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In Studio With Russel Wong: On Framing Icons & Dodging Traffic With Jackie Chan

This has been a casual, yet profound heart-to-heart with Russel Wong, who has given us a look into the fascinating life of artists in the dynamic world of Hollywood and Asian cinema.

 

When I was no older than 8, my dad would put on his favourite films on the TV at ill-advised timings, like right before my bedtime, to my mom’s annoyance. 7-year-old me would sit, wide-eyed, in awe of Jackie Chan’s daredevil antics, the effortless charm of Tony Leung and the grace of Michelle Yeoh. Growing up in the swirl of the 1990s and early 2000s, my childhood was steeped in Asian cinema. I’d be captivated by the themes of love, honour and conflict in historical fantasy films the likes of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". Maybe losing a few hours of sleep before school was worth the education I was receiving.

So, imagine the heady rush of nostalgia I experienced when, shortly after reviewing Malt, Grain & Cane’s latest KyoMurasaki limited edition Staoisha and Fettercairn, we were put in touch with the artist behind the labels, who's also worked very closely with these titans of cinema – Russel Wong.

Russel Wong is probably the most celebrated international photographer from Southeast Asia till date. Best known for his illustrious Hollywood career that saw him work with the likes of Robert Downey Jr, Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis, Richard Gere and the beloved Anthony Bourdain, he also has an impressive 16 TIME covers to his name.

 

(Source: Russel Wong Photography)

 

Yet I reckon his most captivating stories come from his close friendships with many icons of Asian cinema. Fluent in both English and Cantonese, he earned the reputation of being the photographer who was part of Jackie Chan’s 'gang', and was treated like family by the Hong Kongers. Anthony Bourdain, the beloved chef and travel documentary host, also counted Russel as a good friend. When he was filming for No Reservations which Russel did publicity shoots for, Tony would occasionally show up at Russel’s place on the weekends unannounced, and the duo would grab hawker food together.

 

(Source: Russel Wong Photography)

 

One Thursday afternoon, I managed to catch Russel before his scheduled shoot with the several top Tour de France cyclists. The pretext was ostensibly to discuss his artistic process on the photographs used on MGC’s KyoMurasaki bottle labels. But to be honest, this was also my excuse to step through the looking glass and get to know the man who framed my childhood heroes – in short, be a fanboy.

"It was track and field that brought the photographer out of me."

If you met Russel in person, you’d immediately get a sense of why he’s such a well-liked photographer. The man is clearly a people person – he's such a great storyteller (whether through the lens or in person), he's unmistakably relatable, genuine, good humoured. American critics have praised Russel for his ability to capture an elusive ‘Asian identity’ in his photographs, so I asked him what exactly that meant. “I don’t know about that,” Russel laughed and retorted. Then he considered it and on second thought shared that his upbringing might indeed have a subtle influence on his photography: “I was educated in the US but I’m Asian, Singaporean, Peranakan and Cantonese. So I bring all these cultures that I grew up with, and I view the world a certain way, sensitive to a lot of cultures. Also, I’m not a hard-sell guy, so maybe you can say that’s the Asian side of it.

 

(Source: Russel Wong Photography)

 

Russel’s early years mirror that of many Singaporeans. He went to school at ACS Primary and Secondary before heading to college in the US. As a parting gift, Russel's father gave him a camera, simply wanting Russel to send some pictures home.

Recalling his early teenage years, Russel explained “I wasn't nuts about photography, I wasn't really into it. My father bought me a camera six months before I left. I just played around with it.” Young Russel did have a passion for track and field, however, and he opted to go to the University of Oregon, renowned for its track and field programs that produced numerous Olympic athletes. It was here that Russel’s passion for track and field led to something much bigger.

