“Sorry,” actor-singer Alvin Chong says midway through our interview, his voice breaking. He pauses momentarily and lets the tears fall.
As the wave of emotions passes, the 26-year-old continues: “Whenever my mum called, she’d always ask, ‘How’s life?’ Somehow mothers know. She knew that I wasn’t doing very well, but I would never tell her anything.”
Chong is recounting one of his life’s most difficult moments so far. Back in 2009, the Penang-native had just moved to Kuala Lumpur to try his luck at showbiz. Chong wasn’t making any headway and he didn’t want his loved ones back home to worry.
“One time, I only had a loaf of bread to last me for a week. I was actually crying when I ate the bread. That was the toughest,” he remembers.
Last year, Chong got his biggest career breakthrough yet after starring in the hit Malay-language drama Suri Hati Mr Pilot. Chong’s road to success took seven long years, but during a candid interview with Star2, this rising star shares he has known hardship and hard work nearly all his life.
Chong’s family ran into some financial troubles when he was seven. To earn some extra pocket money, the young boy started helping out at a relative’s convenience store after school. “I would help arrange the products and stick price tags on them,” he shares.
Even when he was at school, the resourceful youngster found a way to make money.
“You know the kids who’d always get scolded for not doing their homework? I’d go up to them and offer to do it for a fee. I gave them two options – I could write them an essay similar to mine or I could write an entirely new one for them, which would cost more,” he recalls with a laugh.
At 15, Chong started his first official job at a fast-food restaurant. He worked after school and on weekends. He would go on to work various odd jobs throughout his teenage years.
“Most of my friends and classmates were about chasing girls, playing football, learning music or playing video games. I only had homework and work,” he reflects. “I felt kind of sad at first that I didn’t have the childhood my friends had, but the plus point is my mentality is more matured compared to others at that age.”
One day, Chong was hanging out at a music cafe with his friends and wondered how much the singers on stage earned. “For three hours, you get about RM60 to RM70 for a beginner. Working at the fast food restaurant, I only earned RM3.50 an hour.”
Chong didn’t know if he could sing but auditioned anyway and, lo and behold, landed the job. “I never went for any vocal classes. I just wanted the money. I was like, ‘Just give me the job’.”
He left all his other jobs and made a living singing at the cafe, at weddings and winning cash prizes from singing contests. One in particular, Astro Star Quest (ASQ), offered a handsome cash prize, RM40,000, and a brand new car. He competed in the Chinese reality singing competition in 2009 and although he didn’t win, he managed a respectable top five finish.
After the competition, Chong clinched a scholarship to pursue a diploma in graphic design in Kuala Lumpur. While studying, he landed a recording contract and released Mandarin singles The Days Without You and Sadly It’s Not You.
As a newcomer, naturally things got off to a slow start. “Once, I only had RM200 in my bank account. I didn’t know if I could survive. Thankfully, I had good friends who gave me a place to stay and cooked for me.”
Ready For Take-Off
The years passed and the dry spell gradually lifted. Chong tried his hand at acting, nabbing lead roles in local Chinese flicks 3 Brothers (2014), The Dream Boyz (2015) and Huat The Fish (2016). In 2015, Chong decided to manage his own career, setting up artiste management company Hashtag Entertainment.
“People in the industry say it’s impossible for me to survive (on my own),” he says. “The thing about me is I don’t give up.”
Chong dug in his heels and last October, his career finally took flight. It all started when Chong expressed interest in acting in Malay-language dramas to a contact he knew through ASQ. “They gave me a cameo role in Dia Semanis Honey where I played a busker and had only three scenes,” he says.
Chong must’ve made quite an impression as TV director Michael Ang, who was working on a new drama Suri Hati Mr Pilot (SHMP), came knocking on his door the next day. In SHMP, Chong plays Chinese Muslim pilot Johan who is a friend of the show’s hero Ejaz (Fattah Amin).
“In the novel (which the drama is based on), Johan is Malay. They changed the identity of the character a bit because of me. They wanted me to play the role,” says a grateful Chong.
The actor says he couldn’t speak Malay fluently when he first signed on to the show: “So I mixed around with more Malay friends. It’s gotten better now.”
SHMP became a phenomenon, reportedly drawing in five million viewers per episode. Fuelled by SHMP’s success, Chong was recently cast as leading man in the upcoming drama, Awak Suka Saya Tak, acting opposite Emma Maembong. “I feel really lucky. This is just my second drama and I’m playing the lead role already.”
Chong will also appear on the fourth season of reality series The House alongside his SHMP co-star Fattah.
Despite his newfound fame with the Malay audience, Chong says he hasn’t abandoned the Chinese market. In fact, he was in Beijing recently to shoot a Chinese romance flick, Reunion Romance.
“I shot a TV series in Taiwan a few years ago and got to know some people there who came to me recently, offering me a supporting role. Days before shooting began, the lead actor couldn’t make it. They asked me if I wanted to do it. I took up the challenge,” he shares about the new project, which will also star veteran Hong Kong actress Maria Cordero.
While he has more engagements in the Malay market these days, Chong makes it a point to release a Chinese single every year. “I want to portray myself as a multi-market talent,” he says.
That includes the English-speaking market, too. The singer is looking to drop an English single next.
“When I first came to KL, my English was very bad. I couldn’t even form a complete sentence. So, I picked up English by listening to English radio stations and practised speaking with my friends,” he shares, adding he feels an affinity to the language now and listens to mostly English songs.
With so much on his plate, does Chong have any time for his personal life?
“I had two relationships before. My then-girlfriend used to complain, ‘In your head, there’s only work, work and work.’ My last relationship was four years ago. It’ll be great if I can find someone I love who can bear with the demands of my career. If not, I have no problems living by myself.”
His steadfast devotion to his career has to do with wanting a better life for his family. “I’m just doing the best I can so that one day, I can clear off my family’s debts and bring my mum to travel. She’s always wanted to travel.”
Chong, who is currently supporting his two younger brothers financially, is optimistic. “People say the economy has been bad these past two years, but in these two years, I’ve earned the most. No matter how bad the things around you get, there’s always a way to succeed.”