Not surprisingly, Samuel has always been on my list of favorite veteran 'green leaf' actors -- I've actually 'followed' Samuel's career for a long time, as he's one of my family's favorite actors as well. For me, Samuel is another one of those actors who never disappoints with his performances. He's also one of the most versatile actors, as he can do any type of role convincingly, whether it's good guy, villain, comedic side kick, serious friend, rich dude, poor grassroots character, benevolent father, etc. I've watched a few of Samuel's video interviews in recent months and all of them were fun to watch, as Samuel has a playful personality as well as great sense of humor that shines through in all his interviews. It's definitely TVB's loss that he won't film for them again, as there aren't that many great veteran actors left any more, -- hearing the way Samuel described how they were treated, it actually makes me angry that TVB doesn't have the decency to treat these actors better (and not only that, but also the fact that the situation continues to get worse now that any formidable competition has been officially 'stamped out').
Samuel's wife Susanna Au Yeung is also one of my favorite actresses from the 80s era. Though I didn't watch any of her RTV dramas from the 70s, I have seen most of her TVB dramas from the 80s and she is absolutely talented as an actress (and yes, she had the looks to match the talent). For me, Susanna's most representative performance was definitely as Wong Yung in the 1983 version of ROTCH -- she was perfect in that role and to this date, for me at least, there is no other actress who has been able play the older version of Wong Yung as well as she did. I definitely miss seeing her on screen, though of course I'm happy that she found a career that she enjoys much more than acting.
Oh, one comment about the content of the interview. So far, this is one of the best interviews I've seen this year that describes in such detail the plight that many of the veteran actors/actresses went through at TVB (which is why so many of them decided to leave, though quite a few also returned due to HKTV not getting a license). Other veteran artists have said similar things, but not in as much detail and clarity as Samuel did in this interview.
The interview is a bit long, but it's definitely a worthwhile read!
Mingpao Weekly Interview with Samuel Kwok: Young at Heart
Source: MingpaoWeekly, Issue 2435
Article originally published July 11, 2015
Dressed in a white T-shirt, white shorts, and canvas shoes, veteran actor Samuel Kwok (郭鋒) looks nowhere near his 63 years of age. As he sits casually atop the railing outside the Hong Kong Polytechnic University preparing for this interview, Samuel shows his youthful side, entertaining everyone around him with his energetic, vibrant, and playful personality. Indeed, Samuel enjoys being in contact with the creative energy that young people have and believes that one can never be too old to be ‘young at heart’. Filming a micro-movie, participating in an upcoming manga comic adapted stage play, filming TV series for Ricky Wong’s (王維基) HKTV, all are examples of Samuel staying in touch with the latest trends of the younger generation.
HKTV’s currently airing TV series Wicked League (惡毒老人同盟) features a cast where all the leads are 60+ years old – on the surface, it appears that this series is for ‘older folks’ to watch, but in reality, the concept of the series is not old at all. The series takes a non-traditional, irreverent approach to depicting the lifestyles of seniors, to the point that it pushes the envelope in exploring generally ‘taboo’ topics such as impotency, infidelity, etc. In the series, Samuel plays an elderly man who marries a much younger woman and ends up having to go through many relationship challenges that include dealing with impotency, taking sex-enhancing pills, battling unfaithfulness in marriage, etc. – the characters may be ‘old’ in terms of age, but the subject matter is definitely not conservative!
Samuel Kwok does not like working in a depressing, lethargic environment, which is one reason why he left his former employer TVB. As a graduate of TVB’s first year Acting Class [back in 1972], Samuel has witnessed the evolution of HK’s television industry over the years: from its grassroots operations in the 70s to the ‘glory days’ of the 80s and 90s eras, to the current downhill spiral.
HKTV is currently at the tail-end of broadcasting its own in-house produced series – after September, they will be forced to air outside-bought series instead. Out of the last 4 series airing from now until September, we will get to see Samuel in 3 of those series – despite his contract with HKTV being long over, that has not stopped him from putting in a good word in efforts to promote the series. Asked whether he feels that Ricky Wong’s pursuit of a television dream has been a success or failure, Samuel expressed, “I feel that he has been successful. When he made the statement ‘Who is bigger? The law? The policies? Or the Chief Executive?’, it was very powerful! He was able to very candidly rip away one person’s fake veil, very direct, but also incurred the wrath of that certain person.”
No longer tied down by any contracts, Samuel has been enjoying his freedom. He recently paid a visit to Hengdian Studios (in Mainland China) with a friend to check out the environment for an upcoming project and while there, he was surprised to bump into so many old colleagues from his TVB and ATV days. Is this perhaps an indication of the HK television industry’s future direction? Samuel is still trying to find the answer himself.
