How Star Search winner Zhang Ze Tong made his mother's dreams come true
The 26-year-old former Carousell manager used to watch Channel 8 dramas with his mum. Now on the cusp of a promising showbiz career, he’s also realising her unfulfilled dream to act on TV.
Zhang Ze Tong is just like you. He describes himself as “a typical math and science guy”, “wholesome”, “super duper obedient” and even “basic”. In his free time, he likes going to Hai Di Lao with his friends. In short, he’s your regular guy – except that he’s also local entertainment’s next big thing.
After emerging as champion in the recently concluded Star Search talent competition show, the 26-year-old life has immediately been propelled into a maelstrom of change.
He’s quit his day job as an associate customer relationship management manager at Carousell and is currently serving his notice while attending acting classes and preparing for his first drama. He’s inked a shiny new contract with Mediacorp and now has a manager.
He’s even changed his name from Teoh Ze Tong to Zhang Ze Tong (for more international appeal, perhaps?). Clearly, there’s no turning back for this guy.
Despite remaining under the radar for most of the competition, 1.83m-tall Zhang was frequently declared to have “leading man” qualities, which may have been what eventually clinched him the top prize. He’s already been cast in his first lead role, in the drama All Around You, which was specially written for the Star Search finalists. And since coming into the public eye, comparisons to more established actors have been inevitable – which may be a sign that he’s fitting right in.
“People commented that I look like Edwin Goh, and some people also mention Shane Pow. I think it would be fun if we were cast as a family of three brothers,” he chuckled. “I met Edwin in person a couple of times and we said hi to each other awkwardly. Actually, when I look at him, I don’t think we look alike!”
While “I think it’s very normal for people to make comments and comparisons,” that’s certainly not going to stop Zhang from walking his own road and hopefully carving out a name for himself.
LOOK MA, I'M ON TV
It was Zhang’s mum who “eagerly asked (him) to join” Star Search earlier this year, when the talent search that produced big names such as Zoe Tay, Aileen Tan and Felicia Chin returned to television after a nine-year hiatus.
“When she was younger, she wanted to be an actress herself,” he said. “My mum was really pretty when she was young, and a lot of people told her she looked like Joey Wong. She showed me a picture, and they really did look alike. But she married young and I think opportunities like these weren’t widely available where she was, so she didn’t have the chance to enter the showbiz industry. It’s kind of an unfulfilled dream of hers, so maybe, right now, what I’m doing is fulfilling her dream on her behalf.”
The Singapore-based Malaysian's family lives in Johor Bahru, and from primary school until he enrolled in university, he would get up at 4am to catch the bus to school in Singapore. “The bus ride took three hours. And if I had a co-curricular activity that required me to stay late, I’d get home at about 8 or 9pm, and get up the next day at 4am again,” he recounted.
In their free time, he and his mum would watch Channel 8 dramas together – Fann Wong and Christopher Lee are their favourite actors, and mum also has a soft spot for Ya Hui – and she’d muse about how that could have been her on the screen.
When he was crowned the Star Search champion, “She was in the first row, and I think she cried immediately. She didn’t know how to react at the start,” Zhang said. “My family are all very proud of what I’ve achieved while working full time. They are very supportive of my career switch.”
Zhang has a degree in Business Administration – during his university days, he took part in a one-year Silicon Valley work experience programme – and had been enjoying his time working in a tech startup. But he knows that bigger things lie ahead.
FROM TECH GUY TO TV HEARTTHROB
“What I’ve seen after joining this competition is that acting is a craft you can hone your entire life. Even when you’re in your 50s or 60s, you could be acting in different roles and your craft could continuously improve. What I like about this is the depth of the craft you can go into,” he said, measuring his words out thoughtfully.
“In my current field, within maybe two to three years, you are able to learn close to 80 or 90 per cent of what’s in the industry. Beyond that, it’s self-learning and relearning, because things change so fast in tech. Acting is entirely different – it’s a craft you can hone for the rest of your life. You put in a lot of effort to convince the audience that you are the one you are portraying. And when the audience believes you, or feels a certain something for the character you’re portraying – that’s satisfaction to me.”
In any case, he’s always been a bit of a thrill seeker. “I’m a guy who likes new adventures. I like to try out different things,” he said, “even if they aren’t conventionally for males. I’ve tried spinning, which not many guys do. I’ve tried yoga. I also went for dance classes. I also went snowboarding for the first time, when I spent a year in the States. I really love the sport. Next, I’m thinking of maybe taking a diving license. Or, if I can’t get out of the country, I would like to try wakeboarding.”
He’s currently single, and jokes that if we know of anyone suitable, we should let him know. But he’s evidently not in any hurry, and prefers to take his time. “I don’t have a Tinder account,” he said. “If you find any profiles in those apps, they’re fake!”
Catch All Around You free on demand on Toggle from Feb 28, and on Channel 8 at 9pm from Mar 2.