Cover Story: Aaron Kwok on fame, contentment, and family
By: Zaneta Cheng
February 5, 2024
The Cantopop legend needs no introduction but 40 years into his hugely successful career, he shares with Zaneta Cheng what fame means to him, how he keeps pushing himself to do better and why these days he’s more content than ever before
It’s always said, especially these days, that real superstars are built of different stuff. If this is true, then such is the mettle that dancer-singer-actor Aaron Kwok is made of. Often referred to as one of the Four Heavenly Kings of Cantopop, Kwok is known for his onstage dancing, inspired by the man he calls his #legend, Michael Jackson.
Known also as the King of Dance, Kwok joined TVB’s dancer training course in 1984 at age 19 and would go on to transfer into the acting department of the talent training programme at the local television station in 1987 and later appear in TV series. It wasn’t until 1990 when Kwok did a TV commercial for a Honda motorcycle in Taiwan that he became a heartthrob for girls across the Taiwan archipelago.
With his star having shot up overnight, Kwok began a musical career, launching three Mandopop albums consecutively with Loving You Forever becoming an instant hit. Along with his dancer training, the pop star was a lethal combination of flair and talent. As his star shot ever higher, his popularity spreading across Asia, Kwok also picked up his first awards, the 1991 Jade Solid Gold Top 10 and 1991 RTHK Top 10 Gold Songs Award. Soon, Kwok went on to collaborate with the likes of Janet Jackson and Ricky Martin, becoming the international gold standard for Cantopop stardom.
Having achieved so many accolades in the four decades since he started on his path to pop stardom, Kwok holds them as a barometer for his life’s work. “Regardless of music or film, I’ve received a lot of important awards and I think that’s proof that my hard work and effort across all these years as a singer or actor has been acknowledged,” he says when we meet in his dressing room.
“From a professional perspective, I received acknowledgement from peers in my profession. For example, the Hong Kong Film Awards and the Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan – as both an actor and a singer, these are awards that carry a lot of weight and winning these awards are, I feel, a recognition of all my years of effort and my achievements.” Side note: Kwok is only the second actor in the history of the Golden Horse Awards to have won Best Actor for two years in a row, just behind Jackie Chan.
Kwok’s efforts are incredible even to this day. During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Kwok was one of two iconic performers in Hong Kong to stage freely broadcasted concerts for the city. In the height of summer, Kwok, at that point 56, danced and sang for over an hour without so much as taking a gasp for air, performing number after number of classic hits from his repertoire. The star attributes it to his years of discipline, which sees him still sporting youthful looks and an equally youthful six pack.
“You have to have good discipline. You have to push yourself to put in the work and self-regulate so that you have the physical wellness to face the challenges you might encounter in your workplace,” the star says. “This is the kind of preparation you have to do for yourself. But mentally, you also have to be open to accepting new realities to enrich your life. This has been important for my career but I don’t think it’s limited to my industry. It’s important to have a goal.”
Even at 58, Kwok continues to strive. Just last year, he staged a series of concerts called the “Amazing Dream Live on Stage” at Studio in Macau where the stage, costumes and set were tailored especially for the concert residency. At the same time, he kicked off a tour that would take him to cities around the world for most of the second half of 2023.
While the star’s physical exertions are more prominent, where Kwok has always pushed himself has been through his acting. “When you’re singing, when you’re dancing, when you’re interacting with the audience, the present moment you create is the one with the best energy. Movies require something else. I personally really like movies because you get to play a character and it forces you to constantly grow. Why is there growth?” the star ruminates. “I’ve always insisted on never repeating a role because when you don’t repeat roles, you get to encounter people unlike yourself. Personas get attached to you and your daily life. For me, an ordinary man, to play a character whose life can get as messy as a life can get, gives me the opportunity to understand a different perspective, which in turn helps me grow in my own real life.
“I get to draw from the characters I’ve played whenever I encounter obstacles in my own life. And after playing so many characters, I’ve gotten to understand more varying facets of life. Even though I haven’t played all the characters and all the personas in the world, I’ve been able to dive into maybe 100 roles across my life and I think this has really helped me grow. Then when I go back on stage, when I sing slow songs or romantic songs, I now have a different perspective. I play a character and that character changes me. Film gives me a certain power that I then can bring on stage.”
