THERE’S A SECRET TO LAWRENCE WONG’S SUCCESS, one that’s been imperceptible to some, though really it’s not very difficult to discern. It’s not his obvious, almost celestial good looks—those same good looks that have been discussed by much more famous people than you or I, much more publicly. It’s not his recent star turn in Story of Yanxi Palace, the most Googled show in the world last year—that was merely an indicator of his success, not a cause. It’s not just his talent, though he has that in abundance, and the world is only now waking up it. It’s one, essential, not very glamorous thing: it’s hard work.
Because Lawrence Wong is not new to this game, even if he is new to the legions of fans he now commands across China. (Of course, his Malaysian fans loved him before he was cool.) He’s been plying his trade for over a decade now, this Johor Bahru homeboy who hopped across the Causeway, won hearts there, and then moved on to China. Wong started with bit roles and hosting gigs, climbing the ladder with nothing but determination and sheer hard graft. You’ll know him from Singaporean Mediacorp television staples, supporting roles in rom-coms across the Causeway, maybe even from his 2017 debut album. But did he always know it would lead him here—ranked as one of China’s most influential artistes, a handful of awards, recognition on the streets and a clutch of prestigious fashion endorsements?
Coat and shirt by Gucci; Watch: Montblanc 1858 Geosphere Limited Edition.
“To be honest, I don’t really set an ultimate goal in my acting career,” Wong tells us. “I’m more of a process person, I don’t emphasise much on the destination. It’s the journey that counts.” This wasn’t a calculated chess game in which the final move was to break the Chinese market and win the girl. It was work. “For me, it is one job at a time, then move on to the next, to perform the best I can in every task assigned. It’s as simple as that!”
Then again, as calm and candid as Wong may seem, it’s no easy task to get inside the actor’s head. He doesn’t give much—if anything—away. His millions of followers on Weibo and Instagram know this; they swarm his photos with likes and emojis, broadcasting their appreciation for his very fine cheekbones, his ethereal complexion (SK-II? Weekly laser appointments? DM us, LW), and his extremely impressive sculpted six-pack, but it would take a master linguist to discern much from his captions. They are by turn cryptic and cautious (unless it’s #sponcon)—sakura in Singapore, ‘caption this’, sometimes just a single emoji.
Knitwear, trousers and boots all by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello; Watch: Montblanc 1858 Automatic; Accessories all by Montblanc.
That’s because the Malaysian-turned-Singaporean-turned-adopted-Chinese-star isn’t here to grub around in gossip or trade in tantalising trade secrets. Let others waste their time with that; he’s here to work. Wong has been flying between the three countries and more for years, often touching down in a city to work one night and then flying off to the next stop in the morning; eat, sleep, rinse, repeat. It’s back-breaking, soul-crushing work that only a young man could countenance (Wong turns a tender 31 this year). Who has the time to be crafting pretend-garrulous stories for Instagram? Of course he deals with it with admirable stoicism—and even if he didn’t, he wouldn’t tell you about it. Hopping between cities is part of the job, and one that he’s become very good at.
“I guess the challenges I have to face working in numerous environments is to adapt to the vast diversity of different market needs,” Wong says, ever diplomatic. “Whether it’s to familiarise myself with the local culture, different acting styles or even different languages to master.” And the disclaimer: “Nevertheless, I wouldn’t really call these the biggest challenges. I think it’s a prerequisite that an actor should be able to be agile in adaptation and resonate with it.” The boy’s a pro, alright, so no surprise that he models himself on the stars of generations past, veteran actors who were celebrated for more than just celebrity. “As the saying goes, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ I think for me to blend in, it’s just a form of respect for other people’s customs and practices. These are valuable experiences that serve as a good learning curve for me. And yeah, I guess I’m pretty good at finding my feet to manage all these challenges. I’m ready to expect the unexpected and to deal with any obstacles.”
THE MALAYSIAN TURNED SINGAPOREAN TURNED-ADOPTED CHINESE STAR ISN’T HERE TO GRUB AROUND IN GOSSIP OR TRADE IN TANTALISING TRADE SECRETS. LET OTHERS WASTE THEIR TIME WITH THAT; HE’S HERE TO WORK.
So what has been unexpected then? The wave of fan support for his Story of Yanxi Palace character Hai Lan Cha? (By the way, you can at least partly blame Wong for the unbelievable bubble tea frenzy that has taken over the region—when he made a special appearance at The Alley in China, screaming fans swarmed him from all angles.) He’s pretty serene about it. “If I were to say my personal life has not been affected because of my job as an actor, it would definitely be a lie,” Wong says. “Ultimately, I’m a public figure, I get noticed by people when I go out. Undoubtedly, as popularity grows, I have to make some changes in my personal life. Everything happens for a reason, it’s also a give-and-take situation, there’s no perfect job, you gain some and you lose some.”
