The Life Interview With Wang Lei

Life as 'drama' as getai

Show host and singer Wang Lei was so deep in gambling debts that he sat 11 loan sharks down to work out repayment plans

As the most sought-after host in getai, quick-witted Wang Lei, who has a rising film career to boot, appears to have it all together.

He has an unrivalled position as the Ah Ge or "big brother"of getai.

Offstage, the 55-year-old has led a life louder and more colourful than the flashy getai shows he helms.

His life stories - Primary 5 school dropout, lingerie salesman and long-time gambling addict - sound so sensational that, at times, one wonders if he is making things up.

Some of his stories have more soap-opera elements than his latest movie, Long Long Time Ago, Jack Neo's nostalgia-themed film where Wang plays a traditional man who favours sons over daughters.

As recently as three years ago, the slightly-built man was mired in more than $300,000 of gambling debts and was the target of 11 loan sharks, he recounts.

I have suffered many challenges in my life. But there have also been many instances where I have been very fortunate. I married a good wife, I have loving children and many, many kind people have helped me go far in my career. I will never be ungrateful for that.

'' WANG LEI, whose family never gave up on him despite his addiction to gambling

"People assume I am doing really well as a successful getai host, but whatever I earned doing getai, all of it once went to paying off loan sharks or to more gambling. I didn't know how to stop," says Wang in Mandarin, adding that he quit the bad habit for good in 2013.

Over the course of a three-hour interview, he has so many woeful gambling stories to share that he loses track of dates and the size of his debts, getting facts and details mixed up as he rambles on.

But he is always earnest, widening his eyes and raising his voice in enthusiasm.

He sounds most agitated when he talks about his largest gambling loss: In just three days, he lost $230,000 at the poker tables on a cruise ship.

That was the entire cash proceeds from the sale of his four- room HDB flat - money he was supposed to use to start over in life and support his family.

It was 1999, about a year before he joined the getai scene.

With no savings to fall back on, Wang, who worked as a soda delivery man at the time, had planned to move past the gambling addiction that he says had plagued him since his teen years.

So he sold his flat, moved his family to his mother's place and "was ready to finally be a good family man" to his wife and three children. But it was not to be.

"My hands were so itchy. As soon as I had that kind of cash, I wanted to go gambling," he says.

He "wishes" that the massive loss had been enough to be his final wake-up call, but the situation got progressively worse once he joined getai a year later as a singer.

Getai performers are paid in cold, hard cash. He was paid $30 to sing three songs when he first started - not a lot of cash by most standards, but it was all he needed to fall back into vice.

"Once I was done with singing, I would check horse racing or football scores on my phone," he recalls, shaking his head.

Getais are free stage shows traditionally held to entertain and appease spirits who are believed to be roaming Earth when the gates of hell open during the annual Hungry Ghost Festival. The shows are also held throughout the year at locations such as temples and community centres to bring good luck.

Wang says: "I have to count my blessings that I managed to stay on for so long in the getai scene or else I don't know how I would have survived."

At his peak in 2003, he sang at 147 shows in a single month to feed his addiction.

All that getai audiences perceived, however, was a hardworking and accomplished performer. It is a little hard to believe that he had entered the industry only at the mature age of 38.

"Most people are shocked to hear that when I tell them. They always assume I have been doing getai shows since I was a kid because of my success," he says, sounding pleased.

Colleague's death woke him up

He certainly never harboured any dreams of becoming an entertainer, joining the getai business by chance after he was spotted in a community centre singing contest in 2000.

A friend had signed him up "for fun", appreciative of his karaoke singing voice. He "shockingly" won second place.

One of the contest judges, singer Xie Jinshi, took a particular liking to his voice and introduced him to getai show organisers. Xie also advised Wang to market himself as an impersonator of Taiwanese Hokkien singer Chen Lei, 53. Given how popular Chen is among Hokkien song fans in Singapore, the strategy worked.

Wang shot up in popularity and, within three years, became a household name. By then, his fee also rose to more than $100 for three songs.

"When I first started singing, I did it on the side for extra money. I never expected my show schedule to end up so booked out that this would be a viable full-time job," he says.

But it was only when he switched to hosting in 2008 that he became a really big deal.

Getai show organiser Aaron Tan, 40, was the first to suggest to Wang that he try his hand at hosting, after sensing his natural rapport with audiences.

Tan says: "Wang Lei engages his audiences well, even when he is just talking in between his songs. He can make very quick and funny comebacks when he banters and audiences love him for that."

Wang now reportedly charges around $1,500 to host a getai show. If he is hired to emcee private company functions, the fee is higher.

Hosting has also bagged him multiple awards at the annual Getai Awards organised by newspapers Shin Min Daily News and Lianhe Wanbao, including for Best Male Host in 2011 and Most Popular Male Host in 2013.

Wang thinks his gift of the gab was honed from his early days as a salesman.

In the years between national service and his getai career, he worked as a delivery man-cummiddleman, peddling products such as sodas, mineral water, fish maw, lingerie and bricks.

Part of his job in delivering these items from the supplier to the retailer was to sell as much as possible for commission, on top of his basic $900 monthly salary.

"The hardest was selling fish maw to wet markets. People working in markets are very no-nonsense and they can get very rude with you. But you just have to be patient and suck it up. Tough work, but you persevere," he says.

