Simon Yam: A passion for pictures
A passion for pictures
Published Wednesday, 31 May 2019 12:00 AM ET
Simon Yam, the internationally-celebrated actor, producer and director, is a lot happier in real life than his varied acting roles would have the audience believe.
At 64, he has acted in more than 200 movies in a wide range of roles such as a serial killer, a gangster, a crime lord, a vampire, a blind man and a poverty-stricken shoemaker.
And after working in front of a camera for more than four decades, Yam shows no signs of slowing down. In his latest television series called “The Thunder,” Yam plays an undercover police officer who risks his life alongside his son to fight a drug gang.
“They gave me the script, and oh, my god, it is very good,” Yam told “CNBC Meets: Defining Values” in front of a live audience.
Yam has won many awards throughout his career, including the Star Asia Award at the 2010 New York Asian Film Festival and the Cinema Legend Award at the 2016 Singapore International Film Festival.
“It's (an) honor to get (the 2016) award,” he told CNBC’s Tania Bryer, adding that the recognition fuels him to work harder and start “from zero again.”
“Every day I need to put (in) 100%. Every day. Not only one or two days,” he said, whether that’s him acting, producing or directing movies. “So, I need myself to be more energetic,” he added.
Yam is also known for going above and beyond in his method acting. In his 2010 film “Echoes of the Rainbow,” in which he played a poverty-stricken shoemaker in 1960s Hong Kong, Yam took a month out to learn how to make shoes, finding it back-breaking work.
For his latest movie “Little Q,” Yam takes on the role of a blind man who relies on his guide dog. It’s based on a true story and the book “Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog” by Japanese authors Ryohei Akimoto and Kengo Ishiguro.
He asked the production team to make him special contact lenses so he couldn’t see. He also worked to develop a good relationship with his guide dog co-stars — he even took them home for several weeks and joked to reporters that his own dog became jealous.
Y am was born in 1955 and grew up during a recession in Hong Kong. He remembered his father bringing home a black and white television set, which Yam watched obsessively.
“And then, I just asked myself, when I grow up, I want to be one of you from TV. And then asked myself that I want to be an actor. I want to be an actor. My dream is (to be an) actor. And then it happened. That's why (you should) believe (in) yourself. Dreams always come true.”
While Yam described his mother as being more easygoing and openly expressive with her love for him, he said that his father, who worked as a police officer, was a strict disciplinarian.
“But now, of course, I understand,” Yam said. “He didn't know how to express the love to me.”
Yam’s father died suddenly when he was 11 years old. As a child, he recalls watching his father get ready for work in front of the mirror and placing great emphasis on his uniform and his duties as a police officer.
“And that's why, today, I respect my career … I think this is very important. To respect and to love your work,” he told CNBC. Yam went into modelling and made commercials to help provide for his family. At the age of 16 he was earning 200 Hong Kong dollars cash-in-hand per job.
This work led to a call from Hong Kong television network TVB – casting executives there had heard that he could nail any commercial within three takes.
Yam worked for the network for 16 years, making a number of television series. He said the salary was low, the hours were long and it taught him to be patient and punctual.
“The working day from TVB is from 6:00 until 4:00 a.m. And then next day, 6:00 until 4:00 a.m. And then the third day, 6:00 in the morning until 4:00 a.m. I learned on time, on time, on time from TVB. And I learned (to) be patient, be patient, be patient in TVB. Sometimes I learned confidence from TVB because they don't have time for you to digest how to make a role. It's all by yourself. They don't have time (for) the director (to) try to teach you how to act. You need to do everything by yourself. I'm lucky, I learned all those from my father and from my mother. Today I would like to thank my father and my mother.”
From TVB he moved into the movie industry and landed his first Hollywood role in 2003 starring alongside Angelina Jolie in “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider — The Cradle of Life.” He played a Shaolin crime lord.
“She's so friendly, she's so good for everybody,” said Yam of Jolie. “So, when you get into American movies, you're not nervous because she was so friendly to you.”
Despite initial success in the U.S., Yam decided he could make more money in Asia as each film took less time to shoot, and he could work on several at once. Yam continued to act in movies and TV shows, and he directed his first film in 2013, “Tales from the Dark.”
It is perhaps not surprising for a man who speaks so openly about love that he said he fell in love at first sight with his wife, Sophia Kao, the supermodel known as Qi Qi, when he saw her in a magazine.
“I didn't know her. I just saw the magazine and said I want to marry her.” Two years later, he saw her in a hotel lobby in Vienna, the city where she grew up. “I said ‘oh my god’. This is the girl I saw from the magazine.”
He went straight up to her.
“Then I said, ‘Can I buy you a drink?’ And then she said ‘OK’. And it happens. And then dreams come true. And the story afterwards? I marry her. This is (a) dream come true.”
The wedding was in 1997, but within a week Yam was back on set.
Due to his work, Yam says he doesn’t have a lot of time to spend with his wife and his 15-year-old daughter, Ella — a teenage model who became the youngest person ever be on the cover of Cosmopolitan Hong Kong magazine earlier this year.
“(I’m) always traveling in China, in Singapore, in Thailand,” Yam said. “But sometimes, I ask the producer ‘OK, give me the time.’ Every two weeks, I need to go back to Hong Kong on Friday night. And on Saturday morning have lunch with my daughter. And after that, straight back to work.”
Yam has also spent 40 years behind the camera – as a photographer – and started painting a decade ago. His latest book of photography, “Hong Kong: Views From Another Perspective,” was published in 2017, a selection of 120 images that document the architectural history of his hometown. He has also hosted exhibitions of his work in Thailand, Hong Kong, mainland China and Singapore, where he spoke to CNBC.
“For my acting, I need to have some different angles,” Yam explained. “That's why I'm a good observer. So, photography and painting give me a lot of angles to help me, to inspire me, to make some good roles.”
The star of “Naked Killer” and “Bloodfight” is also known for his charity work, as well as mentoring younger people.
For the man who has seemingly done everything, what’s next for him?
“Making some good movies and directing movies. And then keep doing painting and keep doing photography work, and then keep believing (in) myself. Believe (in) yourself and then dreams come true,” he told CNBC.
Writer: Rachael Revesz
Design and code: Bryn Bache
Editor: Matt Clinch
Series Presenter and Executive Producer: Tania Bryer
Series Executive Producer: Martin Conroy
Series Producer: Ged Cleugh
Series Associate Producer: Michelle Blackwell
Images: CNBC, Getty Images and Simon Yam