Hong Kong actor Chapman To quits gambling after debt drove him to Taiwan

King Of Mahjong (left) stars Hong Kong actor Chapman To (below left) and Singaporean actor Mark Lee (right), who bonded over meals in Ipoh.
King Of Mahjong (left) stars Hong Kong actor Chapman To (below left) and Singaporean actor Mark Lee (right), who bonded over meals in Ipoh.PHOTOS: CLOVER FILMS
King Of Mahjong (left) stars Hong Kong actor Chapman To (below left) and Singaporean actor Mark Lee (right), who bonded over meals in Ipoh.
King Of Mahjong (left) stars Hong Kong actor Chapman To (below left) and Singaporean actor Mark Lee (right), who bonded over meals in Ipoh.PHOTOS: CLOVER FILMS

He once had a $175,000 debt and a letter from his mum broke his gambling habit

At age 19, Hong Kong actor Chapman To once racked up a gambling debt of HK$1 million (S$175,000) and had to escape to Taiwan for a year as he could not pay back the money.

To, 42, says in Mandarin: "When I was young, I gambled a lot. I could win thousands of dollars at a single card game, but I also lost a lot at once.

"For a young guy in the 1990s, HK$1 million was a ton of money, and I certainly didn't have that kind of money to pay it back. I flew to Taiwan and hid in a room for a year."

He added that it took him "many more years" to repay the debt in full.

A heartwarming letter from his mother broke his gambling habit.

"My mother sent me a letter that said that she does not mind if I never become someone great. She just hopes I don't get into any trouble," he recalls. "I was really moved. It's my family that helped me stop gambling."

All the gambling he does now is only in the movies, such as in his latest film King Of Mahjong, in which he plays a legendary mahjong expert. He was talking to Life! while in town last week to promote the movie, which opens in cinemas here on Thursday.

In it, Singaporean actor Mark Lee plays a jealous mahjong expert who challenges To's character to a showdown game to decide who is the top player.

To had a blast filming the movie. It was the first time in two decades, in fact, that he did not lose his temper on a movie set.

"For every single movie I've done so far, I've gotten angry over something in the process. But amazingly, I did not lose my temper at all - not even for a single day - while doing this movie."

Sitting beside him in the same interview was his co-star Lee, who vouches that he is telling the truth.

Lee, 46, reveals: "I was actually warned by actress Sandra Ng that Chapman To is the type of actor who always has something to nitpick about on the set, so I was quite nervous about meeting him.

"But we had no issues during filming, and we were laughing about something stupid every day. I never saw him lose his cool."

Lee and veteran Hong Kong actress Ng, 49, had co-starred in the local movie A Fantastic Ghost Wedding, which was released late last year.

From day one of filming, which took place last August in Singapore and Ipoh, Malaysia, Lee and To got on like a house on fire, they say.

Lee says: "Comedians are wired differently from regular people. We're a little weird - you can say we have problems in the head. You either get the way we think, or you don't.

"Chapman was definitely on the same wavelength as me on a lot of things."

Right on cue, To pipes up and says theirs is a "medical condition" called shen jing bing, a Chinese term used to describe someone as crazy.

He adds: "Filming can be very boring because you're sitting around waiting for your scene for long hours.

"So it's important to make things more fun by actively bonding with your castmates. That way, your natural chemistry will also show on screen."

For Lee and him, he says, they got close after having "many, many delicious meals" together throughout the town of Ipoh.

No wonder To, who is married to Hong Kong actress Kristal Tin, 37, has completely lost that super-toned body that he worked so hard to get for his previous role as a porn actor in last year's sex comedy 3D Naked Ambition.

He quips: "I still have my six-pack abs. They're hiding deep within my belly."

yipwy@sph.com.sg

King Of Mahjong opens in cinemas on Thursday.