Ronny Chieng Is the New Patron Saint of Awesome $500 Watches
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Ronny Chieng is the platonic ideal of a watch collector in 2023. Like so many people, his obsession bloomed during the pandemic when “I had a midlife crisis and then I started looking at watches,” Chieng tells GQ. He owns a few trend-proof pieces—the Omega Speedmaster and Rolex Datejust—and prizes a watch passed down from his dad, but really prefers to collect Seikos that speak to his Asian-American identity. Also, crucially, he’s the new face of the ongoing Rowing Blazers and Seiko collaboration that routinely sells out.
Chieng stars in the campaign for the third link-up between the New York prep brand and meticulous Japanese watchmaker. Like the first two, the collection features four watches made in outrageous technicolor. This set includes dials in deep purple, light pink, lemony yellow, and white with a rainbow of hour markers. Like their predecessors, the watches are relatively affordable at only $495. They also share a Groundhog Day quality: seeing a Rowing Blazers x Seiko watch out in public means that summer might go on in perpetuity.
Chieng’s favorite of the new RB pieces? He’s leaning towards the pink dial but still hasn’t made the final difficult decision. We spoke with the comedian about the new Rowing Blazers x Seiko campaign and the other most meaningful watches in his life.
GQ: How did you get looped in on this project?
Ronny Chieng: Very lucky to know the Rowing Blazers guys, Jack [Carlson] and Eric Wind [of Wind Vintage, who works on the project], of course. Basically, over the pandemic, I had a midlife crisis and I started looking at watches. And independently, everyone started pointing me to Wind. Rowing Blazers has always been cool to me, too—they’re very New York, and I know they’ve worked with other comics as well. I just felt like a good fit.
Is there something about this new collection of watches that was compelling to you?
Well, the truth is, as soon as they said Seiko Rowing Blazers, I'm like, "I already know it's going to be good." And if you go Rowing Blazers, Eric Wind, Seiko, it's like, “I don't even need to look at it. I already know it's going to be great.” And true enough, it is great.
But I think what attracts me is the Seiko heritage, which, in many ways, is very Asian to me. This overachieving, underrated brand. I don't know if there's a better analogy for being Asian in America. If you go to the origins of Seiko, they were trying to beat the Swiss watchmaking industry in terms of accuracy. And they succeeded, to the point where they caused the quartz crisis by inventing the quartz movement.
And yet they're still, in many ways, a little underrated as well when you think about watches. And I've had a Seiko since college and recently I got back into more vintage Seiko—the Bruce Lee watch is the best example.
Was there a moment when you became a big watch collector? Did you just have the one in college?
Yeah, I just had a watch, but this goes again to my point about Seiko. If you knew nothing about watches, which is what I knew about watches in college, I still ended up getting a Seiko. If you're looking for a watch, period, you gravitate towards Seiko. This idea that, “Oh, here's something you never have to buy a battery for. It'll recharge on your hand.” And then you start looking for, “Well, I want something with a day and a date for functionality. I want something that's easy to read. I don't want something where, if I lose it, it's going to be prohibitively expensive. I'm going to get mud on it.” Then everything leads you to Seiko.
So that was what drew me to it in college—not knowing anything about watches, just doing basic research the way you would research a blender or a vacuum cleaner. And then you just find the one that everyone thinks is good, and that's what led me to Seiko.
I wasn't collecting watches then. But just before the pandemic, I was looking to get a watch because I had been on The Daily Show for a couple years. My wardrobe was getting upgraded, but I was still wearing this watch I got in my early twenties. It just didn't seem to fit anymore—it didn't fit what I was doing, what I was about, what I was trying to say. I was looking for something that expressed who I was a little more accurately at that point in life. So I ended up getting another watch, and then one thing led to another. And then the next thing you know you're watching John Mayer talk about [Audemars Piguet] at 3 a.m. on Hodinkee.
Then you're in a watch campaign. Which one out of the four in this set is the one that you are making a part of your collection?
I thought I would be really drawn to the white dial, because for me that's a classic look. But you look at these things in person, I mean, the photos don't really do it justice. And the salmon one really popped in person, and that was a little unexpected for me. I didn't think I'd be drawn to the salmon dial, but in person, you get it when you look at it. And in terms of the collection, where you're looking for pieces that show something a little bit more off the beaten track, I think the salmon one. But you know what? I haven't actually decided yet.
