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Musings Stephen Au Kam-tong: actor, presenter, playwright and man of many other parts

By Yannie Mak

For a man who was once notorious for his prickly temperament and explosive temper, today’s Stephen Au Kam-tong is relaxed, candid and generous with his time. The 48-year-old actor looks dapper and boyish in a black T-shirt and a black jacket. Sitting in a Kowloon Tong coffee shop with a cup of gourmet tea in front of him, he shares his views on the current state of Hong Kong and stories from his life.

Au was unswerving in his public support for the anti-national-education protests earlier this year. He posted strong messages on his Facebook page, insisted on wearing black every day and spoke at a rally attended by tens of thousands of people at Tamar Park.

His outspokenness is all the more remarkable because he is a contracted artist with Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB). His friends were afraid there would be consequences, that it could hurt his career. But Au shrugs this off, “If we can’t even have a discussion without constraining ourselves, spooking ourselves, then what is the meaning of life?” he says.

Au says he is constantly pondering existential questions. He wonders about why he was born where he was when he was, about why events that have taken place in Hong Kong occurred the way they did. He thinks Hong Kongers are too careful, too worried about just “living”, which they equate with working at their jobs.

He wishes people could look at the bigger picture and see that Hong Kong, as a special administrative region, enjoys a lot of rights which are taken for granted. “If we can have the living conditions we do, the environment we have, if we can breathe the air of freedom, then we are wasting our lives if we don’t speak out.”

This urge to speak and act is not new for Au. When he was a secondary student, he protested against the depiction of the Sino-Japanese War during World War Two in Japanese history textbooks. He always identified himself as a Chinese.

History was Au’s favourite subject. He recalls that during lessons when Hong Kong was still under British colonial rule, he learned about the history of the Kuomintang, the Communist Party of China, and even the shameful incidents of British history. Discussion between teachers and students encouraged him to think critically.

He wanted China to be strong. Au remembers telling his teacher, “If we want China to be powerful, we have to study hard; as long as we are knowledgeable, China’s next generation will be good.”

Au’s affection towards the Chinese nation has not faded with time but he is not a blind patriot. Last year, he staged Captain China, a one-man-show he wrote, directed, and performed. Au says the most important thing for the show was to be funny. But even while he was playing for laughs, Au says he wanted to be, “critical of China’s national conditions, critical of the absurdities in Chinese culture.”

“But in the end, I do have love for China, especially towards the people of this country, the Chinese nation; I love them.”

Au is a strong believer in education and knowledge. He thinks these will make a country and an individual strong, so he has a special respect for teachers. In September, Au became a teacher himself, teaching acting at the Academy of Film, at the Hong Kong Baptist University. “I think the ultimate aim of education is to complete a person’s personality,” he says. “Educate your children properly, and then there will be fewer degenerates in society.”

In his teaching, Au draws on years of experience in the entertainment industry. He started as an actor at Asia Television (ATV)  but became famous as a presenter on the pioneering infotainment show Hong Kong Today. As well as TV work, Au has acted in films and on the stage. His first role on the stage was as a Cantonese Opera player in the gender-bending drama Hu Du Men in1996.

Apart from acting, the multi-talented Au has also directed his own films, including a short feature reimagining the young Bruce Lee’s last day in America beforereturning to Hong Kong in 1959, What Are You Gonna Do, Sai Fung?

Apart from technical skills and textbook knowledge, Au wants to inspire his students with insights from his own experience. “From beginning to end, I think attitude affects everything,” he says. He wants to inculcate his students with what he believes is the appropriate attitude towards the performing arts.

Throughout his acting life, attitude has affected his work. Au has always been an independent spirit who sticks to his principles. But he recalls that at one time, this made him a person who created conflicts and found it hard to compromise. Family and friends tried to change him but he did not see the need. He became confused and frustrated. His work suffered and his marriage broke down. He and his wife separated for more than three years. In 2005, he was diagnosed with depression.

Unexpectedly, when he was at his lowest point, Au cried out for divine intervention. He had never been religious but he embraced Christianity. He says his faith helped him to pull through his depression without the need for medication.

Au repaired relations with his estranged wife and the couple renewed their vows in March this year. He says that in order to make sure he never got depressed again, he knew he had to change himself.

Au threw himself back into martial arts, something which he had practised since childhood. In 2007, Au won the championship in the Hong Kong Full Contact Karate Open Tournament for the heavyweight division. He was the oldest participant in this weight class ever. It was a dream come true. When he was 18, Au had participated in and lost a tournament due to insufficient practice. When he decided to enter the tournament, he gave himself a challenge. “I asked myself, ‘How much do you want to achieve? Are you sure you want to do it? If yes, then you should start your engine and put your full power in it.”

This time around, Au took his training seriously. Besides karate practice, Au was filming the TVB sitcom Best Selling Secret every day. He was also acting in three theatre dramas in the space of one and a half months. The schedule was tight, so he had to be very determined and disciplined in order to continue training.

“Full contact” means not wearing any protective gear. It is painful when you defend as well as when you attack. Therefore endurance is crucial. The tournament continues until there is a winner, which means it is also demanding on participants’ physical fitness.

Au explains his motivation this way: “I’m getting on, I want to prove to myself, I don’t want to have any regrets,” he says. “If I do something without being well-prepared, then I am being unfaithful to myself.”

This echoes one of Bruce Lee’s famous sayings, “Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself, do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.” The words and deeds of Bruce Lee have had a huge influence on Au’s views on life.

Martial arts plays an important part in Au’s life. Au says a performer needs an audience. As long as there is one audience ember, the performer can continue but if there is no audience, the show cannot go on. But with martial arts, the fighter is in a dialogue with himself. He says he will continue practising martial arts because it gives him the room to constantly improve himself.

In between writing, directing, performing and training, Au says he spends his time pursuing quality living. By this he does not mean pursuing material comforts.  “I treasure the time I spend with my family. I care about how much I enjoy staying at home,” he explains.

During his spare time Au likes to watch films. When he has time, he goes to the cinema, otherwise, he watches DVDs at home. He also enjoys sitting in the theatre, observing and absorbing stories that may one day become his inspiration.

Another favourite pastime is to spend an afternoon on a bench near the sea with his wife and his cat. Au says his cat, Innika likes to sits still on his lap,gazing at the sea while he gently strokes her. This, for Stephen Au – the actor, presenter, director, karate champion, Bruce Lee devotee, and cat lover -is the picture of contentment.

“I am satisfied with my current life. I am living a very pleasant life,” he says, “although I believe there is always room for improvement.”