The Strange Expressions and Personal Tragedies of Football Commentator Peter Wong

Wong and Elane, Hong Kong, 1977

Peter Wong is one of Hong Kong’s most distinctive sports commentators. When sports programming with Cantonese commentary proliferated in the 1990s, thanks to new cable channels, he became known for quirky, colourful expressions that have since crept into mainstream usage. Never the owner of a mellifluous delivery like Vin Scully, one of his idols, his disjointed speaking style often elicited polarising reaction from the audience as well as some colleagues. But he has also shown tremendous staying power in a profession that normally prizes smoothness. 

Perhaps it’s a reflection of his dogged resilience. Beneath the baritone voice and inimitable on-air persona lies the soul of a survivor and eternal optimist, who overcame unspeakable tragedies to remain sane and relevant, and through his indefatigable spirit evolved into an iconic sports commentator. 

Peter Wong in Los Angeles, 1970

Wong was born into a privileged family towards the end of World War II. His grandfather, Wong Sik-pun, was a self-made multi-millionaire who became the Chinese general manager of Mobil Oil’s Hong Kong office. He held out great hopes for Wong, being the eldest son of his eldest son, and the expectation of the family patriarch became a source of stress. “Family legacy was my burden,” he says. “He wanted me to eventually take over an insurance company that he owned, but for someone who did not even like accounting, who was a C- student in the subject, asking me to study actuary was asking too much. At the end of the day, I did not accomplish one-tenth of the things that my grandfather had wanted me to do.”

The stress was compounded by family tragedy. On the night of June 18, 1959, Peter’s father, Robert Wong Ying-kau, went to the Cactus Room, a nightclub in Wan Chai’s Luk Kwok Hotel that catered to the well-heeled. He was there to meet with a business associate, but when they left the premises after midnight, Robert was never heard from again. Three days later, Wong’s grandfather received a letter that included the lopped-off ear of his eldest son, demanding a ransom for his return. Peter’s grandfather would survive his own abduction by the same group of kidnappers 19 months later, but Robert met a crueller fate. Police found the remains of Robert Wong on a mountain slope on Repulse Bay Road on December 10, 1961, and arrested the three kidnappers three days later. The murderers were tried, convicted, and executed the following year, bringing closure to one of the most infamous criminal cases in the history of Hong Kong, the “Three Wolves Case.”

Robert was a father with a laissez-faire attitude toward child development and became the buffer between traditional family demands and a carefree life for a grateful Wong. “We loved to go out to movie theatres or get ice creams as a family,” he says. “And he never dictated to me what he wanted me to become.” Weekend pastimes included cruising in their family car, going to the horse races on Saturday, or watching football matches on Sunday. This idyllic way of life was all that Peter had known before the age of 15 until fate pierced the cocoon of bliss with such wanton ferocity, it jolted him to the core and shattered his world.

A network of devoted relatives and friends provided the necessary defence mechanism. Wong would seek counsel from sympathetic relatives, or relish in the company of classmates or friends. It was still a minor miracle that he came through this period with few visible signs of permanent emotional scar. “In retrospect,” Wong says, “I don’t know how I got through the ordeal.”

As per family tradition, Wong went to the US for higher education. He majored in business administration at Loyola Marymount University in California, but he was much better at sociology and philosophy-related subjects that did not require rote memorisation. He delved into the teachings of worldly philosophers and famous sports coaches such as John Wooden of UCLA as a form of self-administered therapy. Physical distance at least allowed him to begin a slow healing process away from the spotlight of Hong Kong.

He returned home in 1973 and later met a woman named Elane at the Hong Kong Country Club, where his influential grandfather had made him a junior member. “She was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen there,” says Wong. “But she was also the mistress of a rich man, with two sons.” He wondered whether snatching her away from her benefactor could be a dangerous proposition – but his worry proved excessive. The graciousness of a rich man injected into a surreptitious liaison the fuel to burn brighter, and brought joy to a man hitherto tortured by the vagaries of life. She left her benefactor on peaceful terms. Elane and Peter were married in 1978.

During the summer of 1982, Elane went on a vacation to the United States with her two sons. As they were taking off on Pan Am Flight 759 from New Orleans to Las Vegas, however, their plane crashed into a residential neighbourhood, killing all 145 people aboard. Wong was working as a guest commentator for TVB’s coverage of the 1982 FIFA World Cup when he received the grim news. Pan Am immediately put Wong on a first-class flight to New Orleans. After positive identification had been made through DNA analysis, “the local forensics people advised me not to open the body bag for inspection,” he says. As he saw her casket slowly raised from the ground and into the plane for her journey home, it was Wong’s bitter, final goodbye with the love of his life.