I want to talk about your watch collection in general. Are there a few pieces that stand out and are tied to significant moments in your life?
I got to perform at Madison Square Garden and I made sure I wore my dad's watch for that. He passed away a couple years ago, but I think he would've loved me wearing his watch at Madison Square Garden and doing standup comedy. For my second standup special, I actually wore his watch as well just to keep him close.
What is that watch?
It's a Rolex Datejust. It's way, way too shiny for show business. You shouldn't be wearing it on stage actually, but that's why it's a special occasion piece. It's a bit too distracting, especially with standup comedy, where you want to try to be a bit more muted and you don't want anything to distract from what you're trying to say.
When did he pass that watch on to you?
Shortly after I started getting into watches, so a couple years after I joined The Daily Show. I was trying to upgrade my wardrobe a little bit, not just because I was on TV, but because I felt like I was becoming a bit of a grownup, going past my thirties. I wanted to stop dressing like a kid. And I was researching watches and I ended up getting a Speedmaster “First Omega in Space.”
And then I remember I went home to Singapore, where my dad lived. He only had one watch, this one Rolex. He hadn't worn it in 10 years and it was in a closet somewhere. I stumbled upon it, and I remembered that watch. What was special about it was that I used to hold it when I was a kid. So I remember being a four-year-old kid, holding his watch in my hand, and it was this huge thing and he let me play with it. And it was the same watch—it's the watch he wore in all these family photos. It's in almost every photo of him. When I found it in the closet, I just said, "Hey, I'm not trying to get stuff from you, but do you mind if I have this one if you're not using it?" He said, "Yeah, of course. You can take it." I had to get it serviced.
He bought it in Hong Kong in the ‘80s or something. And it's really interesting, the kind of person he must have been when he bought this watch, because that was a different person to the person I knew. The person I knew would never have bought this watch. But what was he like in his thirties when he was in Hong Kong? He must have been doing well for himself and he decided to buy this Rolex, and he carried it with him everywhere.
So yeah, it's pretty special. It's probably the only watch I wouldn't sell. I've worn it a few times on special performing occasions. And sometimes when I go on TV—I [wore it] on the Tonight Show and [Jimmy Kimmel Live!].
Do you remember the first watch you ever owned?
I started wearing watches when I was four years old. My first-ever watch my mom got me was this quartz Mickey Mouse from Sears.
Tell me about the Bruce Lee watch you mentioned.
When I do Hollywood premieres—like when I did the Shang-Chi premiere—I like to wear the Bruce Lee Seiko. For me, that's like my shout-out to Asians in American show business.
And again, going back to the Seiko thing, I’m not just saying this because I'm part of the campaign, but I truly believe it's a great brand with a lot of history. In many ways, I think it's very underrated and I like to promote it. I like that not everybody wears Seikos, too. They don't associate Seikos with American show business, but they're there. I think Seiko was a James Bond watch, but nobody talked about that.
Bruce Lee wore it, too. Maybe he wore more than one watch, but one of his many watches was definitely the Seiko Speed-Timer. And I just like wearing that sometimes when I'm doing Hollywood events to hopefully carry on a little bit of what he was trying to do in Hollywood in terms of representation.
Do you ever feel like, "Oh, I'm going to a big Hollywood event. Should I wear my Rolex rather than my Seiko?" because most people on the red carpet are wearing mega-fancy watches?
Truthfully, I'm not just saying this for bravado, but not really. It's what John Mayer says about Jay Leno, in the sense that when you start collecting a little bit—not that I have a collection anywhere near John Mayer’s or Jay Leno’s, obviously—you can wear things for yourself. Once you understand what you're collecting and why you're collecting and you're enforcing your own taste on your collection, then you start wearing things for yourself and you really do stop caring what people think because you're not doing it for them anymore. Your thrills come from your own personal enjoyment of what you are getting.
And I'm lucky that my taste, it's really not about the price of the watch to me. It's more just: What does this mean? Why did I buy this? Where was I when I got it? Or who helped me get it? I've got other things I connect to with the watches other than the price, so I don't feel the need to wear a watch for any reasons other than my own.