One man causes irreparable damage
In 2012, Samuel Kwok left his long-time ‘home’ TVB to join the fledgling HKTV, signing a 3 year contract with them and participating in 8 TV series during that time. Though his contract has ended and HKTV’s productions are near the end of their run, plus the station’s future currently hangs in the balance, Samuel has nothing but praise for his now former boss Ricky Wong, “In my book, he [Ricky Wong] is definitely successful. If he got the chance to launch his station but in a few years, it became another TVB, then he would’ve failed. In the past, TVB was very successful, but now, I feel it is a failure!” But the endings to some of HKTV’s series were also criticized as being ‘plastic’ (膠劇) or formulaic? “That’s because in the beginning, the production team had just come over from TVB and so still brought a bit of that formulaic stuff with them -- the series filmed later were much better! The most regrettable part is that there were no ratings to measure the series’ success. I remember we would constantly say ‘if this series were to air on TVB, it would be a hit for sure, maybe even hitting the 40 point ratings mark’. It’s a known fact that TVB has a 20 point ‘customary ratings’ padding on all its series, yet nowadays they still celebrate when the ratings reach the high 20s mark – so shameless! One man [TN: referring to Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying] truly caused irreparable damage to the industry! Even though TVB is being led by a ‘numbers guy’ [TN: referring to TVB’s current GM Mark Lee Po-On, who was formerly an accountant] and everything has become money-driven, if fair competition existed, we would’ve given them a run for their money! But since the government supports a monopoly, what can we do?”
Even though his 3 year contract with HKTV is now over, Samuel still has a lot of respect for his former boss Ricky Wong and praised his success with revealing the Chief Executive’s ‘true colors’.
Samuel’s first series with HKTV was the horror series Karma (驚異世紀). He excitedly expressed that when filming the series, it not only rekindled the love and respect for productions that had long been lost working for TVB, it also brought back the orderly nature of the filming process and family-like atmosphere from the old days. “The production process was taken very seriously. Everyone was involved in the meetings, even the camera man and the props person! Each person had a copy of the completed script in front of them and every scene was meticulously planned out, even down to the filming angle! Ricky Wong was very meticulous with details – for example, if in the scene, we are having a meeting at 2pm in the afternoon, each person’s watch was adjusted to that time prior to filming that scene. Not only that, the PAs would take pictures of everything to ensure that the next scenes followed exactly where the previous left off. This is what I call respect for the industry, respect for your work, respect for your production!”
Ran into the studio to yell at the director
Recounting the work environment at TVB the past few years, Samuel couldn’t help lamenting that it was extremely stressful and depressing. Artists would be filming day and night, night and day, with no time to sleep or rest, plus the scripts were all ‘on-the-fly’, so without knowing how the story was supposed play out, the artists would try to find a ‘middle ground’ with their acting. It was no longer about giving an outstanding performance, but rather just ‘getting by’ without making any major mistakes.
Samuel states, “Yes, I did have a lot of opportunities at TVB and I’m grateful for that, but the environment was very depressing. After every scene, when you walked out the door, all you heard were people complaining -- cries of ‘I’m going crazy!’ were everywhere!” Indeed, the amount of criticism towards TVB’s ‘sloppiness’ with their productions has increased over the years. Remember that instance where an emperor in a costume drama accidentally blurted out an English word in his dialogue, yet it was never caught and ended up making it into final production? Samuel indicated that he is not surprised at such mistakes, “With the way the artists are filming non-stop, it’s not surprising that they can’t even think straight! Who wouldn’t go crazy if you had to do a 6:30am (today) to 6:30am (next day) schedule every day? The system was too rigid and restrictive, not even giving artists time to rest – over time, people got tired of it and didn’t want to bother anymore. It got to the point where everyone would just go through the motions, even if they saw something wrong or a mistake being made, no one felt like saying anything – just let it go so we can finish and go home.”
Samuel indicated that the ‘breaking point’ for many of the veteran artists that triggered their decision to leave TVB was the implementation of the ‘artist management’ policy whereby artists without a management contract were treated differently than those who were considered ‘biological children’. The biggest issue was the unfair arranging of schedules for non-contracted artists. “For example, we would have to go in at 5am to film one scene, then have to wait around until 2pm in the afternoon to film the next scene. The biological children, on the other hand, were allowed to start at 9am and we would have to accommodate them. When we tried to complain, we would be told ‘sorry, but so-and-so needs to have their rest, so just help out, ok la’. So ridiculous! And it wasn’t just once or twice – every time, the schedule was that way! So the biological children need to rest, but we don’t? We have lives outside of work too, you know. Of course we understand the reasoning behind it – the biological children help the company earn money, as they constantly attend events and the company gets commission from their appearances, but those of us who don’t make money for the company are thrown aside. Some artists actually wrote letters to upper management complaining about the situation and some people got in trouble, but things didn’t get any better. With people complaining left and right, the atmosphere was full of resentment. The production team and management also didn’t get along, which resulted in the communication being very poor. It was very similar to how HK society is currently, everyone disliking each other and ‘unfriending’ each other over every little disagreement.”