 

University of Oregon's Hayward Field stadium (Source: Chris Schiemann)

 

The University of Oregon’s Hayward Field has been an international mecca of sorts for track and field, and frequently hosted prestigious events. It’s also referred to as The Nike School – athletic teams would often wear sponsored Nike uniforms and sports gear. “It was track and field that brought the photographer out of me. It was great for me to see these world class athletes, and I used the camera to photograph them, and to just get to them,” Russel recounted. “ Imagine being a kid, just 16-and-a-half. You pick the camera up, and suddenly you’re put it in this environment where you see world class athletes all the time. Until then, photography was still a hobby for me. Then I just realised I was so passionate about it. All I could think about was just taking pictures, and doing photography, shooting these athletes. I was kind of possessed in a way.”

Russel’s photography career officially began when he serendipitously photographed the world record miler, Sebastian Coe (now UK politician Lord Coe) and sold the image to one of Nike’s big bosses, Geoff Hollister. One thing led to another. Russel’s image of Coe was selected to make the cover of California’s top track and field magazine, Track & Field News.

 

 (Source: Russel Wong Photography)

 

And it was only then that I figured that I'm a professional now, I'm working, I'm being published. Everything got real for me, that this could be a career.” At just 18, Russel became an official photographer for Nike and would be sent to photograph track meets. Nike couldn’t pay Russel in cash because he was on a foreign student visa, but he was generously remunerated with shoes and sweats. Looking back, the best reward for Russel, though, was the opportunity to photograph rising sporting stars who would become legends. “It was great because I was shooting a lot of these legends now as you know them, like Carl Lewis, for tennis it was John McEnroe, Michael Jordan later on.” He would work for Nike for 3 years. Then after graduating from photography school, Russel’s next big break came in the form of the young Robert Downey Jr., who enjoyed working with Russel so much that he recommended Russel to other rising stars.

 

(Source: Russel Wong Photography)

 

As a photographer, Russel doesn't chase trends. In fact, he intentionally avoids them. He stressed to me that his drive is to create something timeless, something that withstands the fleeting nature of our disposable society. “How come this piece of art lasts, but that doesn't last? There is a reason – how it's crafted, how it's composed, how it's lit, or how it's painted. These elements are really, really important to what I do. I try to apply that because we live in a very disposable society. Everything lasts three months, if you're lucky. And people don't look for something that's well-crafted because they don't know what something well-crafted looks like or even feels like. It's something that I take really seriously and I want it to come through in my images.

You would get a sense of what Russel is talking about if you look at the images that adorn the bottles of Malt, Grain & Cane’s KyoMurasaki series (with three releases so far).

"If you look at my images, hopefully for most of them, you can't tell when it was shot, right?... I want things to last and I want people to enjoy it and not put a date on it."

(Source: MGC)

 

Russel continued “If you look at my images, hopefully for most of them, you can't tell when it was shot, right? Just the way it's composed or it's treated, whether it's monochrome or colour. The subject matter too that I choose. I want things to last and I want people to enjoy it and not put a date on it.

Timelessness as a philosophy may seem a bit abstract at first glance, but it's deeply grounded in the nature of Russel's work as a photographer of pop culture. Chuckling, Russel candidly shared that his attitudes towards photography at the beginning of his career were more cut and dried. Timelessness wasn’t on his mind early on: “When you're starting out, you don't care about the implications. Like okay, we have Cindy Crawford and other supermodels. You just want to make covers and get some more work! And you’re kind of short-sighted in a way because you're living in the moment. That's all that’s in front of you. To just try to get a Vogue cover or Harper’s Bazaar cover and shoot this and that famous person.

"We all look at images of these icons and we always wish that they were more of them. I'm in the position, I'm living the moment with people who are going to be historical figures."

(Source: Russel Wong Photography)

 

Yet as Russel became more established in Hollywood, and calls began coming in, he came to the realisation that he wasn’t just taking pictures of famous people. He was documenting history right before his eyes. “They say that ‘Russel shoots famous people.’ When I started out, sure, I was just trying to get the famous people to shoot – the models, the actors. But it has changed a bit for me in terms of respecting the historical side of it. I'm actually documenting history.”