The challenge lies, according to the star, in being able to shed his superstar persona and his acting style. It’s why he doesn’t play the same role twice. More than just variety, he’s looking to push past any ceiling. It’s also why Kwok couldn’t care less about ageing despite having first found fame as a heartthrob. “It’s a fact one must accept. Everyone gets old. This is normal and we can’t change this, so I think we need to accept the fact and embrace the process. I think at certain points, you can enjoy it as well. For example, in your youth, you might not have as many life experiences but as time goes on, you might get other things like a family or advance in your career. All of this experience is so valuable. Life is like this. Age is just a number,” he explains.
The star has in fact leaned into his age, seeing how it benefits his acting. “To play a character, you have to first find your direction. In the 2000s, my ambitions began to mature. I feel like one has to mature in order to be an actor, even if you’re playing a young person. It’s weird. You need a kind of texture that you only get when you get older and mature. For me, this was something I gained in the 2000s. When I started really getting into acting, William Chang Suk-ping was my biggest mentor. He broke apart my persona, the singer Aaron Kwok, and shaped me into a true actor. He gave me new inspiration, taught me what kind of attitude I should be looking for, what rules to follow and how to find the simplest way to play a character.
“The second person was Patrick Tam Ka-ming, the director of After This Our Exile. I think directors
and art directors look for and see different things. William Chang showed me that being an actor is letting go of oneself completely. When filming, a director’s expectations are so detailed. It’s all in the details. This observation made me realise that to make a good film, to be a good director or an actor, no detail is too small.”
This is the approach Kwok takes when trying to find roles that break through his existing body of work and the attitude the actor takes when breaking down the new roles he chooses to take on. How does he keep it fresh? How does Kwok separate himself from the indelible superstar persona to which he is so inextricably bound? His latest movie, Rob N Roll, is an exercise in precisely that. After playing heavier roles and winning accolades for them, Kwok’s newest role is that of a bandit with buck teeth. It’s meant to be a heist movie but the course of the narrative takes various comedic turns as the protagonist (Kwok) is thwarted by a pair of bumbling middle-aged men. The actor suggested the dental attachment to the director wanting to further disassociate from his regular, clean-cut, good-looks image.
“When I received the script for this film two years ago during the pandemic, especially given the atmosphere at the time, I felt like we needed lighter movies. I think lately my characters and the genres have been heavier so when I received the script for this movie, I thought that it was very special,” he recalls. “From the structure to the character, to their look, I felt like each one was fleshed out and unique. Especially when it came to my character, I thought, ‘I’ve played a lot of very positive, heroic characters like a policeman but such a complex antihero would give me lots of room for creative interpretation.’ There’s less room for interpretation when it comes to very positive righteous characters but for my character, who used to be a wrestler, coupled with the dark humour used in the movie, I felt like I could really bring out a complex, unique bandit.”
With the fake teeth, Kwok had to practise reading his lines over and over again. “Getting the support of the image director and the director gave me the confidence to develop the character with the teeth. I think compared to all my past movies, this is someone who’s completely different. Not only in his dialogue, but the whole character itself. I don’t think it’s been seen before and I really do think that it’s a breakthrough for me,” Kwok says proudly.
These days, while Kwok continues to strive professionally, he’s also a family man and philanthropist. Having established the Aaron Kwok Love and Concert International Charity Fund, the star whose hobbies include calligraphy (a new pastime he picked up during the pandemic) and race-car driving continues to drive for good causes. Reflecting on his fame, he says, “To become a public figure, it’s not just about whether or not you want fame, it’s something the audience and the media give to you. I’m very grateful and thankful for the support. After growing up, I can refocus on my family. I don’t really think about how to be a public figure especially as I’ve grown up and have a family and children now. The kind of love you give is different compared to when I was a bachelor. I’m so happy to be a father and husband.
“Life is full of different stages. Having a family is a different stage of my life. That’s life. You have to be willing to give. What’s most important is to complete some projects and spread some happiness. You have to keep pushing yourself. Success or failure is not always determined just by yourself. Even when I succeed, I don’t feel arrogant and similarly, if I fail, I don’t feel frustration. My outlook these days is much more relaxed. Having a good foundation in my life means I don’t feel like I need a lot. I think I already have enough. I’m content and happy. This, I hope, is the outlook of the average Joe. Don’t be too greedy – that’s a lesson I think that life teaches us and is a message we can share with others.”