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I Was Mistaken for a Minor Celebrity During My Travels

I'm not *that* James Wong.

The thing about having the same name as a minor celebrity is that, unlike a megastar, people can actually believe that you are them.

I share a name with British television presenter and author James Wong. For over a decade, the ethnobotanist has graced screens on the BBC and Netflix, and has had multiple best-selling cooking and gardening books on shelves, and for over a decade, people, particularly in England, have confused me with him. It only happens once in a while, so that means my guard is down, and I generally don’t realize any case of mistaken identity until later. But the funniest moment happened as recently as last year when a hotel believed I was him for the entire weekend during my stay.

How It All Began

“James, I saw you on a gardening program today. Well, at first, I thought it was you, but then I realized it wasn’t.” That was my mother in 2009.

“Mom, wouldn’t I tell you if I were going on telly, and um, how long did it take you to recognize your own son?!”

She claimed she didn’t have her glasses on.

Over the next few years, this happened more frequently, but everyone recognizes that the James Wong on TV isn’t me since we don’t look that much alike. His series, Grow Your Own Drugs, about natural remedies sourced from plants, would become the highest-rated gardening series on UK television.

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I often received DMs from fans across various spectrums of adoration (!), have gotten many of his green-themed event invites in the mail, and have even been questioned when making bookings at (mostly plant-based) restaurants. But there’s been zero disappointment because I’ve never claimed to be him.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

I was working on a London guidebook, so last summer, I attended everything to deepen my knowledge of the city. One event I’d never normally go to was the Chelsea Flower Show. This is the Oscars of the gardening world, but as someone with little interest in plant life, I just ducked in to have a quick look and check it off my list. I probably stayed an hour, posted nothing on social media, and left without another thought.

Toward the end of that very summer, I received an assignment to review a hotel in the English countryside. I’d never been to the New Forest before, and as a city boy, I was keen to switch off and immerse in nature. This is a destination of ancient woodland open moors and where ponies and deer roam free. A real-life fairytale scene.

As usual, I read the press materials before going, and the London PR agency made the booking. They kindly informed me The Montagu Arms Hotel would arrange a driver for pick up and drop off from the train station so I could focus on reporting on the property instead of the logistics. Upon arriving, a delightful gent with my name on a sign was waiting.

“Everyone’s looking forward to meeting you,” he beamed, “Especially our gardener. He loves your work.”

My first thought was, okay, they must not get a lot of writers to the countryside. When I review hotels in London and New York, nobody bats an eyelid; I’m simply another guest. As we drove through the forest, I commented, “There are pretty flowers everywhere. What are they…lavender?”

The driver chuckled louder than expected.

“You’re the expert, Mr. Wong. But I do believe they’re heather.”

We arrived at the beautiful boutique retreat, dating back to the 16th century. The front desk staff repeated my name at check-in and warmly welcomed me.

“How was the Chelsea Flower Show this year, Mr. Wong?” one asked.

I was taken aback because I hadn’t told anyone that I’d gone. Figuring that someone from the London PR agency might have seen me in the media tent, I responded.

“It was good. I don’t know much about flowers, but I liked it.”

The Montagu Arms

I’m Not *That* James Wong

I spent the next day immersed in the area’s natural charms, watching wildlife and going on hikes. The front desk was delighted at my interest in the forests and booked me for dinner at the local Thai restaurant Zen Garden. Yesterday’s driver gave me a ride to the restaurant, reminding me that while en route back tomorrow, I’d finally meet the hotel’s gardener, who seemed especially keen to meet me.

That’s when the penny dropped. It’d been years since I’d last been mistaken for the other James Wong.

I expressed gratitude, saying I was thrilled to meet him yet secretly surprised that my stories had such an impact on him. Perhaps my first-timer’s guide to Japan really helped him on his travels. Or maybe he had gotten a kick out of my day in the life with the world’s most pampered cat.

“Actually,” said my driver. “He loves your books.”

My books? I wondered to myself. I’d only written guidebooks. I was intrigued, but rather than press, I had a Thai dinner to make.

“Mr. Wong, we are EVER so excited to have you here,” chimed the restaurant manager.

Over the next couple of hours, I was dutifully served Thai cuisine, noticing kitchen staff discreetly peeking at me from the sidelines. At the end of my meal, the manager came over, thanked me for coming, and whispered, “You look much better than you do on television, if you don’t mind me saying.”

That’s when the penny dropped. It’d been years since I’d last been mistaken for the other James Wong, as I was living in the U.S. I just smiled, and as I left, I cringed at meeting tomorrow’s gardener. He, as a James Wong fan, would know I was an imposter right away.

Meeting James Wong’s Fan

On the morning of my hotel check-out, my car was waiting outside. A friendly driver came inside to help me with my single bag. I felt his gaze, and as soon as I got in, I knew I had to rip off the band-aid.

“I’m SO sorry, but I’m not James Wong.” I corrected myself. “Not the the gardening one.”

“I knew as soon as I saw you,” he laughed.

I was relieved he saw the funny side of the whole situation. On the ride back, I told him of all the moments both his colleagues and I were left scratching our heads, and he admitted that today, on his day off, he’d come in especially to drive me to the station.

I felt terrible, but he was such a great sport, and I promised that if I ever met THE James Wong, I’d tell him this story and send him right back to this hotel.

Alas, I haven’t yet met the other James, and so, Mr. Wong, if you’re reading this, there’s an awesome gardener in New Forest who’s eager to talk to you about soils, seeds, and all the things I haven’t a clue about. Do pay him a visit, and while you’re there, let it be known that you can tell the difference between heather and lavender. Someone might’ve slightly tarnished your ‘park cred’ last year.

Sorry about that!