 

(Source: Russel Wong Photography)

 

Bruce Lee, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, the Beatles. We all look at images of these icons and we always wish that they were more of them. I'm in the position, I'm living the moment with people who are going to be historical figures. Jackie is one of them. So when I approached him and worked with him, I took it really seriously. That’s Jackie Chan! Jackie Chan's the most famous actor in the world. He was around before [Sylvester] Stallone, he was around before [Arnold] Schwarzenegger. He always told me that ‘hey, Russel, I was around before these guys.’

 

(Source: Russel Wong Photography)

 

More than thirty years into his photography career, Russel ironically takes his work more seriously now than ever. If he has just five minutes with his subject, he would be snapping every second. Every moment is an opportunity. Even a brief encounter with an actor, musician, athlete or politician is an opportunity to create something lasting—an image with the potential to outlive us all and stand as a testament to this era’s culture and history.

One of Russel’s favourite memories is of the time he took Jackie Chan’s TIME cover. The job came on the back of Jackie's famous ‘Rush Hour’ becoming a box office hit in the US. Russel already had an idea for the cover – he wanted to depict Jackie as the figurative 'Boss of Hong Kong'. To capture the essence of Hong Kong in the background, he chose a spot on Nathan Road in Kowloon where the vibrant neon signboards in the background are low enough to be captured in the frame. Jackie was positioned on a director's chair right in the middle of the thoroughfare, claiming the city as his own.

 

 

Jackie's TIME cover always will be at the back of my head. The whole experience was amazing. Shooting him in the middle of the main road in Hong Kong, and it was thunder storming. We both ran out on to the street when the storm cleared up – you’d just see Jackie Chan and me shooting in the middle of main road. People thought we were doing Rush Hour 2 or something.

True to Jackie's hands-on approach, they carried out the shoot without security or traffic control. They timed their shots with the changing of traffic lights, seizing brief moments of red light to sprint out and capture a series of poses. Seeing Jackie do his thing, the onlookers were constantly chanting 'Tai Kor! Tai Kor!' ('Big Brother' in Cantonese). Russel's resulting image would indeed immortalise Jackie as the ‘Boss of Hong Kong’.

 

(Source: Russel Wong Photography)

 

I could see Russel’s sharp eyes expressing a hint of nostalgia. It looked like he’s relieving that afternoon’s storm in Kowloon City with Jackie’s crew. “Jackie is great to work with, he's a good friend. I’ve been working with him nearly 20 years or so.

"The key is to never go in overly respecting them. It's a psychological game. If I go in, and I'm lower than you, you're gonna push me around."

Another one of Russel’s memorable shoots was with Lee Kuan Yew. Russel described it as “an amazing opportunity to be able to capture history.” One of his images was used in TIME magazine the year Mr Lee passed away.

 

(Source: Russel Wong Photography)

 

I wondered to myself how Russel performed his job so flawlessly in the presence of all these personalities. I would probably be fumbling and stuttering. The stern and unyielding Mr Lee many Singaporeans are familiar with is a truly larger-than-life character – the responsibility of capturing his essence must have felt immense. With a knowing expression, Russel leaned in and added: “The key is to never go in overly respecting them. It's a psychological game. If I go in, and I'm lower than you, you're gonna push me around – it’s gonna be your shoot, not mine. But I have my shoot in mind already, so I’ve got to go in at the same level, speak to them the same level. Don't go in there all subservient and below them. Otherwise he would get a hold on me. And yeah, sometimes it is challenging and daunting when a country’s Prime Minister is in front of you.”

“You want to speak at the same level. Don’t ask ‘Is it okay, if I do this?’ Just tell them ‘Can you do this?’ or ‘Can you do that?’, or 'Mr Lee, please come this way.’ Direct them. Because they are looking for direction too. They all are looking for direction for what to do… And in the end, it's my shot of you. Not the other way around. So you can have what you want, but I'm gonna get what I want.

I told Russel that most people, like myself, might feel completely starstruck in some situations. He burst out laughing and replied “You don't want to be a fanboy on the set, man. That's the worst thing you could do! You’ve gotta suppress that feeling, come in as a professional and put your eye on. Once it’s game time, it’s autopilot and boom, I just do it. It could be anyone in front of me, it could be President Obama or you.”