Perseverance is something he learnt from an early age, given his poverty-stricken childhood.

Wang, whose late father was a woodworker and late mother a housewife, quit school after Primary 5 as he felt compelled to start earning money for his family.

The fifth child of six - all of whom stopped schooling around the same age to work - says: "I didn't want to be a burden to my family. My classmates had school bags, but I carried my books in paper bags.

"We didn't have much to eat - it was just some rice and a fried egg for most meals - so how could I impose on my parents to pay for my school supplies?"

It was all illegal labour, but he felt proud to earn even $2.50 a day by working on construction sites as a painter and carpenter. He gave every cent of his earnings to his mother.

"My father was a drunk and he beat my mother often and I felt protective of her. I grew up telling myself that I would never, ever hurt my wife if I were to ever get married."

It is a resolution he has stuck with since tying the knot at the age of 23. Ask him to share the story of how he met his wife and he lights up.

He chuckles: "It was so funny. I was calling my friend, but this girl picked up my call instead because our phone lines were accidentally crossed.

"So I started chatting with her and that's how we became friends."

His wife, Madam Florence Cheng, 55, who worked as an assembly-line worker in an electronics company until two years ago, confirms to The Straits Times that her husband has never treated her badly.

Even with his gambling problems - which meant she had to be the main provider for the family for years on her $800-a-month salary - she never felt compelled to leave him.

She says in Mandarin: "I chose to marry him, so how can I complain, right? If we were brought together by a matchmaker, I could blame that person, but marrying him was my own decision. He has never hit me before and he is always good to the kids too."

She concedes that she is always the first to give in whenever the couple have disagreements.

She was furious when he gambled away the proceeds of their old flat, but there were no shouting matches.

"I stopped talking to him for a week and that's how I usually deal with our problems. But, in the end, I will always move past it and forgive him," she says.

There were mornings when she would quietly slip a few extra dollars into his trouser pockets so that her husband, broke from gambling, could have more to spend on food for the day.

Wang says: "She woke up to leave for work earlier than me, so I would still be lying in bed, but I could see that she was secretly trying to help me."

The couple have two daughters aged 32 and 24, and a son, 28. The eldest works in pharmaceutical sales, the middle child opened a Chinese dessert store two months ago, while the youngest does sales for a catering company.

Sharon, their younger daughter, vouches for her father's affectionate nature.

"Our whole family would watch his getai shows together at night and, in the mornings, he would take all the kids to school. I didn't know he had a gambling problem until I was much older because he always splurged and bought us whatever we wanted.

"Of course, when the Ah Longs (loan sharks) got more aggressive and started splashing paint on our flat, we realised how bad it was."

Harassment from loan sharks began when she and her siblings were in their teens during the mid-2000s. They would come home to see red paint or written threats all over the door of their flat, almost weekly.

She says: "I was more scared than embarrassed. The loan sharks never harmed us physically, but we were constantly worried that they would do something to my father.

"But mostly, I felt sad because no matter how we tried to persuade him to quit gambling, he never listened."

The vicious cycle of gambling and borrowing from loan sharks finally ended in mid-2014, about 11/2 years after Wang resolved to quit the addiction and went cold turkey.

Sadly, he says, it took the death of his long-time getai colleague John Cheng - better known as Ah Nan - for him to turn his life around.

Cheng, who gambled with him often, died in January 2013 of a heart attack at the age of 52.

After his funeral, Wang lost more than $100,000 at the gambling tables over 10 consecutive weeks.

"I just couldn't win, not even a little. I also saw how his sudden death left little for his family to survive on. I decided to be serious about quitting once and for all."

He rounded up all 11 loan sharks to meet at the same coffee shop at the same time and worked out a deal with nine of them to repay his debts in monthly instalments. Instead of making him pay back the $10,000 interest a month, they agreed to accept more manageable amounts of $300 to $500 every month.

"I asked them to give me a chance because they had been getting so much of my interest money for so many years."

Three loan sharks rejected the suggestion, however, as they were "more recent" lenders "who had not taken advantage of me yet".

So he borrowed $20,000 from getai organiser Mr Tan on an advance salary basis and paid them off at once.

Finally free of debt for the past two years, Wang says he is doing all he can to make up for lost time with his family.

Already, he has taken them on two family vacations to Taiwan and South Korea, and plans to make the trips an annual affair.

He has also bought a four-room HDB flat, which he is renting out for $3,000 a month. He still lives in his mother's flat, which he now owns.

Outside of his regular getai hosting schedule - he does an average of five shows a week - he also has commercial endorsement deals for a furniture company and the Pioneer Generation card.

Plus, the number of movie-role offers has increased since his film debut in Neo's Where Got Ghost? (2009). These include his first lead role last year as a poor man who becomes a millionaire overnight in the Malaysian comedy, My Papa Rich (2015).

Sounding content, he says: "With no debt to worry about, rental money coming in and my children all grown up, I am ready to live a comfortable life in retirement should that day ever come.

"But as long as audiences still want to see me act and host, I will keep on working."

•Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee

•Long Long Time Ago is showing in cinemas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2016, with the headline 'The Life Interview With Wang Lei Life as 'drama' as getai'. Print Edition | Subscribe