“I never asked the ‘why me’ question,” he says. “When I was 12 and suffered from pneumonia, that’s when I asked, ‘Why me?’” The traumatic experiences of his paternal figure’s kidnappings had hardened his resolve to survive, and given him the extraordinary ability to deal with life’s cruelty with an aplomb not found in most ordinary folks. “For almost two and a half years I did not have confirmation whether my dad was dead or alive,” he says. “After Elane died, I just knew I had to look forward, and do everything in my power to survive, to continue to live. That was my only goal.”

Football has always been a subject of devotion in Wong’s family. His father was an avid football fan and a major investor in Kitchee Sports Club before his death. Wong was never a professional player, but with his dad’s connection, he was able to cultivate and maintain relationships with operators and participants of the local league beginning in his teenage years. Football was an outlet for pent-up emotions when tragedies struck his family, and played crucial roles in his career choices throughout his life.

After a five-year stint as physical education teacher and head football coach at a local high school, Peter parlayed that experience into stints with professional clubs such as Eastern and South China in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Professional head coaching positions led to occasional gigs as a television commentator. His family background and Western education undoubtedly contributed to an aura of credibility and opened some doors for him professionally, but they did not lead to automatic success. He led Eastern to the 1982 Hong Kong Senior Challenge Shield Championship, but South China also finished last in league standing in 1983 under Wong’s coaching.

After the bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, Wong packed his bags, bid adieu to Hong Kong, and left for California with the intention of settling down. When ESPN decided to expand its Asian presence in 1995 by creating a number of channels to be broadcast in Asian languages, it was an unprecedented opportunity for Cantonese-speaking commentators. Through a recommendation by an industry insider, Wong was one of several commentators recruited by ESPN Asia to help inaugurate its Cantonese operation out of Singapore.

He was the oldest, most well-known, and probably the one with the most commentary experience among the Singapore-based Cantonese recruits, and initially he took his new role for granted. “I thought I already possessed more than enough knowledge to handle my assignments, whether they were English or European soccer, American football or baseball or NBA,” he says. That changed when he met one of his idols, the legendary English football commentator Martin Tyler, in 2003. “He was already a very well-established figure in the profession and yet he was still working very hard. I realised I needed to change my mentality. I needed to get better and work harder.”

Before the mid-1990s, most “professional” sports commentators in Hong Kong were more like professional moonlighters. The paucity of live sports programmes on television meant that most commentators could not afford to focus only on commentary. ESPN was a game-changer. It was nicknamed the Shaolin Temple for sports commentary as its fledgling group of commentators became more experienced and more skilled. 

And this is when Wong began to corner the market for quirky expressions, many of which have crept into mainstream usage. “Let’s go rock ‘n’ roll” most likely was an outgrowth from his days of living in California. But his most popular invention had everything to do with his Hong Kong roots and his privileged upbringing: “For the price of sugarcane bagasse you get the taste of roast goose” (ze3 zaa1 gaa3 cin2 siu1 ngo4 mei6 dou6 蔗渣價錢燒鵝味道). 

Wong explains the meaning behind this strange expression. “My grandfather was low-key and eschewed ostentatious display, so he always advised kids in the family to stop buying expensive socks from foreign or trendy department stores, and go for cheaper ones in department stores from mainland China, and those cheaper socks were often made with fibres from sugarcane bagasse,” he says. “In those days, whenever there was a birthday in my family among the five siblings, my parents would buy a roast goose as part of the celebration.” Years later during a live broadcast, he thought the English professional football team Everton F.C. overperformed in relation to its low team budget. Somehow, two unrelated events from his past mysteriously coalesced in a moment of impromptu creativity, and a now-classic expression most indelibly linked to Wong was born. 

Wong (right) and the author in 2021

Today, Wong is 78, a round-faced, bespectacled man of medium height who moves briskly and looks physically fit for his age. He often wears a Dodgers or Lakers baseball cap in homage to his beloved American home of Los Angeles. He now works as the football director of his alma mater, and he also writes a newspaper column and makes content for his own YouTube channel. At an age when many would be seeking a more serene and less hectic lifestyle, he sure seems to be working very hard. “People always assume that I’m rich because of my family background. I’m actually not as well-off as people assume. I need to work for a living,” he says. 

If there is another layer to those words—perhaps some lingering resentment of his family and the cruel twists of his life—Wong won’t say. “My grandfather did not inherit a family fortune, and he worked hard for everything he got in life,” he says. “And even though he was very strict on me and sometimes I did not like it, I was not going to complain, because he had at least given me the chance to receive a good education, provided me with the tools to make a living on my own. I owe him more than he owes me.”

Peter Jacob Cheung is a sports commentator who worked with Peter Wong during the NBA finals in 1995 and 2010, as well as on a variety of other programmes.

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