Though widely recognised for his celebrity portraiture, Russel's repertoire is by no means confined to the studio. He has undertaken numerous publicity shoots for renowned filmmakers Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee, particularly for their Chinese historical fantasy films. This required Russel to step out from his studio in Los Angeles and engage with the natural landscapes of China.

 

(Source: Russel Wong Photography)

 

I asked Russel the obvious question: how does he approach landscape-nature photography any differently from human portraits? “Like anything, I'm just trying to capture a beautiful image. That's my key," he began, when asked about the transition. His process involves meticulous study of the location and an acute awareness of the time of day, with numerous visits to the same spot—like the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove in Japan, which he has photographed on at least 20 different occasions till date. The reason for his repeated visits ad nauseum? Bad lighting.

 

(Source: Russel Wong Photography)

 

The transition from studio to nature was a challenge that surprised Russel himself. He initially thought capturing landscapes would be simpler than celebrity shoots—no demanding schedules, no make-up or hair to perfect, no publicists to appease. However, the reality proved otherwise. The elements of nature were unforgiving, and the task of capturing the perfect image required a deep understanding of weather patterns and seasonal timing, a facet he had not encountered in the controlled environment of the studio where lighting and even wind could be controlled: “When I started shooting nature and landscapes in China, working with Zhang Yimou for his films, I thought it was going to be so easy. Unlike celebrity portraits, you don’t have to deal with a movie star, hair, makeup artists, managers and publicists. I thought that was difficult. But when I started shooting landscapes, I realised landscapes were so difficult . The first set of images I got was so bad and I had to figure it out why. You’ve got to study the weather patterns and the time of the day and the season to go shoot it."

"When you talk about nature, you don't have control over lighting," Russel explained. “Ultimately you don't have any control. You could book a five-day shoot at the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, only for lighting to be bad for all five days. It was interesting for me, because everything I did till that moment, I had control.”

Over the past 15 years, Russel has spent significant time in Japan on a still-ongoing personal project to document life in Japan, important Geisha rituals taking place behind closed doors and beautiful landscapes. Many of his images from Japan have been showcased in exhibitions at the Asian Civilisation Museum titled ‘Russel Wong in Kyoto’ and ‘Life in Edo’.

 

(Source: Russel Wong Photography)

 

Russel seeks to create a somewhat moody, ethereal quality in his landscapes, and he prefers presenting them in black and white for a timeless feel – an echo of his studio work’s enduring appeal. You can see all of these elements come through in his Arashiyama Bamboo Grove work which adorns the Barbadons rum of Malt, Grain & Cane's KyoMurasaki series.

 

(Source: MGC)

 

His approach is comprehensive and open-minded. Earlier this year, Russel braved Hokkaido’s sub-zero temperatures after hearing of tancho cranes and seeing stunning pictures of these elegant birds. Once again, there is an element of timelessness in these images – tancho cranes have a special place in Japanese paintings for many hundreds of years, and Russel knows they will continue to be an important part of Japanese iconography. "I'm not a nature photographer, but I try to capture images that would make me go ‘Wow this is an amazing scene!'" One of Russel’s photographs of these stunning cranes performing a mid-flight mating ritual adorns the Fettercairn single malt of Malt, Grain & Cane's KyoMurasaki series .

 

(Source: MGC)

 

The KyoMurasaki series collaboration began after Marcus of Malt, Grain & Cane approached Russel after a talk at Club 1880. This partnership seemed natural for Russel, and Malt, Grain & Cane’s connection to Japanese bar clients made it all the more fitting. "Yeah, for me, the decision-making is always quite fast. I either like it, or I don't like it. There’s never a grey area," Russel explained. Then he compared this approach to how he selects images for his portfolio or edits images after a shoot. “I always believed that if I needed to think about something too hard, it's not meant to be. That's how I edit my photos too. I look at thousands of frames and I know which ones to use. I don't even think about it.” This instinctual knowledge of what works and what doesn't seems paramount to a photographer.

"You can’t put a dollar value to the enjoyment art brings to you. Just like sipping or having a whisky. That couple of seconds or minutes, it transports you. It’s intangible."

