According to Google, Lawrence Wong isn’t the most famous Lawrence Wong in Singapore. That honour would have to go our National Development Minister. But being the most famous Lawrence Wong in Singapore isn’t what the Beijing-based Singaporean actor is gunning for. He has his sights set on much bigger things. 

You might have seen him in this little show called Story Of Yanxi Palace, which you should probably drop everything to watch right now, if you aren’t already a fan. It’s an understatement to say that the Qing Dynasty period drama has taken Asia by storm. Thanks to its super addictive story about palace politics and scheming concubines, steered by the most badass heroine since the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (she should be called The Girl With the Jade Hairpin), and the most heartbreaking love story since Romeo and Juliet, the drama, which moves at breakneck speed and doesn’t belabour any plotline, has shattered viewership records in China. As of Aug 23, Yanxi has racked up a cumulative 11.2 billion views online and a whopping 530 million viewers on iQiyi, China’s biggest streaming platform. The drama, which ended its 70-ep run last week, is also massively popular in Hongkong, Taiwan, Malaysia and Vietnam, and is now airing on cable here.

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Lawrence as Hai Lan Cha.

In the drama, Lawrence, whose Chinese name is Wang Guan Yi, plays Hai Lan Cha, a kindhearted imperial guard, who is the best friend and comic foil to the drama’s resident heartthrob, Fu Heng (played by the impossibly swoon-worthy Xu Kai). Lawrence’s character, who’s surrounded by some of the vilest, craftiest women ever written for TV but remains untainted by all the double-crossing and betrayal, is immensely likeable. And it has propelled the actor, who says he was an “unknown” in China before the drama aired, to major fame.

Ever since Yanxi became must-stream TV, Lawrence’s Weibo followers have skyrocketed from 600k to 2mil while his Instagram followers have gone from 135K to 193K. Last week, he also made it onto the list of most influential artistes in China. He came in at No. 35, no mean feat considering the sheer number of celebrities over there. Safe to say, things are looking up for the 30-year-old, who’s been in showbiz for over a decade.

There are stars who explode onto the scene like NDP fireworks. Then there are those who have to wait for their moment to sparkle. Lawrence belongs to the latter group. While he might seem foreign to some local audiences (he’s originally from Johor, Malaysia), he’s not an unfamiliar face on Ch 8, having starred in hit dramas like Three Wishes and 118. In the latter he played Xiao Bao, a gangster with a heart of gold who romanced Yahui’s wanton mee seller. It was arguably his most famous role in Singapore to date.

But he first created waves back in 2009 with his role in The Promise, a Ch U telemovie where he played a rebellious teen who falls in love with an intellectually-disabled girl played by Julie Tan. The show was a hit and Lawrence, who is effectively bilingual, was nominated for Favourite Male Character at the Star Awards 2010.

For most of the past decade, he shuttled between Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and Thailand for work but was getting increasingly frustrated that his career was going nowhere. In 2016, he signed on with a Chinese management company run by, wait for this, Chinese actress Qin Lan, who plays the much-loved Empress in Yanxi, and uprooted himself to China. Within a month, he got his first acting role in Love And Passion, a remake of the 1982 TVB classic starring Liza Wang. Yanxi was the second drama he filmed in China (though it’s the first to be telecast) and the rest, they say, is history.

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Are you surprised his shirtless pics have taken the Internet by storm? 

The media in China have also gone gaga over Lawrence, waxing lyrical about his good looks, which alternates between puppy dog-cute and rebel with a cause, and his sculpted bod. He is, in other words, in-demand and very busy, busy, busy now. On the day of this interview, he had taken a red-eye flight back to Beijing, gone straight to work doing promos for Yanxi and had a magazine shoot. In a couple of days, he would be travelling to Hengdian to film a new period drama, where he plays a — we’re not kidding — merman. But for now, we have him all to ourselves, albeit over the phone via WeChat, from Beijing.

8 DAYS: Congrats on the success of Yanxi! How different is your life now?
: Thanks! (Laughs) Well, I guess a lot more people know me now. Not just in Singapore but China, Taiwan, Hongkong, Vietnam... It feels like it’s different yet not so different. Work-wise and career-wise, it’s different but in my daily life, I still go to work, film every day. It’s not like we all don’t have to work anymore ’cos the show’s a success (laughs).

Surely a lot more people recognise you on the streets of Beijing now?
Definitely. My bosses told me that I would have to either wear a cap, or sunglasses or a mask, or a combination of the three when I leave the house, ’cos I would definitely get mobbed or recognised. I didn’t believe them initially but just that day in China, I went downstairs and across the road from my house to buy something and true enough, a lot of people came up to me to ask for photographs (laughs).