Samuel recounted his personal experience having to film one scene early in the morning, then being asked to wait in the cafeteria until the male lead arrived so he could film his scenes first. He ended up having to wait all day and got so angry that he ran into the studio and started yelling at the director, “I was so upset! But I think I scared them because the panel [monitoring production] closed the door and had to call the producer, who rushed back to try and calm me down.”
Similar to being in jail
In terms of the long hours and lack of rest, TVB has always been that way, right? A lot of artists from the 80s era have talked about the grueling hours that they endured back then and how they would sometimes take naps in the street in between filming. “Yes, that’s true, but the difference is at that time, artists were actually respected by the company. Upper management understood how hard everyone worked and would often visit us on set to give us words of encouragement and show their appreciation. To a certain degree, each artist was treated fairly – when management would treat the production teams to dinner, everyone got to go, even the second and third line artists; everyone felt respected.” Like many other employee benefits, these ‘staff appreciation dinners’ ended up getting cut when new management took over and instead turned into private, ‘invite-only’ dinners. “After being treated like this time and time again, neglected and bullied, your devotion to the company eventually erodes.”
Samuel describes his later years filming for TVB in this way: “It was like being in jail. We would get up early in the morning and go out to hammer rocks or mow the lawn, then go inside to weave baskets or do other work, then shower, eat, and back to the jail cell! Next morning, the cycle would start again – we would go outside to film one scene in the morning, then go back to the studio to film a scene at night. That’s truly how I felt!”
Samuel is a graduate of TVB’s first year Acting Class. From the 1970s onward, he witnessed TVB’s evolution and rise to becoming the powerhouse it is today. But at the same time, he also witnessed firsthand the management problems that gradually emerged over the years. Right before he left TVB, Samuel told someone in the upper management ranks that ‘things did not become this way overnight’. He explains, “When a certain ‘da jie’ [big sister] took over, she started instituting more layered management ranks, the management became ‘executives’ sitting in air-conditioned offices isolated from everyone else – that’s when the [management] problems started to occur. In the past [referring to the 70s/80s/90s], the management style was less complicated – the producers were producers, the directors were directors, the PAs were PAs. Nowadays, the director does the PA’s work, the producer does the director’s work, etc. – such a mess! Also, the producers were actually ‘controlled’ by other entities -- company shareholders, executives, etc. – and it resulted in production team and executives not being in sync.”
Found creativity and respect again
While filming for HKTV, Samuel was delighted to find the creativity and respect that was lost long ago with TVB. “With Karma (驚異世紀) we got to experiment with special effect makeup and costumes, plus there was a lot less of that ‘are we even allowed to say that?’ consideration when filming. With The Menu (導火新聞線), there was a central focus to every episode that still cleverly linked up to the next episode. With Wicked League (惡毒老人聯盟), all the main leads – John Chiang (姜大偉), Yuen Wah (元華), Bak Biu (白彪), Peter Lai (黎彼得), Li Fung (李楓), Fung So Bor (馮素波), etc. – were senior actors over 60, first time in HK television history. The scriptwriter for the series didn’t want to write a glamorized series about old people, so instead the focus was on real problems that old people face in real life.”
In Wicked League, Samuel’s character is a senior who marries a much younger wife, but because he is impotent and can’t satisfy her needs, he resorts to soliciting prostitutes in order to rebuild his self-esteem. This kind of content is considered ‘taboo’ in the TV industry and most stations avoid touching it, yet HKTV did not shy away – rather, they took a ‘black humor’ approach with the material. “All of us senior artists had a great time filming the series, there were a lot of sparks and we got to incorporate some old expressions in there that brought back memories. In the series P.4B (四年B班), I play a school principal and got to work with 20+ primary school students at once, another first for HK television series. While filming the series, Ricky Wong mandated some strict rules for the production team – since we were filming at a school with so many little kids present, we were not allowed to swear, yell, get angry, take off our clothes, give the students unhealthy snacks, etc. – we had to behave properly and set a good example for the kids. In the short amount of time that we filmed at the school, we not only made sure the team followed all the rules, we also made sure the kids were properly fed – Ricky Wong even planned a special menu for the kids consisting of 3 dishes and 1 soup, cooked fresh for them every day. And if anyone broke any of the rules, they would be instantly fired -- see how serious the production was! The casting process for the series was very serious too. Out of 1000 primary school kids, we selected 20 of them to participate in the filming – those 20 kids came to watch us film The Menu so they could learn and get some experience. Those kids were such smart alecks though, they kept saying ‘hey, we’re professionals’, haha!”