Russel's enthusiasm was palpable, particularly when the conversation steered towards other well-known spirits brands that have also ventured into fine art photography. "I like Elliot Erwitt’s work!" he exclaimed, admiring the Velier Magnum Series rum bottles adorned with Erwitt's high-contrast black and white photographs. You can’t easily pinpoint the era in which these Erwitt’s photographs were taken, and that seems to really resonate with Russel, who has a profound appreciation for the sense of timelessness in photography.

 

(Source: Velier)

 

What does art have to do with whisky? To Russel, both represent the finer things in life that can't be quantified in monetary terms. "Good drink and great art go hand-in-hand," he remarked, highlighting the intangible value of such experiences. "You can’t put a dollar value to the enjoyment art brings to you. Just like sipping or having a whisky. That couple of seconds or minutes, it transports you. It’s intangible."

Despite having worked with many luxury brands, Russel maintains a down-to-earth demeanour. "I’m not a connoisseur," he admitted with a laugh, "To me, a good drink completes my meal."

Russel then shared some anecdotes about social drinking with his celebrity profiles, "Yeah, I did drink with a bunch of them man, just at the club," he laughed, looking back at those wild nights. One particular memory did stand out to him from after the first premiere of ‘In The Mood For Love,’ where he, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung had hotpot dinner accompanied by a very potent white spirit: “We’re just sitting around, chatting. We had dinner with this really toxic Chinese drink.

 

(Source: Russel Wong Photography)

 

Although Russel could not remember exactly what was drunk that night, he did manage to capture candid shots during these intimate moments. I later obtained from him a picture he’d taken of Tony and Maggie at dinner that fateful evening. They were seated amid bottles of Hapi China beer and a little green bottle of what looks like Red Star ‘Er Guo Tou’ Baijiu. Notably, this is a harsh-tasting convenience store baijiu with a hefty 56% ABV, so Russel wasn’t being completely facetious when he called it a noxious drink.

 

Red Star ‘Er Guo Tou’ Baijiu.

 

Late last year, I interviewed Shizuoka Distillery’s founder, Taiko Nakamura , and we discussed the impact of artificial intelligence on human endeavours we’re both passionate about, like Formula 1 racing. But Taiko-san was sure that whiskymaking is a craft that would always need that human touch. Recently, there’s also been some controversy after an AI-generated artwork won first place against human artists in a Colorado art competition. I was curious what Russel, with a camera in hand, thought about this whole AI business.

 

'Space Opera' - a digital painting generated by Jason Allen with the use of the Midjourney program which generates images based on plain language descriptions.

 

Russel echoed the sentiments of Taiko-san. Human-made photography still holds irreplaceable value. "I think, when the human hand is involved, the whole feel will be different," Russel said. He pointed out the huge disparity in price between hand-made designer handbags and machine-made counterparts and insists there is a certain charm in handcrafted items. “To me, there's always a market for something handmade, no matter what,” Russel insisted.

Then he referenced the wabi-sabi philosophy, about appreciating the beauty of imperfections that come with handcrafted work. "Computers can make perfect images, but that’s not the key. It’s the human touch, which sometimes is a bit vulnerable, because it's not perfectly done. That's the beauty of it – a hand cut stone is different from a machine cut one." he explained. A human eye and hand are still required to figure out perspective, lighting and depth—these are things that Russel believes a computer could never quite achieve.

Don’t get Russel wrong, technology has helped a lot, he said. With digital cameras, he no longer has to fly with rolls of film and worry about negatives going bad when he crosses x-ray checkpoints. Now he could email images to clients without printing them and arranging for a courier. Nevertheless, he stressed the importance of not being dictated by technology.

On the tools of his trade, Russel asserted, “I've never been a slave to my tools.” He isn't swayed by the latest cameras, lenses or imaging software, instead focusing on what is necessary for his work. The emphasis is on conceiving of the image first before choosing the appropriate equipment thereafter: “It's always like, what do I need? And how am I going to create this image? What results am I going for? Then I find the tools to make it.”