So to answer your question, I don’t feel like I need to wear a Rolex to impress people. The truth is, most of these events, if you're talking about your watch, you're probably a douchebag anyway. They're there to celebrate a movie, and then you're trying to show people you're wearing, like, a whatever. I think you're probably off-message already if you're thinking about that.
Have you gotten any new watches recently?
I managed to get the “Sprite” [Rolex’s black-and-green left-handed GMT Master-II released last year]. The thing that turned me to the Sprite is that it's left-handed, and I'm left-handed. I always wear my watches on the right. And an interesting piece of history: Rolex made a custom destro [a left-handed watch] for Charlie Chaplin.
So again, somehow all roads lead back to comedy, or at least show business. You find all these reasons to connect with watches. Also, not for nothing, I am in between a lot of time zones a lot of the time. So it actually does come in handy.
Did you get that watch for any reason other than just wanting it? Was there an occasion that prompted the purchase?
I don't have any other contemporary watches that I got from an [authorized dealer]. Unintentionally, I mostly wind up getting vintage stuff. So for me, the reason this doesn't mark any date is because you don't know when you can get one from the AD. I just put my name in the hat and I was like, "Oh, hopefully I can get it, and then if it happens, that'll be great. If it doesn't happen, that's cool." It's also nice to not be desperate with watches, you know what I mean? It's a beautiful watch. It's very practical, very useful. Great movement, great materials.
Have you been wearing it?
Yeah, I wear it all the time. I freaking wear it to the beach. I wear it into the mud. I have a friend in Singapore, and he just got a Rolex. And he was like, “I'm putting it in a safe and I'm never going to wear it.”
It's hard not to be precious.
Yeah. I was like, "Your kids will value more that you wore it and that it was beat up by you.” That's my dad's watch for me. So I convinced my friend to wear it.
And you mentioned you got another new watch?
The last one is the Rowing Blazers Tudor, which I love. Again, Eric Wind and Rowing Blazers, shout-out to these guys for figuring out how to convince Tudor to do this. I have no idea how they did it [Ed. note: I do! I wrote a whole story about it!]. But anyway, another beautiful watch, vintage-inspired. It's something I wanted to get anyway, the Black Bay 58. I could never pull the trigger, I couldn't justify it. And then I get a phone call: "Hey, do you want a special one?" I'm like, "Okay, well, that's all I need to justify this purchase now."
It's cool. Your name's on the back, so you can't really sell it.
I also heard that you got another Seiko, the Lord Marvel.
Basically, after we filmed Shang-Chi, I saw this watch that my Seiko dealer, the guy who sold me the Bruce Lee [Nick Ferrell, DC Vintage Watches] had. It’s this Seiko watch that says “Lord Marvel” on it. And I can't say I knew what it was, but when I saw it, I was like, “Oh, this would be a great gift for Kevin Feige [president of Marvel Studios].”
So I bought it and I gave it to Kevin Feige, and he’s a very down-to-earth guy. He doesn't even have a watch, or at least he doesn't wear any watches, doesn't care about watches, in a very down-to-earth way. Very practical guy. And I just said, "Hey, thank you so much for everything you've done for me and Hollywood movies. Just as a fan, I hope you can accept this small gift. It's not the most expensive watch in the world, but I think it's really cool. I think it's very you. It says Lord Marvel on it. It's a vintage Seiko." And he was like, "Oh, yeah, thanks so much." He took it and he wore it to some premiere somewhere.
Let's circle all the way back to the Rowing Blazers collab. How do you see this new salmon dial fitting in as part of your collection? Where would you wear it? How is it going to fit in with your life?
It's got that dress watch sensibility even though it's very hardy. I like wearing my watches, so I like them to be a bit hardier. I like that you can wear it to the beach or whatever. So that thing fits in everywhere, I think. It's classy but understated. It's something you could wear every day. You could dress up and wear it out. It fits on a suit. I'm trying to think of a situation where you wouldn't wear it. It's got the Seiko classic design sensibilities plus the Rowing Blazers little nudge-nudge-wink-wink. If you know, you know.
Originally Appeared on GQ