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Getting to Know the Discreet Charm of Mark Chao

By Lynette Kee

Mark Chao in Ermenegildo Zegna XXX parka, shirt and trousers. Longines Master Collection in stainless steel and blue alligator leather strap.
 
Wei Lai
Mark Chao in Ermenegildo Zegna XXX parka, shirt and trousers. Longines Master Collection in stainless steel and blue alligator leather strap.

In the city of Dongyang, Jinhua, Zhejiang province, sits the Chinese town of Hengdian, which proudly chronicles the history of China in cultural architecture. Arguably China’s equivalent of American Hollywood, Hengdian, where the world’s largest film studio (Hengdian World Studios) is located, is billed as the unrivalled filmmaking destination of the country. What I imagine on set: a man dressed in a Qing Dynasty robe strikes a powerful stance with the smoke machine on high. 

Meanwhile, in reality, set in a private studio downtown, lights are up and cameras ready. Actor-model Mark Chao refocuses as the centre of this operation. 

When conversing in Mandarin, Chao articulates his words with an unbridled boyish enthusiasm. Occasional giggles and slur of Chinese witty remarks punctuate, much like the effortless and relatable Chao one would recognise on Asian reality programmes. His mannerism fine-tunes to give off a more mellow and charming air when he speaks in English, by comparison. And this code-switch between two languages comes second nature for him.

Wei LaiGivenchy coat, scarf, trousers and sneakers.
Givenchy coat, scarf, trousers and sneakers.

Chao was born in Taipei, where he lived up till his primary school years before moving to Canada. Chao spent his entire adolescence in Canada and graduated from the University of Victoria with a degree in business. But at the age of 25, Chao kickstarted a career in the entertainment industry. A decade later, the now 35-year-old has accumulated a formidable portfolio having starred in many critically acclaimed films and drama series. “I hope I’ve grown,” he says. “I think I’ve definitely become more intelligent in my choices and in life.” 

As a public figure, it is almost engraved in the job description for one to not only meet the expectations set by one’s self, but also that from your team, production crew and the audience. While most celebrities feel the pressure to wear multiple hats as they build their career, Chao has decidedly dedicated his time to perfecting his craft as an actor. “I can’t play music, I can’t dance,” he says candidly, without a hint of embarrassment. “And I really enjoy [acting] because I’ve finally found a way to express myself [artistically].” Perhaps, it is how his acting chops were so quickly discovered within the first few years of stepping into the industry. 

 

“I think success means happiness. If you can say from the bottom of your heart that you are happy, you’ve pretty much achieved success.”

Wei LaiErmenegildo Zegna XXX jacket, sweater and trousers. Longines Master Collection in stainless steel and blue alligator leather strap.
Ermenegildo Zegna XXX jacket, sweater and trousers. Longines Master Collection in stainless steel and blue alligator leather strap.

The first time Chao was spotlighted, was when he made his television debut in Black & White, a drama series, which won him the Best Actor award at the 44th Golden Bell Awards.

Chao, who has taken on countless successful parts in his career trajectory, played Wu Ying Xiong, an overzealous cop in the series, and regards that as his most memorable role. “I didn’t realise how deeply I was into the character until after we wrapped. For a few months, I was still doing what Wu Ying Xiong would do. I would go into a restaurant and I would find exits, I would be looking at my surroundings and I would size a guy up and [think] I can take him.” He shares in jest before reassuring with a laugh, “I don’t do that anymore, though.” 

If you are from a mainstream Netflix crowd, however, you probably would have never heard of Chao before the airing of Chinese drama series Eternal Love in 2017. His casting as a beautiful male lead in the Chinese mythical drama was met with equally triumphant results. Since its broadcast, the series is the first Chinese television drama to reach over 50 billion views, becoming the most-watched television series in China, while earning Chao a spot on Forbes’ annual China Celebrity 100 list in 2017 among other luminaries of the industry. 

After his cover shoot for T, Mark Chao gets candid about his journey in acting and considers what it means to be a man today.

 
Ermenegildo Zegna XXX jacket and sweater.
Ermenegildo Zegna XXX jacket and sweater.

Despite the vastly different roles he’s taken on, there is seemingly a pattern in most of Chao’s character-developing endeavours. “I always ask the director, ‘Why do you think I am suitable for this role?’,” he divulges. “It’s an important question because I need to know what they see in me, and the resemblance of me to the character. It helps me make the connection.” Chao appears earnest in his pursuits — from professional to personal. In sharing about his success, the actor expresses through an innately passionate and humble disposition. 

To Chao, success is the deceptively simple task of finding happiness at one’s core, a task that few are able to do. “If you can say, from deep inside your heart; from the bottom of your heart, that you’re happy, you’ve pretty much-achieved success.” Perhaps it’s superficial to assume an omniscient viewpoint from the outside, but watching the way Chao’s career is paving out, along with the arrival of his new-born daughter last year, it certainly does seem like he has achieved the joys of contentment — if not the success of his definition. 

Wei LaiLeft: Bottega Veneta sweater and pants. Right: Ermenegildo Zegna XXX jacket and sweater. Longines Master Collection in stainless steel and blue alligator leather strap.
Left: Bottega Veneta sweater and pants. Right: Ermenegildo Zegna XXX jacket and sweater. Longines Master Collection in stainless steel and blue alligator leather strap.

They say the secret to happiness is giving. Which, of course, came naturally to Chao who is simultaneously running a charity campaign. The passion project, titled Guang He Shi Ke translates to the comforting process of photosynthesis that takes place in plants. “It’s my personal attitude towards life,” he explains, depicting the process as embracing the beauty and warmth in our daily lives. “There [are] a lot of noises, but I think we can all look past it. I think we can all find and dig out what we treasure the most and focus on that — that’s pretty much what the project is [about].” 

The campaign follows a specific theme each year. In 2019, Guang He Shi Ke ushered in its first public activity focusing on photosynthetic reading, which converted 10,000 hours of reading time to 10,000 books donated to underprivileged children. At this juncture, it is not difficult to see that Chao is at the pinnacle of his career and his life. But beneath the ambitious façade of this modern man, is a sensitive, devoted soul. “I’m still a more traditional person, I guess,” he says. “I want myself to be the provider, to be the dependable pillar. I want myself to be the husband that will always listen to his wife whenever she’s frustrated, whatever she has to say. I want to be the person who pushes aside my own feelings [to be] able to absorb her frustrations first.” And that is what maketh the man, in the books of Chao.

Wei LaiChao on the two of three covers of T’s “Men’s Fashion” February issue.
Chao on the two of three covers of T’s “Men’s Fashion” February issue.

Related story: On Set | Mark Chao on What Being a Man Means Today

Interview by Jenine Oh
Photographs by Wei Lai
Styled by Glenn Goh
Creative direction by Jack Wang
Makeup and hair by Muzi