‘Mesmerising’: Hong Kong actress Ada Choi’s rise to fame, how she dealt with her mother’s gambling addiction, and her life in China today

At TVB, Choi had roles in dramas including The File of Justice V (1997), Healing Hands (1998) and Where The Legend Begins (2002) – but it was in the Chinese television series Empresses in the Palace (2011) that she gave what is arguably her best screen performance. Choi captivated audiences with her portrayal of an evil empress.

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Critics have generally praised Choi’s ability to immerse herself fully in her roles and to bring depth and complexity to the character she portrays.

One review from the Hong Kong Film Critics Society website commended Choi’s performance in Empresses in the Palace, stating: “Ada Choi’s portrayal of the conniving empress is nothing short of mesmerising, capturing the character’s ambition and ruthlessness with nuance and intensity.”

Behind the glitz and glamour of her career is a chequered family history.

Choi as Empress Xiaojingxian in a still from the Chinese television drama series Empresses in the Palace (2011). Photo: Weibo

Choi’s parents divorced when she was five, and her memories of her childhood with her brother revolve around constantly moving – which meant changing schools – to avoid debtors and loan sharks; they are said to have spent nights under bridges and in abandoned houses. It has been widely reported that Choi’s mother, Wong Su-mui, has been a gambling addict since the actress was a young girl.

When Choi was thrown a million-dollar birthday party at the Regent Hong Kong hotel when she turned 18 a few months after the beauty pageant, it was headline news. It was reportedly then that Choi embarked on a six-year relationship with property tycoon Joseph Lau Luen-hung, who showered her with gifts.

Lau was subsequently reported to have repaid over HK$80 million in gambling debts racked up by Choi’s mother and to have given Choi four apartments, all of which were sold to repay her mother’s debts.

Ada Choi in 1995. Photo: SCMP

In the year 2000, Choi held a press conference to announce that she was severing ties with her mother.

She revealed that in the almost 10 years that she had been in the entertainment business, she had accumulated zero assets because she had been repaying her mother’s debts the entire time. Choi said her mother had recently disappeared and left her with a HK$5 million debt.

She urged people to not lend her mother money any more because she would not be responsible for repaying it any longer.

Choi and Tse Kwan-ho in a still from the faith-based film The Miracle Box (2004).

Still in her 20s and with such turmoil in her life, it was ultimately the ex-beauty queen’s talent and achievements that kept her going.

Choi’s only public romance was with Taiwanese heartthrob Nicky Wu Qilong. But with Wu’s singing and acting career taking off in Asia, and the strain of conducting a long-distance relationship, the pair split after a few years of dating.

Her life took a turn for the better after she looked towards mainland China for acting opportunities in the 2000s. There, Choi met Max Zhang Jin, her co-star in The Legend of Magic Mirror (2003) and Eight Charts (2005).

After secretly dating for four years, the two tied the knot in a private ceremony in 2008, with Choi announcing the marriage in a handwritten letter to the media and requesting privacy. The celebrity couple’s two daughters, Zoe and Chloe, were born in 2011 and 2013 respectively.

Choi (left) and Max Zhang married in 2008. Photo: Instagram/@adachoi9800

The couple stood strong in spite of tabloid gossip columnists frequently describing Choi as the breadwinner of the family, with Zhang mostly playing supporting roles on screen at the time.

Everything changed, at least to those outside the Zhang household, when Zhang took a notable part in The Grandmaster, art-house auteur Wong Kar-wai’s years-in-the-making martial arts epic. He won the best supporting actor prize in the 2014 Hong Kong Film Awards for his performance.

In his acceptance speech, Zhang said: “A lot of people said that I will rely on my wife for the rest of my life and they are right – I will rely on my wife for my happiness for the rest of my life.” His words brought Choi, who was sitting in the audience, to tears.

Choi at the Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy in 1999.
After The Grandmaster, Zhang took roles in other high-profile martial arts films such as SPL2: A Time for Consequences and Ip Man 3, both of which earned him best supporting actor nods in the 2016 Hong Kong Film Awards.

Meanwhile, it was reported that Choi’s father had reached out to her and her brother in an attempt to reconnect with them and asked for forgiveness for his absence from their lives.

Choi’s mother has reportedly found God and is recovering from her gambling addiction, with Choi choosing to forgive her. Both Choi and Zhang are Christians.

Choi, her husband and their children celebrate the Lunar New Year in 2023. Photo: Instagram/@adachoi9800

The couple’s third child, a son they named Joey, was born in November 2019. With her rocky past behind her, Choi, Zhang and their three children now live happily in Shanghai, with Choi saying on a variety show in 2022 that her life in mainland China was “so good, it could not get any better”.

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