Sometimes you use the most medieval tools to make the most beautiful things – like using a hammer and chisel,” Russel completed the thought, referencing the great Italian sculptors Michelangelo and Rodin. He paused for a moment, as if satisfied with his analogy, then he explained his concern that our overreliance on high-end tools would homogenise creativity, “You’ve got to be disciplined that way. Because if everyone’s using the same thing, how different can your images be?

 

Jackie Chan's Snake in the Eagle's Shadow (1978) was the breakout film for the young action star. Back when most Bruce Lee-style kung fu films had a serious tone, its combination of martial arts, comedy and storytelling heralded a new direction for Hong Kong action movies.

 

To stand out in art, one must be willing to diverge from the crowd, said Russel. This, Russel learned by observing and speaking to successful film stars the likes of Jackie Chan. The young Russel would look in awe at their successes and wonder what was their secret formula. Why was Jackie such a successful action film actor, and not just another stuntman from Hong Kong?

The answer lies in how he charted his own unique course, did things differently from the rest and ensured his work didn’t just blend into the background. Early in Jackie’s career, he would often be compared by cynical audiences to Bruce Lee. Jackie’s response was to double-down on his uniqueness: “Bruce is serious. I'm funny. Bruce kicks high, I kick low." Jackie went on to carve out his own niche in the action comedygenre, which led to his early cinematic breakthroughs in the late 1970s. Even to his children, Jackie would frequently expound about avoiding the temptation to follow trends blindly to buy that latest trendy pair of sneakers. Jackie would tell his kid, “If all of you were wearing the same pair of shoes, how different can you be?’”

 

"If you're not gonna love it, don’t do it."

On the topic of choosing the road less travelled, our conversation took a natural turn toward the end. In a society like Singapore's, where the youth are often encouraged to go for stable career trajectories, Russel's journey couldn’t be more different and more colourful – allowing him to make a name for himself in Hollywood. I was curious about the advice he would offer to those embarking on their own unique paths, particularly in creative or entrepreneurial realms.

 

(Source: Russel Wong Photography)

 

Russel’s response was immediate and emphatic. “If you're not gonna love it, don’t do it,” he said, reflecting on his father’s wisdom: you can't fail at something that you’re truly passionate about. “I was lucky that photography kind of chose me,” Russel stumbled into this profession. Yet there were still inherent challenges and sacrifices in taking a path less beaten. His mantra? To cut through the chatter and stay laser-focused on what he wanted to do. "No one’s gonna take that away from you if you’re really passionate about what you do," he declared, stressing that without this passion, any creative work produced would be hollow.

I felt as though I'd just had one of the most enlightening conversations you could ask for. Russel gave us a peek behind the curtain, not just about his life in the limelight, his time partying with celebrities but also his philosophy of timelessness and a deeply personal lesson on charting your own course. From embracing the flaws in the handmade to being confident with larger-than-life personalities, his insights were a treasure trove.

 

(Source: Russel Wong Photography)

 

Just when I had this thought, Russel glanced at his watch and mentioned he had an upcoming shoot with Tadej Pogacar, one of the most popular cyclists and two-time Tour de France winner. Time had sprinted by us.

I would have loved to extend our conversation, keep listening to his stories, and understand the layers behind each photograph. But good things, as they say, must come to an end. Yet before he raced off with his gear in his Grab taxi, he did something quite unexpected. Russel handed me a coffee table book—a collection of some of his proudest work captured through the lens, so many of my childhood cinematic heroes. This gesture was beyond what I could have hoped for, and when I saw his autograph inside (he remembered my name!), it was genuinely touching—a token I really cherish.

This has been a casual, yet profound heart-to-heart with Russel Wong, who has given us a look into the fascinating life of artists in the dynamic world of Hollywood and Asian cinema. Quite a journey, quite a chat, and absolutely, quite a guy.


You can follow Russel's amazing work and adventures here: Instagram | Facebook | Russel Wong Photography

In due time, you may purchase MGC's limited edition KyoMurasaki series featuring beautiful images taken by Russel here: MGC Website

Kanpai!

@CharsiuCharlie