Yung "Woo" Hwang was a very well-liked player and character on "Survivor: Cagayan," who nearly rode his likeability all the way to the million dollar prize. But this 29 year old martial arts instructor from Newport Beach, CA lives his life by a code of honor, integrity and loyalty. All great qualities in life, not so much in Survivor. Attaching himself to the villainous and aggressive Tony, Woo flew under-the-radar for most of the game, despite winning several individual Immunity challenges. He suddenly found himself in the ultimate position on Wednesday night's episode: Winning the Final Immunity Challenge, Woo got to choose who he would sit next to in the end. To all of us watching (and those on the jury) it seemed like a no-brainer decision. On one hand, there was Kass, whom nobody liked let alone respected. Then there was Tony, Woo's partner-in-crime but a player who had basically ran the entire game from a strategic stand-point. Staying true to himself, he chose to sit next to the more honorable Tony, wanting to "beat the best" in order to be the best. His decision was ultimately a poor one (from a financial point of view, at least) because it cost him a million dollars and the title of Sole Survivor. I spoke with Woo today, one day after the episode aired.
Woo began the game on the Brawn Tribe and quickly latched on to big Cliff. But the tribe feared Cliff and Woo smartly chose not to go down with that sinking ship. After the tribe swap, he bonded closely with Tony and the two basically controlled the rest of the game.
Much of the credit goes to Tony, but without Woo, many of Tony's plans would have fallen flat. Woo was in on every decision, from the blindside of LJ and Jefra, to the ousting of their closest ally, Trish. His was an under-stated game, one that would have landed him a million dollars had he just been able to separate his out-of-game ethics with his in-game decision-making. But every player has to be able to live with their own decisions, and taking Kass to the end would not have been something Woo would have been able to live with.
Despite falling from a tall coconut tree, Woo battled his way to the very end and to his credit, he did receive one vote to win the game (from Tasha). Because of his laid-back, "surfer-dude" personality - and due to his extreme social likeability - Woo was compared to former Survivor winner Fabio, more than once. Fabio proved that this "non-strategy strategy" could work and Woo almost was able to deliver.
Was is a million dollar mistake? Here is my full, exclusive interview with Woo:
Tom Santilli, Survivor Examiner: So Woo, you played a very solid game...it's not easy to get to the end of Survivor and be well-liked by pretty much everyone. But throughout the game, you made some big moves along with Tony, where you blindsided people like Cliff, LJ, Jefra and Trish. At those moments, you didn't seem too concerned with the whole "honesty, integrity, loyalty" thing. So what made your decision to take Tony with you to the end any different?
Yung "Woo" Hwang: Well those blindside decisions, I never shook anyone's hand or swore on anything. In this game, that's the challenge: How do you inch forward in this game without playing the game the way its meant to be played? With the lies, the backstabbing, etc. So that was a difficult thing to register going into the game. But the point is, I had a pretty solid alliance with Tony, he wanted all the recognition for them and I guess me and Trish were a big part of those moves as well. I guess that I just tried to play the game being honest, trying to play the game the best way that I can, but hey, I'm not perfect either. Especially in this game, you have to make adjustments.
Tom Santilli: The jury seemed to be pretty rough on Tony, where you were able to articulate your game much better. Leaving the game, did you think you had won?
Woo: I felt like I had a shot, it was kind of 50/50. I was under the impression that I would win some points by taking a person like Tony over a person like Kass. They didn't feel like she played a good game, although I think she played a terrific game and was definitely well-deserving. But I didn't make major moves that other people recognized as "playing the game" I guess. I mean, I think I played the game really well. I went in with a gameplan to lay low, I mean, I'm a leader I am a martial arts instructor. I give commands, I don't take them. So for me to be able to adapt and to take second-in-command and being a good team player, I think I did really well. I stayed low-key and under-the-radar pretty well. At the end of the day, they went with Tony. He did play a good game, but he also took advantage of a lot of these peoples' trust. He turned it to benefit himself. Watching the faces of the jury members those last few Tribal Councils, you make small assessments, you try to get a read on their reactions. And every reaction I saw from the jury every time Tony would talk, pretty much said it all.
Tom Santilli: Perception is a big deal in a game like Survivor. Spencer last night called Tony the "puppet master" and referred to you as being his pet. Do you feel that it is fair to give Tony all the credit for all of the moves that were made? How involved were you in many of the decisions?
Woo: Tony played a very aggressive game but I feel like he was able to play that way because of the Idols he had. I mean, when you have an Idol you feel invincible. For him to call those shots and make those moves, good for him. But no, I think Trish and I played an intrical part in making those decisions happen.
Tom Santilli: So last night you're sitting there and the votes are being read, and it sinks in that you lost the game. Describe your feelings in that moment.
Woo: (Pauses) Mixed emotions, mixed emotions. Of course you want to come out when you invested so much time, you want to come out on top. I always challenge myself to be the best. But I've also lost just as much as I've won in Tae Kwon Do tournaments and something that my dad instilled into me is when you win, be happy. When you lose, always keep your head up and charge. It's like in surfing, when you ride a wave, that wave only lasts for five seconds and its eventually going to fade away. That's like losing. You have your highs and then your lows will come immediately right afterwards. So it's what you do afterwards that is going to dictate everything. When that next wave comes in, I'm going to charge it. I lost, but in reality, what I accomplished and what got to be a part of, money can't ever, ever buy. With money, without money, inside I feel like a million bucks.
Tom Santilli: That last challenge is interesting because you only beat Kass by less than a second. But had Kass won, she takes you to the Final Two and then you win a million dollars. Was there any thought at all with Tony being far behind in that challenge, of just letting Kass take the win so that you wouldn't have to make that million dollar decision?
Woo: I wanted to dictate my own fate in the game. I wanted to win it. I wasn't waiting for anyone to take me along. I'm going all out. The fact that I won that challenge, that was beautiful. Would I have stepped aside and let Kass win? That's just not in my nature. If I'm going to do something I mean shoot, I'm going to win it.
Tom Santilli: You mentioned during the Finale that if you were to win, you were also going to propose to your girlfriend. Did you end up proposing to her anyways? What's the status there?
Woo: You know what? I have not yet, and that's OK. When I mentioned that out there, that's a lot of emotions going through my body. Trust me, whole-heartedly I'm going to pop the question down the road. With money, without money, proposing to Christina, I would do that any day. I just want to make sure we have things lined up. And I'm sure my parents and her parents respect that fully.
Tom Santilli: You were part of an amazing season of Survivor and you left it with your head held high. How would you like people to remember you in the game?
Woo: That's the best part of what's come out of this whole thing. The positive feedback that I've gotten from everyone, everywhere. When I hear encouraging words [everywhere], I'm already on cloud nine. A million dollars will never top how that makes me feel. Because a year from now, money comes, it goes. But if someone down the road remembers me or a moment on Season 28? Hey, that makes my day. I want to inspire people and empower people. If I'm walking away as someone that people can look up to? Then I'm walking away a multi, multi millionaire.