Veteran actress and producer Sandra Ng was looking for young talent when Coba Cheng caught her attention with a fascinating story about chilli sauce. We speak to the dynamic duo about their shared love for cinema and Hong Kong, and why shining a spotlight on local stories is so important to them.
When Sandra Ng Met Coba Cheng
The story of how Sandra Ng met Coba Cheng started with turkey. “Really,” Ng insists amid raucous laughter. “In my family, we have turkey every year, it’s somehow become a really important tradition for us. For one, Peter Chan really likes turkey. So last year, in the middle of Covid, we were in a dilemma because we couldn’t travel or go anywhere else and Peter asked if I would roast a turkey. We ended up going to Soho House instead, because they were hosting a turkey dinner. And that’s where I met Coba. It really started with turkey.”
Sandra Ng needs no introduction. The actress, radio host, director and producer has been active in the industry since her teens, appearing in so many television and movie roles that her filmography page on Wikipedia is categorised by the decade. No role is too challenging or outrageous for her. She’s been peed on by invisible ghosts, she’s played a vampire who couldn’t bite someone because she was repulsed by warts, and she’s played a good-hearted prostitute – which won her a Golden Horse Award in 2002. She can be extremely funny, but she’s also taken on more poignant roles, from being a breast-cancer survivor, to her latest role as the mother to a disabled son turned Paralympic gold medal champion in the movie Zero to Hero (2021).
Now she’s in her fifties, it does feel as if Ng has done it all. “I’m extremely open when it comes to roles. As long as I think I can bring something to the role I’ll do it. You can see from my past, I’ve really played everything,” she says. But she concedes that as a female actress, she’s also limited by a lot of other factors, one major one being her age.
“There’s just a lot of roles that as older female actresses, you can’t play anymore. Take the latest James Bond movie, for example,” she says. “I’d love to play the Bond girl. But that’s never going to happen to me. OK, yes, I don’t look the part, but as I get older, these opportunities are even scarcer.”
Ng didn’t want to confine herself to playing motherly roles forever, but she loved movies and wasn’t ready to take a step back from the industry. “I knew I needed to plan my next step,” she says. “I love movies and I have all these experiences. As actors, we’re quite passive in our work in the sense that we don’t always get to choose what we want to do. You guys picked me to be on the cover, for example, maybe because I had something to promote. Or I get chosen by a director to play a role he thought was fitting for me. I’m always sitting around waiting for people to cast me.
“So with so many years of experience in this field, I thought, why not make something? Why not produce and direct movies? My first thought after that was that I wanted to work with young people.” When Coba Cheng met Ng that fateful night at Soho House, he was working at an advertising company. He’s always had his fingers in multiple pies at once, pivoting from a stint as a radio DJ to working for Universal Records, to planning Clockenflap to directing commercials. Ng was a childhood idol of his. “We connected at that dinner because we were the only two members speaking Cantonese,” Cheng recalls. “Even the Chinese people on the table were speaking English. When I sat down and spoke to her in Cantonese, she was like, ‘Wow you speak Cantonese. I’ve been waiting all night for someone who spoke Cantonese too.’”
Cheng first saw Ng on screen in the movie All’s Well, Ends Well (1992) and from then on had listened religiously to her nightly radio show during his high-school years. “I really liked the way she told stories. Some people would say, ‘Oh, all she does is laugh,’ but that’s what makes it so entertaining. Her laughter is so infectious, you just want to laugh with her.”
I’ve grown up all my life listening to Sandra on the radio and now, here she is, listening to me and letting meCoba Cheng
entertain her with my stories
He told Ng about the impact her shows had on him, proving to her too that he really was a devoted fan by retelling her the things she’s said on the show. Intrigued, the pair hit it off and Cheng found himself telling Ng more about himself, including his family, and how, because of Covid, they started making chilli sauce to sell online. At the end of the dinner, Ng gave Cheng her number, telling him she’d be in touch because she’s on the lookout for young people to work with.
“Have you ever watched that YouTube video of Billie Eilish, where she’s asked who’s the most famous person she has on her phone? That was me when Sandra put her number in my phone, under the name Sandra Ng. That was such a moment for me,” Cheng recalls. A few days later, Ng told Cheng to meet her back at Soho House for a drink. He cancelled everything that day and made his way over, only to find himself in the company of not only Ng herself, but two other industry giants – Ng’s partner and film director Peter Chan, and her long-time friend and screenwriter Matthew Chow.