It must feel good to feel like a superstar.
You know, ever since I came here, I have been shooting every day. It can get very draining and tiring and sometimes I would be stuck in an ulu place for a very long time, just working and working. Then I would see my friends and family in Singapore and Malaysia having fun and I’d be like, “Oh man, what am I doing?!” (Laughs) But now I feel like my report card is out and I’ve gotten the results [of all my hard work]. 

Did you expect the show to be this big a hit when you were filming it?
I expected it to be popular ’cos this genre usually is with audiences. But I didn’t expect it to be this popular. I certainly didn’t expect my character to be popular. ’Cos Hai Lan Cha is not cool or suave, he is not Fu Heng. But when I played him, I made it a point to make him comical. He’s hyper and full of weird and funny expressions so I’m pleasantly surprised that people took to him. Now every morning, when I wake up, I’ll get messages from friends who forward me news articles about me from Taiwan, Hongkong and China. Suddenly everyone is digging up my old stuff and making so many assumptions (laughs).

Like what?
Good and bad stuff. Suddenly my shirtless photos have been circulating online and people are saying stuff like, “Oh, I didn’t know Hai Lan Cha has a body like this.” (Laughs) And then there were people who said I’ve acted in porn before. Which is not true, of course. They’re talking about Eric Khoo’s In The Room, which is a more ‘daring’ kind of film. So I had to come out and clarify that it’s not porn. It’s an art film that has travelled to many film festivals around the world. It’s produced by Nansun Shi, who is a really famous producer. But people just made a lot of assumptions so it’s been crazy (laughs).

We hear you get about 5,000 fan mails a day now.
Yeah…  I get a lot of people messaging me on Instagram and Weibo. And me being me... I have OCD. I’m the kind who can’t have unread mail in my mailbox. So I’ll take my time to read through each of them before I sleep, or when I’m in the car or in the toilet (laughs). 

How much fan mail did you get a day before Yanxi?
Maybe 10? (Laughs) But if you’re talking about China, I was basically an unknown.

I read in an interview that you told Qin Lan that your goal is to be famous in China. Is that true?
(Laughs) It was a spur of the moment kind of thing. She was asking me what I wanted to achieve and I was just being candid. I said I want to be famous and earn a lot of money so I can provide for my family. And I guess that stuck with her (laughs).

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“We’re like brother and sister,” he says of Qin Lan, who plays the kindhearted Empress in Yanxi.

What is Qin Lan like as a person?
I’m very close to her ’cos she is one of my bosses. I’m signed to her company. She is really one artiste who is the same on-and-off screen. Once when we were shooting together, we stumbled upon a stray dog and she rescued it. She got her driver to take the dog to the vet and paid for all its medical fees. She’s very kindhearted. I’m not trying to be politically-correct here — she’s really like that. 

How did you get signed to her company?
She and her team came to Singapore to shoot a campaign for the Singapore Tourism Board — she was the Chinese ambassador for STB. The boss of my Singapore management company introduced me and some other artistes to her. We hit it off and they asked me if I was willing to go to China. I was like, “Of course!” I needed new challenges and there was nothing to lose for me. It wasn’t like I was an Ah Ge or I was being groomed by the station and that I would be giving up a lot of things to start afresh. If I were somebody in Singapore, I might not have had the courage [to go to China]. But for me, it was a no brainer.

Another breakout star of the show is actress Wu Jinyan [who plays the whip-smart, resourceful Wei Ying Luo, on whom the drama is centered]. What is she like in real life?
She loves to speak English with me. I don’t know why. (Laughs) Like, (In Mandarin-accented English) “Hey Lawrence, how are you today?” (Laughs). I don’t think she’s anything like the character she plays. She’s very talkative, very sociable and very outgoing.

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Lawrence on a skateboarding break with his co-stars Xu Kai (left) and Hong Yao, who plays Prince He, the Emperor’s fiendish younger brother. 

The bulk of your scenes are with Xu Kai, who has become the biggest heartthrob in China.
He’s the one who taught me how to skateboard. And we would go skateboarding after filming. He’s very good at… in China, there’s this term called ‘liao mei’. It means he’s very good at… he has a way with girls lah (laughs).

What did you and the rest of the cast members chat about on set?
Oh, everything, man. Food, games, travelling. They would all say they want to come to Singapore to visit me and that I would have to show them around (laughs).

Do they ask about life in Singapore?
Yeah. They asked me what language we speak in Singapore, why my Mandarin is so good and if every Singaporean speaks Mandarin as well as I do (laughs). They haven’t come across many Singaporean actors in China in recent years so they’re curious about what Singapore is like. Is it really very strict? Are you really not allowed to have chewing gum? Stuff like that. 

