In which Singaporean actress Tan Kheng Hua talks passion, and how Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s comedy hit will be an important joyous addition to the Asian film canon.
This is going to get a tad personal, because when I was preparing to chat with Singaporean actress Tan Kheng Hua, I somehow never expected that our conversation would veer so, well for want of a better word, local. Sure, I didn’t just intend to discuss her upcoming role in Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians, the buzzworthy Asian-led romantic comedy that is bound to take the world by storm. I absolutely had every intention of telling her just how important she is to the Singaporean media landscape; how her contributions to the arts – be it television, film or theatre – remain memorable today. But it still felt surreal to talk about the thrills of the chameleonic acting world, and then nonchalantly fall into to an anecdote about kueh lapis (yes, you’ll get to read about it too).
To the rest of the world, Tan will make her splashiest Hollywood appearance to date in Crazy Rich Asians. However, she is no stranger to the western film industry, having portrayed the Empress Dowager in the first season of Netflix’s historical drama, Marco Polo. Moreover, when Tan and I spoke, she mentioned that she was actually in London filming for her next job – a stint in Channel 4’s upcoming adaptation of Lucy Kirkwood’s “Chimerica” titled Foreign Skies.
Evidently, something is a-brewing for Tan in the overseas media market. In her hometown, though, she is already an icon of the arts. Tan spent 10 years on Singapore’s small screen in one of the most influential situational comedies to come out of its local market, Phua Chu Kang Ptd Ltd, and is also a theatre veteran. All of her works that are indiscriminate of genre and as I’ve learnt from our conversation, she is just one passionate woman looking to tell all kinds of stories. With Crazy Rich Asians in particular, Tan is ready to showcase an abundant, joyous love for the city that raised her.
Read on for an edited version of our full conversation:
FSR: When I was approached to do this feature, I was admittedly really stoked because you are just such a huge part of local Singapore culture and media, and now you’re doing something so huge. Congratulations! To start: what made you get into acting?
TKH: First of all, all through primary school and secondary school and junior college [which is equivalent to the last two years of high school in America] and university and even until today, I’ve been more of a jock than I have been that sort of person that grew up with arts and culture right at the beginning. So I would say that I spent most of my ECA [extracurricular activity] time not in acting. I only got into acting in university when I was looking for an elective because I was in the US [at] Indiana University. Acting wasn’t even my first choice in terms of electives. I did a couple of electives in dance.
I guess I was always kind of curious about acting, and then I decided to take Acting 101. And I very quickly fell in love with it. It was an early morning class and what that meant was whoever was there wanted to be there. With a good teacher, with a good class, I think it very quickly awakened in me something so natural. I took to it, and here I am.
And what’s that special something – this spark that was ignited? Could you pinpoint that?
Yes. I think it certainly awakened in me parts of [myself] that I never really knew existed. I am, by nature, quite a well-behaved child. I’m very close to my family. I had a pretty simple, traditional, privileged Chinese family upbringing. Loving family, loving childhood. Very safe home. I never needed to escape anything, you know? And then suddenly there was this acting thing. Suddenly, I was presented with a part of me that could very easily translate itself into different lives and different voices – different forms, different guises – and thoroughly enjoying it. I was given the option to transform in a very safe environment because it’s not real. It’s not my real life! I can just have an adventure, be somebody else, and then go back to whatever it was that I was, and I think I just really loved it.
Also, I guess I’ve always been good at literature. I’ve always had a very literary bent, and I think that was also part of the entry point. Just storytelling or getting into the heart and minds of different people. And I think that all of that worked together to make me fall in love with acting and with the arts in such a new and beautiful way.
I love what you said about acting being a safe space for you to explore different personalities of yourself and others that don’t have to reflect on you. You’ve done a lot of different things. Between Phua Chu Kang—
Oh yes! I loved Phua Chu Kang, some of the best years of my life!
I wanted to ask you about that show because it’s so important to a lot of millennial Singaporeans growing up. I personally grew up watching it with my family too.
–And it’s still so funny and relevant. I was rewatching episodes recently and it really is a universal a family comedy.
Not only is it a family comedy, it came at a time in Singapore where it was completely okay to laugh at all the good and bad things about what was quintessentially Singaporean. For example, Margaret – the character that I played – she is stuck up, judgemental, controlling, you know, I mean – but I loved her! And she’s got other qualities as well, just like everybody we know! I mean, there’s so many tiger mums in Singapore, doesn’t mean they’re not worthy of love. They very often cannot help being the way that they are.
I guess these three-dimensional characters allow us to not just identify and love them, but also bits of ourselves that are not pleasant and to feel okay about it. Because people are just like that! We’re good and bad, you know?
Moving into something in the Western sphere, you’ve done Marco Polo for Netflix and then Crazy Rich Asians. Do you find this complexity in those roles? Is that what you go for?