“I had no idea what was happening,” says Cheng. “They asked me to retell the story about my family and making chilli sauce again. If you ask me now, I don’t remember what I told them during those three hours I was with them. They asked questions, I answered. They’d listen quite intently to what I had to say. I remember thinking, I’ve grown up all my life listening to Sandra on the radio and now, here she is, listening to me and letting me entertain her with my story. I felt like I’d unlocked an achievement in my life.”
Hours after Cheng entered the room, Ng stood up and started pacing around the room. “She suddenly turns to Peter and says she thinks they should make a film out of my story,” says Cheng. “I was like, what? Peter agreed with her immediately. To them, I had the perfect authentic local story they were looking for. Peter even said I could write and direct it. At that moment, I was like, hold on, wait. I’ve only written three-minute ads and, at most, a 20-minute short film. The thought of writing a 90-minute feature film never even crossed my mind. But they told me to go home and try, and that was that.”
Cheng tells me that later he asked Ng why they picked him. Ng didn’t know she was going to make a film out of Cheng’s life when she asked him to meet her again at Soho House. She only thought he had the potential to work with her and Matthew Chow on other projects – they were always looking for young, new talent – but in those three hours at the clubhouse, Cheng gave them the perfect pitch.
“I was telling them my story from a very genuine standpoint, and the way I told it, they said, was very moving. The next challenge was that, even though I could verbally tell them my story, it didn’t mean I could write it well. I worked really hard on the script,” says Cheng. Asked the same question, Ng pauses before answering.
“In these two years, in my heart, I really wanted to make films that were very down-to-earth and that were about the people in Hong Kong,” she says. “Deep down, to my very core, I care about Hong Kong. I love this place. I grew up here and … you could try to get into Hollywood and audition there, but I loved Hong Kong.
“I felt that Coba was the same. He was so grounded here. His story was able to move something in me. No matter how commonplace his story seemed, it was a reflection of the way of life in Hong Kong. It touched on issues like how difficult it was to buy property, it touched on the unhappy things that have happened in the last two years, it touched on normal lives. These are all things that wouldn’t resonate with people who didn’t live in Hong Kong. Even though, yes perhaps I’m not as grounded as Coba and I have a driver and I like to eat at fancy places, but these are still stories about Hong Kong that move me.”
That same spirit had driven Ng to produce and act in her latest movie, Zero to Hero, which Hong Kong’s Motion Picture Industry Association submitted just last month to the 94th Academy Awards for the Best International Feature Film category – and after its box-office success in Hong Kong, it’s now being aired on Netflix. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d ever produce a film that would get submitted to the Oscars,” she tells us. “I was surprised and overjoyed at the same time.”
Zero to Hero is a biopic, based on the true story of So Wa-wai, Hong Kong’s first Paralympic athlete to win gold, who represented the city in five Paralympic Games from 1996 to 2012, and the personal and physical struggles he and his family endured. “I 100-percent wanted to make this movie because it was about Hong Kong and its people,” says Ng.
I believe in the young generation. Because every generation is different and you can’t limit the new generation with your old views and standardsSandra Ng
“It was also a movie that was possible because of the director’s persistence. Jimmy Wan is one of the most responsible and sensible people I’ve met. He wouldn’t give up on this story even though people around him questioned whether it would ever be a movie anyone would want to see. Even the mother, So’s mother herself, said she wouldn’t be surprised if no one wanted to see this movie about her disabled son.”
But what the director found – and what the screenwriters, the actors and everyone who was involved in the production found – was a clear message in the movie that would touch a lot of people. “He was telling this story about how a lot of people lose at the starting line,” explains Ng. “And that was so important. It’s a story about this boy, who’s clearly at a disadvantage right from the beginning, who was able to win gold at the end. When you’re making a movie, you need to find something that could touch you deep in your heart. That’s what makes a good movie, I think.”
A lot of people don’t start out with an advantage. Ng also lost out at the starting line. She laughs about it, but she seriously believes it, saying, “I didn’t come from a good family background, and I didn’t have a good education. I wasn’t good in school, and my interests and hobbies weren’t popular. Of course, I lost at the starting line. But one good thing that came out of it was that I discovered something I loved.