Which is to say, a huge fanbase was never the goal. And Wong deals with it as pragmatically as he does everything else. “I don’t consider popularity a form of pressure that I have to deal with or think about,” he says, thoughtfully. “It’s not the core of my job, it’s a byproduct of my career growth. But of course as popularity grows, I do come across certain situations—sometimes it can be a pleasant surprise, sometimes it can be encouraging, sometimes it can be inconvenient. I’ll just deal with it as it happens.
Coat, knitwear and trousers all by Bottega Veneta; Watch: Montblanc 1858 Geosphere Limited Edition.
What about the instantly-scandalous celebrity criticism that leaked after Wong was chosen to replace the late Aloysius Pang in the lead role of new Singaporean television drama My One In A Million after Pang’s tragic passing? Ironically the situation—leaked screenshots of a text exchange between two actors that implied Wong only got the role because of his pretty boy looks—fuelled Wong’s most effusive Instagram caption in recent history. First came a characteristically cryptic ‘don’t be sour; catch up, if you can 😉🍇’ (and may we comment, a masterful use of the grape emoji). Then a surprise follow-up—a surprisingly poignant statement that showed just how far the Johor boy has come. He didn’t owe anyone an explanation, but he wasn’t going to turn the other cheek. “I’m proud of my whole journey as an actor,” he said, bitingly. “I made a lot of sacrifices. I ate a lot of shit to slowly become who I am today… no one wanted me. I was really at the bottom.” Started from the bottom. Now the whole team here.
Of course, it’s not Wong’s way to dwell on the negativity, and that spat was quickly smoothed over. Now in the months to come his face will shine out of every Singaporean television set (and a few more overseas), just as it presides over Chinese supermarkets, thanks to canny product endorsements, and fashion photos, everywhere. After all, it’s no longer enough to be simply talented or good-looking, or even both. This is an industry that demands its stars be intuitively stylish too, and that’s one place our boy shines. He wears a hoodie as well as he does a printed Cuban collar, with an ease that speaks to a pronounced comfort in his own skin.
"UNDOUBTEDLY, AS POPULARITY GROWS, I HAVE TO MAKE SOME CHANGES IN MY PERSONAL LIFE. EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON, IT’S ALSO A GIVE AND TAKE SITUATION, THERE’S NO PERFECT JOB, YOU GAIN SOME AND YOU LOSE SOME."
“I’m not very much into the most trending fashion,” Wong says. “I put more emphasis on my personal style as it’s a representation of my character. Generally, I think my personal style is quite simple and classic, minimalist with a touch of edge.” On set, wearing the new Montblanc 1858 Geosphere Limited Edition, Wong radiates calm. “At the end of the day, fashion is very subjective. It’s fun to experiment with but the most important thing is to embrace comfort and make sure you are confident with what you are wearing.”
And what does down-time look like for this frequent flyer, when he can get it? “I enjoy reading, I have a vast collection of different genres of books, from light reading like comics to more thought-provoking materials about life philosophy,” he says. “I’m also an animal lover. I enjoy spending time playing with my cats, going to the zoo—even though I’ve been so many times!” And, perhaps unsurprisingly for one who spends the majority of his time under studio lights or hurtling between concrete jungles, Wong is a lover of nature for its revitalising powers. “That’s undoubtedly one of the best remedies for me to rejuvenate and reconnect with my inner self,” he says. His love of nature is endearing in its simplicity—the very sight of green leaves has the power to calm him. “I like greenery. I’ll visit nurseries just to look at plants and flowers; I find it relaxing, it heals the soul.”
Coat, t-shirt, shorts, socks and sneakers all by Burberry; Watch: Montblanc 1858 Automatic Chronograph Limited Edition.
All of which has provided ample justification for our final statement: If anyone has earned a break, it’s Lawrence Wong. Twelve hours after stepping off his Esquire Malaysia cover shoot, he was back—can you guess?—on a plane, returning to a packed shooting schedule for multiple projects in multiple countries. Even so, the thought of not working is a distant one for now. And a life without travel? Unthinkable.
“I guess when I’m semi-retired I’ll stay in one place, take a back seat and be more relaxed,” he says. “To try and enjoy life more, besides work. But even if I’m not having to travel for work, I still want to be able to experience different cultures in different countries. The ideal situation for me would be to stay in London for two months, or Taiwan for a month and so forth—then go back home when I want to. To experience life in different countries. But I always believe that the most important thing is to try to enjoy the ride, live in the moment. Passion is my biggest push factor; it keeps me moving.”
Photogaphs by Chee Wei; styling & art direction by Ian Loh; stylist assisted by Sanjeeva Suresh; hair by Garrie Bob; grooming by KF Bong; On the lead image: Lawrence wears top and trousers both by Bernard Chandran; Watch: Montblanc 1858 Automatic Limited Edition.
This article was first published in Esquire Malaysia's Autumn 2019 issue. Download the digital edition here or grab the print copy at your nearrest bookstore.