Dubai-based Korean comic Wonho Chung is breaking the bamboo ceiling with role in Saq Al Bamboo

Wonho Chung talks about his role as a Kuwaiti-Filipino in Saq Al Bamboo, a bold Ramadan television series that shines the spotlight on important social issues relevant to the region.

Wonho Chung. Reem Mohammed / The National
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It’s rare for an Egyptian or Syrian actor to land a role in a Gulf-produced television drama, let alone a lead, but a Korean? Who speaks Arabic? And is asked to ­portray a Filipino? It’s a series of firsts for ­Wonho Chung, and he’s not underestimating the significance.

“This is the first time I do a drama, it’s the first time I do television, it’s the first time for people to see me in a completely different light, presenting a character nothing like me, who doesn’t look like me or behave like me or move like me,” says Chung, speaking to us from his Dubai home.

“It was very difficult to take on this role. And completely worth it.”

Praise has been pouring in for the 36-year-old, who has made an international career for himself as a stand-up comedian. His latest project is a starring role as Issa/José Tarrouf, a Kuwaiti-Filipino in the MBC drama Saq Al Bamboo (The Bamboo Stalk).

Based on the novel by Kuwaiti writer Saud Alsanousi, which won the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Saq Al Bamboo is a bicultural, coming-of-age series about ­Josephine, a Filipino maid working for a rich Kuwaiti family. She falls in love with her employer's son, Rashid, and they decide to secretly get married when she becomes pregnant, but are later cast out.

The drama explores several ­social issues, among them identity, interracial marriage, discrimination against mixed-race children, and the role of stateless people in Kuwaiti ­society.

Chung, who plays Issa, the son of Josephine and Rashid, shines in the lead alongside top Kuwaiti actors such as Souad Abdullah, Shojoon Al Hajeri, Fatma Alsafi and Maram Bloushi. He says he identifies with his character, especially as a Korean who was raised in ­Jordan, is fluent in Arabic and has lived in Dubai for the past 12 years.

“This role came to me on a golden platter; it was very serendipitous,” says Chung, describing how he was approached by Sabbah Pictures, who had bought the television rights to the novel.

“Our struggles with identity and where we belong – that’s something I could understand about him.”

Delving into acting was something Chung had been ready to do for a while now.

“Being someone with Asian features wanting a career in acting in the Middle East is not easy,” says Chung. “I can’t be cast in just any role. I can’t be [Egyptian actor] Adel Imam’s grandson, for example. Here, instead of casting, you write a role with a specific actor in mind.”

Preparing to play Issa was an emotionally gruelling experience that started back in October and didn’t end until a few days into Ramadan. An acting coach was flown in from the Philippines to help Chung learn Tagalog – more than a quarter of his lines were in the language.

“It was difficult taking on this dramatic role – to cry a lot, as you will see in coming scenes,” he says. “My voice has to be different, the way I speak, the slow way I had to move, speaking Arabic with an accent, speaking English with an accent.”

Unable to secure permission to film in Kuwait, Dubai was chosen as a stand-in location. Some scenes were also shot in the Philippines. Instead of starting in February as originally planned, work only began in April. Chung explains it made for an extremely tight shoot.

“We were still filming when Ramadan started; we went through 72 hours of continuous filming in those last days to wrap up, eating and sleeping on set,” he recalls. “At first, we were filming 15 to 20 scenes a day, but by the end, it was more like 35 scenes a day. Right now, the director [Mohammed Al Qafas] is still in the studio editing the episodes.”

Chung’s portrayal of Issa has been widely praised on social media. “I get messages from people in Tunis, Morocco, Egypt, saying we don’t understand anything but we’re hooked,” he says. “What works in this part of the world is social drama because people relate. And this is the most taboo of social dramas, because no one likes to address the issue of the hired help, ­especially when it comes to interracial marriage and children of a mixed ­background.”

Chung believes there's an important human and social message in Saq Al Bamboo. If the show is able to help change how people treat low-earning expats or hired help, it will truly be a game changer. Whatever happens, Chung is satisfied.

“As soon as we finished filming, I said to myself: I have no background in acting, in drama, in Khaleeji. But I gave it more than 100 per cent of me, I could not have done more to be true to the character and myself and audiences. It’s out of my hands now,” he says.

“I know I worked hard and gave this my all, and now I’m waiting to see, while twiddling my thumbs, where this will take me.”

Saq Al Bamboo is on MBC Drama at 4pm everyday. Watch the previous episodes of the show on The programme is also screened on Dubai TV, Al Rai and Sharjah TV