Interview: Sandra Ng


HK’s queen of comedy Sandra Ng tells Arthur Tam she walked, talked and shaved like a man as she prepared for her latest role as a male prostitute

Photo by Calvin Sit

Hong Kong’s queen of comedy is a real quacker. For her new leading rolein 12 Golden Ducks (12金鴨), Sandra Ng Kwan-yu plays a ripped gigolo – a gender transformation process that, on some days during filming, took a painstaking six hours to accomplish. But Ng is no novice when it comes to the trials of prostitution, having played Kam, the adored underdog hooker with a heart of gold, in the widely popular Golden Chicken trilogy. She not only upped her comedy game in that series, which began in 2002, but she was also able to personify the angst and daily struggles of Hongkongers with her character, making her identifiable, accessible and a hit with local audiences.

Before then, in the early 1990s, the 49-year-old producer and actress was already breaking the mould by playing a host of comedic roles alongside the king of HK comedy, Stephen Chow. Ng was the first female actress who dared to be crass and crude, provingthat being a schlump isn’t just reserved for men and that grace is not the only virtue for women. And when Ng played the dramatic role of lesbian mob boss Sister 13 in Portland Street Blues, she proved her versatility in acting and also nabbed her first Best Actress win at the Hong Kong Film Awards.

It’s difficult not to love Ng. To many of our city dwellers, she’s authentically Hong Kong and has said time after time that she takes pride in being a HK actress. There are few actresses from the fragrantharbour like Ng, whose career has spanned more than two decades. Almost all the great women of Hong Kong cinema are either deceased or retired, so it’s not unfair to say that Sandra Ng really is the last woman standing when it comes to seasoned, talented stars.

Ahead of the release of 12 Golden Ducks – ‘duck’ is slang for ‘gigolo’ in Cantonese, by the way – we catch up with Ng for a quick interview. It isn’t meant to be this speedy but she’s so busy during our chat that she’s applying her makeup as she gets ready for the next engagement − finishing the final details of the film − in her oh-so-hectic schedule. But it doesn’t stop her opening up about the challenges of playing a man, the difference between a gigolo and a hooker, and why, more than ever, Hong Kong needs entertainment that we can smile at and laugh along with...

Nice to meet you, Sandra! So, what inspired you to take on the role of a gigolo? Why not Golden Chicken 4 instead?
Well last year, in Golden Chickensss, we went to a ‘duck den’ to have fun and it got me thinking that male prostitution could be a topic that we can elaborate on. The field of ‘male public relations’ is something worth exploring and there’s a lot of room for imagination. It’s a pretty simple reason why we chose this as a topic.

Did you have to do any particular preparation or gigolo research for this role?
Absolutely. I practiced shaving at home as if I had a beard and I also practiced walking like a man, talking like a man and all the minute gestures of being a man. I had to change my mindset for the role and remind myself that ‘I’m a man’. This was the biggest challenge – but it was fun because I had a lot of space to develop the character. After completing the two-month shoot, I still felt that I was a man for about a week.

Did you accidentally go into the wrong bathroom at any point?
I did actually, when I was in my man costume. I went in to the women’s bathroom and all the ladies screamed. It took them a little while before realising it was me. But their initial reaction was of shock.

V-formation: Ducks getting ready for the big show

Did you have to actually interview any gigolos to get a real life perspective of what it means to be one?
I went to Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand and did some research. We asked a lot of questions about what kind of clients they usually have. We aren’t doing a documentary, though, so we didn’t go very deep into their lives. But we understood what their daily lives were pretty much like.

What’s the biggest difference between a hooker and a gigolo?
For hookers, it’s all about selling their bodies but, for gigolos, that might not always be the case. Sometimes there are just women who are bored and want someone to talk to and to grab a drink with. Gigolos are sometimes sought out for emotional comfort, not just physical. Our movie doesn’t really touch upon this directly – but you might get a feel for it.

What do you want the audience to take away from this film?
I had such a fun time filming this movie. I hope that, after the audience watches it, that they won’t be disappointed. The movie is funny, has a lot of stars and beautiful people and touching moments.

After watching the film, I want male viewers to feel like they want to be a gigolo and I want women to want their boyfriends to be gigolos [laughs]. That’s the main focus of this film. Once a man comes out of the theatre, I want them to think that if they are a bit more ‘chok’ (Cantonese for the ‘blue steel’ look), they can make the people around them happy.

It’s a hilarious comedy but, unlike your Golden Chicken movies, 12 Golden Ducks doesn’t tackle issues currently facing Hong Kong society...
No, it doesn’t talk about any of that. I just think if we talk about it again, it will become too boring. We’ve already done it before. In this day and age, the most important thing is to come out with a film purely for entertainment. I don’t want to purposefully film something that I think would make an impact on society. I just want to make something that’s happy.

Do you feel more pressure from being an actor and a producer?
The pressure is quite different. I enjoy the pressure of being a producer because you can usually work out an issue with your team. However, as an actor, the pressure is much greater because you rely on yourself.

You’ve said that you turned down many jobs filming outside of HK because you’ve wanted time to take care of your daughter. Now that she’s older, does this decision change?
It doesn’t. Definitely not. Don’t get me wrong, though, I like working. But I don’t want to sacrifice a different part of my life for work. I’m not particularly fussed about money, so I won’t take on a job unless I really want to do it. I won’t sacrifice a portion of my life for money and fame.

So you’re happy with your current work and personal life balance?
Yes, you can say that. You can say it’s about balance.

What’s the importance of comedy in HK’s film industry?
Comedy is extremely difficult. It’s so difficult that it makes me afraid to attempt it at times. Sometimes an audience can be so cruel when they say something isn’t funny. That one statement can kill a movie, which is why you need to position your film correctly. You have to make sure you know what you are selling to your audience. It’s quite unfair these days when you have people writing on Facebook or Weibo, saying that a film is a ‘bad film’ without any other context. These days, there are so many films simply labelled as ‘bad’ but what does that even mean – a ‘bad film’? Comedies are especially hard to execute because you have to time everything so perfectly.

Secondly, there aren’t many comedy actors any more and you can’t just become one overnight. A lot of actors approach me and ask me to give them a chance because they think they’re funny. But that’s not enough. You need to slowly establish yourself as a comedian before the audience can associate you with comedy.

The sad reality is that there aren’t many comedies in Hong Kong any more – it’s dwindling. So there aren’t opportunities to cultivate any new actors in the art. What we really need are more producers supporting local comedies by taking a chance on training new talent.

It seems, when it comes to actresses in Hong Kong, their careers don’t usually last long. You, however, have been the exception. Do you think it’s particularly difficult for Hong Kong actresses to make a career breakthrough?
In terms of what the film industry is like for women, you’ll rarely see a film that sells well and has a leading lady. Men have primarily dominated the screen. As for me, though, I like acting, which is why I continue to do it. There isn’t any particular formula I can tell you that I’m following. Maybe it’s just because I really like acting and, now that I’m also a producer, I just find a way to survive. This is the most important thing. Being hungry enough – but not the hunger for money. It’s about the motivation to make sure that you haven’t lost touch with the industry. That’s what you need.

12 Golden Ducks premieres on Thu Feb 19.

Photo credits
Photography: Calvin Sit
Wardrobe: Ralph Lauren, 3.1 Philip Lim
Hair: Yoyo hui @ Hair Culture
Make up: Midco Chu



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