HKTV’s last series, Night Shift (夜班), which will air in September, also has Samuel in it. Indeed, it will truly be an honorable farewell for him.
Filming bed scenes again
After his contract with HKTV ended, Samuel got the chance to take a trip to Malaysia for vacation with his wife, former actress Susanna Au Yeung (歐陽珮珊). A long time ago, he had gotten the chance to film a TV series in Malaysia and while there, he also bought some property, which is now a vacation home for them.
Many people know that Samuel has a nickname, ‘Hero Kwok’ (郭大俠). This nickname came about because his wife Susanna had played the middle-aged version of Wong Yung in TVB’s Return of the Condor Heroes (神雕侠侣) in 1983. Since then, audiences have taken to calling Samuel that nickname, even though he had actually never played the character of Kwok Jing.
Not long after graduating from TVB’s Acting Class in 1972, Samuel jumped ship and went to work for RTV [TN: Rediffusion Television, which is ATV’s predecessor]. He, along with fellow classmates Benz Hui (許紹雄) and Lau Wai Man (劉緯民), were also known as the Three Musketeers, though later on they were also known as the ‘three traitors’ [TN: due to all 3 jumping ship to RTV]. At RTV, he had actually filmed a lot of series where he was male lead but unfortunately, most of the archives for those series were destroyed in the ATV studio fire [TN: reference to the major studio fire that broke out at ATV’s studios in November 1987]. In HKTV’s series Wicked League, Samuel had the chance to film bed scenes again, except this time it was with a 20-something actress. He admits that filming the bed scenes were actually very tiring, as he didn’t want to make his partner feel uncomfortable so he would prop himself up with his arms, which would go numb by the time the scene was completed. He said that at TVB, he doesn’t remember filming too many bed scenes, but at RTV, he did film one.
Back in the 1970s, Susanna Au Yeung was one of RTV’s fa dans and would often collaborate with Samuel in series. But it wasn’t until they filmed Speechless to the Heavens (無語問蒼天) together in 1976 in which both of them played mute characters that they became attracted to each other. “We had to communicate with our eyes everyday and somehow, that did it. I always tell people, when fate comes, can’t avoid it, when it leaves can’t prevent it. Actually, back then, almost everyone felt that we would not last – give it 4 months and they’ll break up for sure. The reason is because I was an overly playful person – no, not that kind of ‘playing’ but rather the active type: diving, hunting, racing, going on trips, etc. I had a dozen different hobbies!” Well, those who predicted that Samuel and Susanna wouldn’t last were absolutely wrong – this year (2015), the 2 of them celebrate 38 years of marriage.
Samuel praised his wife for her ability to ‘tolerate’ him, “She’s definitely very tolerant of me. I like diving but she’s not interested in that, yet she will still accompany me. When we get to the diving spot, I’d go diving and she would sit on the beach, sometimes for hours, and wait for me. She’s a very patient person, especially when we were both young, I sometimes would get so caught up in my hobby that I would overlook her needs, yet she never complained. I truly admire her patience and tolerance!”
“My wife is smart!”
One of Samuel’s passions in his youth was car racing – he would often go participate in various races in Mainland China. His most dangerous racing experience was actually in Hunan, where there was a night racing event over a rocky path near the Yellow River – it was so dark that if they weren’t careful, accidents could easily happen. Because of this hobby, Susanna often worried about Samuel’s safety, which he admits was one of the things that often made him feel guilty. Later on, Susanna came up with a way to prevent her husband from constantly putting his life in danger – she told him, “the next time you go racing, I will sit next to you in the car and be your navigator!” Not wanting to put Susanna’s life in danger, Samuel of course decided in the end not to go. “This is why I always say that my wife is very smart!”
Susanna never liked the gossipy nature of the entertainment industry, so in the mid-90s, she decided to retire from acting completely and become a Chinese medicine doctor instead. Samuel indicated that he was shocked at first that Susanna would make such a decision, but she was quite persistent, even going up to the Mainland for a brief period of time to study and gain personal experience. Sometimes, she would even ‘practice’ acupuncture on herself, “I admire her tolerance! I’m actually afraid of needles, so every time I saw her poking herself with those things, I would freak out!”
Later on, both of them started learning qigong together and even obtained a qigong medical treatment license. They also opened a school to teach qigong and over the years they have taught over a thousand students, which is why Samuel also has another ‘identity’: qigong instructor!