Lighting the Way
Carina Lau IS PASSIONATE ABOUT HER ROLE AS MENTOR FOR THE FIRST INITIATIVE FOUNDATION. LEARN MORE IN OUR 20-PAGE GUIDE TO THIS WORTHWHILE CAUSE
I BELIEVE THERE HAS BEEN A LUCKY STAR LOOKING DOWN ON ME THROUGHOUT MY LIFE,” SAYS CARINA LAU. “THIS STAR HAS SHAPED MY CAREER AND GUIDED ME TO THE PEOPLE WHO TOOK A CHANCE ON ME—THE PEOPLE WHO MADE ME WHO I AM TODAY. IF YOU HAVE ABILITY AND YOU HAVE PASSION, ALL YOU NEED IS SOMEONE TO NOTICE YOU AND HELP YOU ALONG THE PATH TO SUCCESS. NOW THAT I’VE REALISED MY DREAMS, I FEEL IT’S MY DUTY TO TAKE ON THAT ROLE, WHICH IS WHY I WAS IMMEDIATELY DRAWN TO FIF AND THE INCREDIBLE WORK BEING DONE BY MICHELLE ONG.”
Lau has been working with Michelle Ong and the First Initiative Foundation (FIF) since 2013, when she joined the charity as an “artist in support.” Ong’s central aim for the FIF is to support education and nurture creativity in the art, design and music worlds. And in order to help young Hongkongers fulfil their potential and gain a deeper understanding of their chosen careers, she has recruited a variety of successful people working in the arts to act as their mentors.
“I think it’s a wonderful idea of Michelle’s,” says Lau. “We’re living in an age of instant gratification and this makes young people too impatient— they will often find some sort of excuse to quit if things get hard. But in our generation, everyone was very hard-working. I was certainly not born into wealth or stardom, and it took me a lot of time and extremely hard work to get where I am today. And I’m in no way unusual—i could name numerous people from my generation like me, such as Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Andy Lau Takwah and Jacky Cheung Hok-yau. None of us are from particularly impressive backgrounds, and we’ve all experienced failures and challenges along the way, but our determination and can-do spirit allowed us to succeed. So I hope that through FIF, Michelle will provide some proper role models for young people to look up to. They need to realise that if they don’t work hard, they won’t be able to get the results they dream of.”
Watching Lau on the set of our cover shoot, I can see why Ong wanted her to act as a mentor for her FIF students. I am struck by Lau’s professional attitude and her admirable skill set— she arrives early, introduces herself to the entire crew and, unlike most stars I have met, is happy to do her own hair and make-up, both of which she completes in record time. And although she is somewhat shy and reserved in person, the moment she steps in front of the camera, she lights up and moves for the photographer with the ease of a woman who relishes being in the spotlight.
“In our generation, everyone was very hard-working. I was certainly not born into wealth or stardom, and it took me a lot of time and extremely hard work to get where I am today”
Despite her obvious talent, Lau’s path to success was a circuitous one. She was born in Suzhou, Mainland China, in 1965. At the age of 15 she persuaded her mother to move with her to Hong Kong so she could enrol in TVB’S acting classes. At the time, she could barely speak Cantonese and was mocked by her peers for her mainland accent. Determined to succeed and be accepted by her class, she spent her nights studying the language and was fluent by the time she graduated in 1983. Later that year, Lau won a contract to work as an in-house actress for TVB. Her initial roles were mainly ornamental, but she eventually won a leading part in the hit series
LOOKING BACK IN ANGER. She simultaneously started dating Tony Leung, now her husband, and the pair soon became the It couple of Hong Kong.
“I fell into my chosen career path—it’s that lucky star again,” she says with a grin. “Before I moved to Hong Kong, I knew I was not good at studying. My older brother was a theatre actor and I’d seen a lot of his performances, and acting was the only thing that I felt confident doing. Joining TVB’S artist training class was a crucial turning point in my life as it gave me grounding and taught me all the skills I would later need for joining the film industry. Good training is something I would advise all young people to have. I’m also grateful that I learned my craft in Hong Kong. Although it’s my home, I think I can say with a lack of bias that Hong Kong is a great place to work in—it’s very professional, and is a wonderful melting pot of Western and Chinese cultures. Hong Kong is the Hollywood of the East, the place where talent from around the continent congregates.”