Was it stressful having to act opposite some of China’s most respected actors?
(Ponders) I was more stressed whenever I had to act opposite the Emperor [played by Chinese actor Nie Yuan] ’cos my lines in the scenes with him were always ultra-difficult to remember. It was always about affairs of the country and somehow they don’t make sense to me (laughs). So I was very worried that I would fumble my lines and be a hindrance to everyone.

We read in an interview that Nie Yuan advised some of the cast members on how to deliver a scene.
Yeah… If he feels that you can do better, he would make suggestions, which is good for newbies like us. 

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Who knew portable fans were an imperial guard’s best friend back in the day? Here, Lawrence and Xu Kai cool themselves down in the 40-degree heat.

What’s the toughest part about filming this show?
The lines were very challenging for me ’cos the kind of Chinese they used is not the everyday kind of Chinese. And I’m known to be an actor who can memorise my lines very well but this really got me. And the weather was very harsh too. We filmed for four months and all through summer. Can you imagine wearing so many layers and filming in Hengdian where the temperature was like over 40 degree Celsius? It was crazy! You would just perspire like mad after every line. And the director would say, “Cut! Wipe your sweat!” Which made it hard to get into the role ’cos you’re distracted all the time, by the sweat and the wiping of the sweat.

You guys did not look like you were sweating at all!
Yeah… But actually there were a few scenes where you could see us sweating, like a drop of sweat trickling down our faces (laughs).

Why did you have to wear so many layers when it’s not like they could be seen?
I thought about that as well ’cos you only see the outermost layers. But we had to do that ’cos [the layers] helped to form the shape of the costume. Actually, we cheated a bit. It was supposed to be even more layers but we just wore the bare minimum to achieve the desired shape of the imperial guard uniform. 

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Yanxi was filmed over four months, during summer where temperatures soared to over 40-degrees Celsius. 

Now that the show’s a massive success, do you feel that you’ve finally done well for yourself?
I get what you’re asking and I thought that I might feel that way but I don’t. Firstly, I don’t think I’m there there. It’s just that ’cos of this show that more people know me and my path forward might be smoother. But I have to continue working hard to progress in my career.

I ask that because China is a massive market, and it’s hard for anyone to get a big break ’cos of the sheer amount of competition.
For me, it’s really about luck and timing. Yes, I’ve worked hard for many years, like in Singapore, when I was feeling down about not getting the kind of roles that I want or the opportunities that other people had. But I also feel like this luck and timing is an accumulation of the hard work I’ve put in over the years. Making sure I stay relevant, making sure that I’m always improving my craft. I cannot stress how difficult it is in China. If you think you’re very good-looking, there are lots of people so much better looking than you. If you think you are very talented or that you can act so freaking well, there are a lot of people who are more talented than you. And they all come from very good acting schools. So I have been very lucky so far. I came here expecting to starve and not have jobs but within a month or so, I got my first role in a big show. 

You mentioned something about feeling down about your career. When was that?
Maybe 2014, 2015? I was feeling like, “Why am I doing the same roles over and over again?” It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate what I was doing then, but I felt like I had more to give and that I could do more. So I felt stuck as an actor ’cos I didn’t have an outlet to show what I can give. I was very frustrated artistically. I felt like maybe it wasn’t meant to be. And that maybe I could go overseas and try and if it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, then I can do other things. I have a degree [in mass communications] so I could go into PR, marketing, branding.

You said in an earlier interview that the amount of money you make from filming one drama in China is equivalent to what an actor makes in two years in Singapore. So the pay is that good huh?
(Laughs) I don’t know. I don’t dare to touch on this subject anymore. I used to think that what I say to the media in Singapore might not travel out of Singapore but it really travels (laughs). I have read news from Taiwan or Hongkong about stuff that I’ve said previously in Singapore or Malaysia. So I’m a bit scared now (laughs).

Well, it’s the era of the Internet now. So about the pay…
Yes it is better. The market is bigger so the production budget is bigger and so it is natural and logical [for the pay to be higher].

So what’s next for you?
I have two shows coming up. One is Love and Passion, which is a remake of a very popular 1982 Hongkong drama that starred Liza Wang and Patrick Tse. The other one is called Hai Yang Zhi Cheng, which is basically about how (Chinese actor) Zhang Han and I rise to the rank of captain while working on a cruise liner. We’re the only two Asians in a foreigner-dominated industry so it’s very positive and uplifting. I’m also currently filming this new period drama where I’m playing a merman.

Wait, what?
(Laughs) Yeah I don’t know how much of it I can reveal but… Okay, so I got the script and I was like huh? ’Cos he is supposed to be this unbelievably good-looking merman. (Laughs) But wah lau, how to look unbelievably good-looking? Very difficult leh! (Laughs).