy in the drama, but the goofy comedic character. Hence, I was really grateful my character is so well received.
How do you feel about suddenly becoming wildly popular in China? We hear that you get a ton of fan mail every day!
I honestly feel grateful and inspired to work harder and push harder.
What is the TV/film industry like in China?
It’s big and they have a huge spectrum of genres and projects, and that’s exciting for an actor because you feel like you have new challenges to bite on every day.
Actress Fiona Xie, who has a role in Crazy Rich Asians, recently wrote about being grateful for being cast in the Hollywood film after suffering setbacks in her Singapore career. As an actor who’s also left Singapore, do you think showbiz in Singapore restricts talent?
I guess Singapore is a small industry and we have only one TV station. Hence, a lot of talents, both in front of and off the screen, pass by unnoticed. That’s sad because we have so many talented people in the industry who perhaps have no avenues or opportunities to show what they can do.
Did you feel frustrated with your career in Singapore and why?
I felt frustrated at certain points of my career because I felt like I have so much to give and so much to show, but I wasn’t given the right opportunities to do it.
Will you ever return to Singapore to act?
Definitely! If there is a good script and a right role.
You’ve posted quite a few of your shirtless pictures online. Is that your way of rewarding your fans?
Honestly, if my memories don’t fail me, I only posted perhaps less than 10 shirtless photos throughout all these years. But I guess they have been so magnified that people got the impression that I have a lot. Gym-goers like to take shirtless photos of themselves as a means of checking their progress and I’m no different.
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