It was a mutual love of Hong Kong and all it has to offer that eventually brought Lau and Ong together. “I like Michelle’s direct personality,” says Lau. “In fact, I’ve known her for quite some time, just not closely—we’d been to a lot of the same events but had never got the chance to really talk to one another. So one day we finally sat down and shared all our stories about Hong Kong, and this was when she told me about her mission and her vision for FIF. I think it’s a really meaningful charity. Hong Kong’s youth is kind of lost nowadays, and I worry that they don’t have a direction or dream to follow. As soon as Michelle told me about her work, I said, ‘If there is something I can do to help, please let me know as I would love to contribute.’”
Ong joins Lau and me for coffee, and I can tell that the two are firm friends. “I’m thrilled to have Carina on board as I know she will make a wonderful mentor,” says Ong. “I think the most powerful contribution she can make is to tell the youngsters all about what she has learned through her illustrious career. It’s such a privilege for them to be able to learn from someone so experienced. I was delighted when she agreed to become one of our artists as she is one of the most well-respected actors in Hong Kong. I’m such a fan of her films—i was even a bit star-struck when we first
started working together, and that doesn’t happen often. It’s been such fun picking out Carnet pieces for the shoot as I knew she would look beautiful in anything I chose,” says Ong, who started the jewellery brand two decades ago.
Lau takes her role as mentor seriously and has clearly thought long and hard about the wisdom she wants to impart to the youth of Hong Kong. “I will tell them all the things I wish someone had told me. But mainly I will tell them to never give up on their dreams, no matter what problems they face along the way. So long as you pick yourself up afterwards, failure isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I think it can be really important as it makes you grow as a person and reflect on your past, and plan what you must change about yourself and your performance in the future,” she says.
Eloquent as she is on the subject of failure, Lau’s own career has moved from strength to strength over the past few years. In 2013 she starred in BENDS, a Hong Kong-made film directed by Flora Lau about a privileged woman who falls in love with her driver. It was screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, where it received critical acclaim—as did Lau herself, resplendent in an array of Dior and Schiaparelli dresses on the red carpet. Lau’s success on the festival circuit continued last year when she won the Best Actress award for BENDS at the Osaka Asian Film Festival. “I was delighted to have won, and what is particularly funny is that I didn’t actually get paid for that role,” she says. “But I knew I had to take the part when I heard Flora was directing it. She works so hard—i read four editions of the script, which she kept finetuning until I was satisfied. She just wouldn’t give up. I appreciate such a strong spirit.” Since then, Lau has stared in
BEIJING LOVE STORY and FROM VEGAS TO MACAU II, but by the time of our interview, her focus is firmly on her current film, CAIRO DECLARATION, for which she is based in Shanghai, where it is set. “I love working on this project but it’s been exhausting because it has taken so much research,” says Lau. “It’s set in the past, so I’ve been reading about life in 1930s Shanghai and dress styles and ways of speaking for months. It has been really fascinating to learn how to inhabit a character so fully.”
Lau is also hoping to do more theatre work this year and—“if I can only improve my English”— dreams of one day performing on Broadway or in the West End. As well as her support for the FIF, she is involved in other charity projects and is planning to spend more time on her own venture, Tender Loving Care. Founded with her husband, it does important work in providing help to elderly house-bound people requiring nutritious meals and medical attention. “We haven’t really promoted it—we just raise money through special occasions such as birthday celebrations,” she says. “I’m not very good at talking about money, but I’m passionate about making a difference in the lives of others. I once believed I could do that solely through acting, but I now know that I have so much more to give than just my talent.”
“So long as you pick yourself up afterwards, failure isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I think it can be really important as it makes you grow as a person and reflect on your past”