No, you know, I have a very wide range of tastes. So, for example, with Phua Chu Kang, of course we had the privilege of developing the characters because it went on for so many years and it went on for ten seasons. I would say that the roles that I choose just have to be able to say, in me, a big loud “yes!” And I’m kind of like that with everything that I do. It’s either a “yes!” or a “no!” Because you can’t really tell how it’s going to turn out. So, don’t think too much!
I just read. Usually, if you have to audition, they give you—they don’t give you the whole script. They just give you the two pages that you have to audition. It’s something to do with an instinct, it’s something to do with a feeling. And even if it was just one scene, if there was something about that character and that one scene in this entire film that I like, I will just say yes.
My enjoyment of it is not hinged on whether it’s international or whether it’s local, whether it’s theatre, whether it’s [streaming service] Toggle, whether it’s [Singapore’s largest broadcaster] MediaCorp, whether it’s Suria [a Malay language channel under MediaCorp].
My enjoyment of it is very non-judgemental. On my Toggle series with [Singaporean YouTube group] Tree Potatoes, I played this really fierce boss – I loved every single day of it! Just as much as I loved every single day of Crazy Rich Asians or every single day of [local plays] The Father or Pangdemonium’s Dragonflies, which I just closed.
That is a great and wonderful thing about being paid for your love, you know! [Laughs] It’s like being paid to be in love every single day of your life, how crazy is that?
That’s amazing! And to hear that kind of passion is refreshing in the seriousness of the entertainment industry.
I have the privilege of being in my mid-50s. I have this career, I’m not building a career. I’ve been doing this for more than 30 years. And I have the freedom to just do the roles that I want. I don’t have to keep doing beautiful roles. I don’t have to keep doing ugly roles to “prove that I can act.” I don’t have to worry about glamour – no glamour – or how people are going to see me.
You know, I’ve been doing this for a long time. And I tell you what really works for me… I mean, I don’t believe in giving advice but this is what works for me: if the voice inside you says “yes,” take it. Take it, jump off a cliff and just focus on it and make sure that it works as well as you can make it work. A lot of things can go haywire because once you start planning, it means that you have a lot of expectations. And this industry… the more expectations you have of this industry, the more you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment.
It’s funny that you said you hate giving advice and one of my questions for later was “do you have any advice?”
I wouldn’t call it “advice” but that has been what works for me. To just concentrate on what’s in front of you. And to do it well. Because if you just keep worrying about too many things, right, you’re just not going to be able to do very much.
But even if you’re game for anything, do you have any dream roles anyway? Any role you would want to play that you haven’t yet?
No. It’s just not in my DNA to use the word “favorite.” Because, I guess, I’ve lived long enough to know that what’s a favorite today can just very quickly – in the next half an hour – not be a favorite anymore! Something else comes along.
I don’t have a dream role, but I have a dream situation, and I guess that’s where I am right now. My days just have to be good enough for me. I mean, you just have today, that’s all you have and if that’s not good enough for you then that’s sad. Your days just have to be good enough for you.
Let’s talk more about Crazy Rich Asians specifically, because this is such a huge moment for representation on multiple fronts: for Asian communities in America, and for Singaporeans specifically. It’s shot here and shows so much of our actual landscape and our city. And it’s tied to us and our identity. How did you find out about this project and what drew you to it? Is it passion again?
No, no, no, I don’t think it’s passion at all because I’m a reader. And years ago when I read this feature article and it was about Kevin Kwan – this guy from Singapore and how wrote this book about Singaporeans and it was called “Crazy Rich Asians” – I just went out and bought to book! Because I was like, “This is crazy!”
And then I read this book, right, and maybe because I come from a very similar background to many of the people that were featured in the book – I just laughed out loud! He really captures the voices really well. And you know, I enjoyed his footnotes as much as I enjoyed the actual book. Because his footnotes would explain Raffles, [local schools] ACS and CHIJ and you know, this book really hits the nail on the head, right?
I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think I finished it in a day. It was way before there was any news about it being a movie. When it was news about it being a movie, of course I was curious. But I didn’t proactively go and like, “Hey, hey, hey what’s going on?” or whatever.
Then I got an audition notice, and then I did the first audition, and then I got shortlisted, and then I did the second audition in front of [director] Jon Chu, and then I got the role! And how I attacked the role is very much how I would have attacked any role. I just did my homework and tried to be as good as possible.
You play the mother of the film’s protagonist, could you tell us a little bit about her?
So, I may be a Singaporean and I was cast, but I don’t play a Singaporean. I play a Mainland Chinese. I play Kerry Chu who is the mother of Rachel Chu – played by Constance Wu – the female protagonist in the movie. Basically, I am a strong, loving rock in the life of Rachel. I have almost single-handedly brought her up, and am very proud of her. [Rachel] and her mother have a very good, solid relationship. And in the face of all the chaos that ensues in her life, I think she finds consolation in her mum.
It’s a beautiful relationship.
It is, and you know, I dare say, I have a similar relationship with my mum, and my daughter has a similar relationship with me. So, it was easy for me to identify with that.