I found something that made me happy, and that was acting.” She pins her ability to play comic and silly roles on the fact that no one ever gave her the pressure to be pretty, because she wasn’t. But she credits the directors who saw something in her: “There’s so many actresses out there, why did they pick me? They must have seen something in me that worked for the roles.”
These days, she prefers to work with the next generation, young people like Coba Cheng, and discovering young actors like Zero to Hero’s Leung Chung-Hang and even boy band Mirror’s Edan Lui, who’s set to make his debut in Cheng’s upcoming Chilli Laugh Story (2022). “I believe in the young generation,” Ng states simply. “I even tell my daughter that if she thinks she has the potential to do it, she could direct me. I believe in them, because each generation is different and you can’t limit the new generation with your old views and standards … I was young once and I remember wondering why, back then, people would criticise us so harshly and tell us we can’t do this or that. I always wanted to show them that I could.”
I ask Cheng what his relationship with Ng was like, and whether she was like a mentor to him. From two days of interviewing and photo shooting with them, you could tell the pair had great chemistry, and that they’re at ease with each other. “I’ve now established a pretty good relationship with both Sandra and Peter, but the first few times I met them I was still quite nervous,” says Cheng. He recalls being called into a meeting for a script-reading, and feeling as if a school teacher were grading his paper right in front of his eyes.
“Peter’s like the school’s board. And Sandra’s like the headmaster,” Cheng says. “My class teacher would be Matthew Chow, the producer. We had in-house screenwriters and they were like my other subject teachers. And I was the student. I felt as if I were in a masterclass, and every week someone would give me new assignments. It was like working on a final project, which is the movie.”
Chilli Laugh Story is based on Cheng’s family and how they manoeuvred Covid and built a chilli-sauce business to keep them sane. But it isn’t about entrepreneurship or about how they built the business, but the stories within the family, the relationships and the issues they were going through. Cheng’s parents haven’t seen any of it yet, but he says they’re supportive, though maybe slightly sceptical in the beginning that anyone would find their story interesting.
The movie also stars some of Hong Kong’s greatest actors and actresses in comedy, such as Ng herself, as well as Ronald Cheng and Gigi Leung. Edan Lui plays Cheng in the movie in his first film debut. “When we approached Edan, he was already famous as part of Mirror but he’s never acted in a movie before. He worked so hard for the role, trying to be more like me, but I told him not to. Rather, I wanted him to connect with the character that was written and act that way instead,” says Cheng.
There was great pressure in being a first-time director on set, as Cheng found out. “When you yell ‘Cut!’, everyone stops what they’re doing and turns to you and you really have to think about what you’re going to say, because if you say OK, that’s it, you move on from that scene,” he says.
“But I was very lucky that Sandra, Ronald and Gigi were all extremely experienced and their input was invaluable,” says Cheng. “I met Ronald and Gigi during the costume fitting, and during the entire filming process they were so willing to go with me. I was probably the more worried one and I’d say things like, ‘Would Ronald mind trying something different?’ He’d always say yes without hesitation. They both gave me a lot of space to try things as a new director.”
Will he write and direct another film after this? Cheng isn’t sure yet, as there are so many other things he wants to do, but if another opportunity comes his way he won’t say no. “I really enjoy authentic stories as well, so if I come across another inspiring story, who knows?”
So yes, it was turkey that brought Ng and Cheng together. But it was also a shared love for Hong Kong and pride in its people that created this special bond between them. If Cheng hadn’t spoken in Cantonese to Ng that night at Soho House, Chilli Laugh Story might never have been made. It has all the makings of a classic and we can’t wait to see it on screen this coming New Year.
Sandra Ng and Coba Cheng Cover Story
PHOTOGRAPHY LEWIS HO @ STUDIO INCLINE STYLING GENNADY ORESHKIN
MAKE-UP MON CHENG
HAIR SEIKO SIN @ HAIR CULTURE
(Hero Image: ON SANDRA NG: DIVAS’ DREAM JEWELLERY COLLECTION BVLGARI DRESS ALEXANDRE VAUTHIER AT NET-A-PORTER; ON COBA CHENG: B.ZERO 1 JEWELLERY COLLECTION BVLGARI OUTFIT, COBA’S OWN)