What was it like working with Constance?
I tell you, she is an excellent actress. Take after take, she delivers so generously. I mean, she has a lot to do in this movie but oh my goodness! She is there at every take. She is equally adept at comedy and at drama, and she slipped into this role so seamlessly. Everything that people see of her in [ABC comedy] Fresh Off the Boat is not even one-thousandth [of] what she can do, and you get to see some of it, and I’m sure the world is scratching the tip of the iceberg when it comes to her immense talent. I mean, the woman, she really has so much to give as an actress.
Did you get to work with any other cast members closely, besides her?
Most of my scenes are with Constance.
I ask because other Singaporean actors [such as Pierre Png and Fiona Xie] are also in the film, and I was wondering about the camaraderie on set.
The [Crazy Rich Asians] set is one of those fun sorts of sets. The producers made sure all of us were very comfortable and happy.
That’s the most important part.
Oh, it’s so important because it was a massive shoot! To ensure that the people are happy and that the work gets done in not just an efficient, but in a delightful way. The producers really went out of their way to do that. And the director, Jon Chu, is a dream – an absolute dream. So clear and so good at what he does and such a great guy.
That kind of positive energy surely translates into the light-hearted story we’re going to see in the film.
Yeah! I hope people have a good time!
Me too! Because so much of Singapore has been hidden away from that part of the film industry and it’s hard to claim that identity fully in the western industry. How do you think Crazy Rich Asians will celebrate our culture the most?
First of all, I think that it’s very nice to see Singapore as lovingly and as beautifully shot. Two, I think that even though it’s a romantic comedy, it does feature characters, situations, and stories about a particular type of life and sector in Singapore that isn’t normally seen in the international market. And I think that’s nice.
So, whereas it is not a documentary—I mean come on, it’s a movie, guys, it’s got a soundtrack, it’s got editing, it’s got special effects, you know? It’s a romantic comedy. Don’t expect it to be a documentary on real life in Singapore. But even within the genre, you will still get a type of Singaporean flavor that is going to be pretty new for a lot of people around the world and we should celebrate that!
I’ll give you a good example. I’m sitting here in London. I am brought to the set every day by my English drivers and they talk to me about Singapore. And I tell them what I can and they get some of the picture but they don’t get the real-life picture because there’s just me and it’s just the time that I have in the car to tell them—
Today, I tried to tell them about kueh lapis [a layered, spice-filled cake popular in Southeast Asia]. And how I would express it would be, “So it’s like 30 layers of this very, very thin layered cake. And it’s made of cloves and cardamom, and what is so special about it is that you’ve got a nice roasted layer but it’s like 30 layers of it!”
So, I’m expressing it and it’s an impression, and of course it may not be 100 percent what kueh lapis is, which he would have to taste one day if he was ever in Singapore. But he got a bit of an idea, and it’s an unusual idea because it’s an unusual cake that can only be found in Southeast Asia. That’s kind of like the feeling that I get in terms of how international audiences are going to get of Singapore [with Crazy Rich Asians].
That’s a great example actually, because when you have a minority representation of anything, there’s always a struggle to represent everything, even if it’s not possible. To get the best story, you have to zoom in on the details.
That being said, do you think Crazy Rich Asians will be able to open up possibilities to portray even more of Singapore? Because we’re so diverse and there are so many different stories to tell.
My answer to that would be… You know, when you give something out into the universe, it will just start to open up all sorts of doors. And that’s the beautiful thing. You never know what it sparks off and I hope everything we give – not just Crazy Rich Asians – starts to spark off all sorts of things that are going to joyous and great and lovely.
That makes sense too, because even our local films [like Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo] have made it to Cannes Film Festival, and made waves internationally.
Yeah, of course!
It’s a flourishing industry.
Yes. It certainly is, and I hope that it continues to grow in all ways.
As our industry grows, do you think crossovers like Crazy Rich Asians will continue to be important?
I think it’s important to continue to tell stories that you want to tell. In as good a way as possible. I want different voices to be heard, which is why I’m not judgemental about whether it’s arthouse, rom-com – because I enjoy everything! I enjoy The Avengers too, you know.
I just want a world where many different voices can be heard, can be seen. Some voices are going to speak louder and deeper to you than others, so we have options. So that we learn and we can act or absorb or live our lives in informed and well-chosen ways. That is what I want.
And to cap everything off, in all your years as a working actress and across all the different roles that you’ve played, do you have the best memory of any one of them?
It’s really hard for me to answer a “best memory” type of thing, you know? Maybe if I hadn’t spent so many years [acting], I might have a best, but I guess I’ve had so many nice memories and I’m one of those sorts of people that don’t live too much in the past. I’m kind of concentrating a lot on the present, and I would say that I have enjoyed my career and I still enjoy my career so much. I still jump out of bed so happy to work. I still feel like I’m making memories.
Crazy Rich Asians will arrive in theaters August 15th.