When one thinks of celebrated theatre and film actresses, you don’t usually think about individuals who are magna cum laude graduates in public and environmental affairs. “I worked in public affairs for CK Tang for a long time, during the glory days of retail. I organised shoots and we travelled all the time, we went to Jordan, we went to Spain, New York, we went everywhere,” recalls Tan Kheng Hua as she shares that her interest in performing was something that began as a theatrical elective at Indiana University, where she studied Bachelor of Science.
Shuttling between Singapore and North America, the 60-year-old exudes an energy that is not only infectious but outright inspirational. In her, I could still see my Phua Chu Kang crush; lithe, light and full of effervescent life. Proudly Singaporean, Tan takes great joy in identifying according to her nationality even though for many young and aspiring actors, the benchmark of success probably includes some level of “making it” in Hollywood.
“I’m glad you asked this of me,” as she smacks her lips evenly applying the lipstick. “Many young actors DM (direct message) me with a lot of misperceptions of working in North America. I always say I am Singaporean, I have a Singaporean passport and Singapore is my home. I am merely based wherever good work takes me.”
Hard to imagine this darling of Singaporean theatre, known for her sharp diction and elfin good looks, has transitioned from Masters of the Sea and HBO Asiaʼs Serangoon Road to a growing body of work in the United States, but her most significant contributions were to the golden age of Singaporean theatre with both acting and producer credits.
The reality is, despite its Singapore setting, there was just a handful of Singaporean actors on Crazy Rich Asians (CRA) and Tan was among them. “Crazy Rich Asians got me noticed in North America,” she explains.
“There’s a lot of gatekeeping and so many actors there that there are very few open casting calls. This is why long-standing relationships with casting houses and casting directors who have got the relationships with agents and managers, who are in turn linked to the parent companies have long established ties that make it very difficult for actors outside America to break into. Even my reps who would look at these casting breakdowns could not just send my profile over to the casting directors; they would have to ask before I’m then allowed to audition.”
A deeply instinctive person, Tan believes in allowing things to happen organically. Her life has been filled with never saying no to opportunities and open doors, and a facet of her personality she describes as “a knack of making whatever situation she finds herself in as well as it can be for her”. Tan says, “I’m not a complainer; I’m generally a happily wilful, productive and positive person. I always tell my daughter, whether good or bad, everything is perfect as it is.
I’ve always followed my joy.” My eyes open in bewilderment as she recounts her entry into the Singapore theatre and film scene, from doing marketing services in FJ Benjamin to eventually being cast by her cousin, Ivan Heng; one thing simply led to another. Tan is truly the definition of “following your joy”.
Though her joy has led her to international recognition, thanks to Netflixʼs Marco Polo (where compatriot and her good friend Chin Han played the tragic anti-hero Jia Sidao), the Kung Fu star is quite effusive when it comes to stereotypical benchmarks of success. “I don’t buy into the concept of making it,” she says. “Life is a continuum. It would be so sad if you had ‘made it’. I mean, what comes after? Wouldn’t it go downhill from there?”
Speaking acrolectal English ‒ the technical term used to define standard English ‒ her casual use of Singlish reminds me that while she’s of majority Chinese ethnicity in Singapore, where she currently plies her craft, she’s a minority. Hence, I steer the conversation into getting her perspective on whether she curates her scripts according to representation while ignoring tokenism.
“It’s a brand new conversation,” she replies thoughtfully. “I had just done a panel on this and this needs a bit of contextualising. First of all, I don’t have a pile of scripts waiting for me to read. I audition for everything that I have gotten currently. In the past with theatre, I was already very much in the group of people that were creating theatre at that time. Singapore doesn’t really have that sort of issues that defines the landscape in North America because the market is so small.
I think now, we are getting a more professional way to help an actor get a job and when they did get it, how do we protect the talent? What I personally want to know when it comes to roles has a lot to do with how it speaks to me as opposed to a political issue like, does it represent it me? When I play a horse in Animal Farm, I’m not representing horses!” she laughs.
“When I’m Margaret in Phua Chu Kang, I’m not representing vegetarians either! I’m just trying to be as effective as possible, even if the character is hateable, I don’t want to just represent one dimension of humanity.”
After the film’s debut, CRA drew some flak regarding representation because people were asking, where were other ethnicities like Indians and Malays? For those who are unaware, CRA is a satirical novel written by Kevin Kwan, loosely based on his Tatler-childhood in Singapore, where in the context of that society magazine and setting, there is practically a statistical absence of those races.
I opine whether there is a misunderstanding that representation means that every film, every context, every production, regardless of setting, has to have that diversity of races?
“I didn’t play a Singaporean Chinese woman in that film. I played an Asian American,” Tan answers. “But then again, it’s hard for me to talk about that because I’m not a minority migrant. In a country where there is a majority race that is not my own, my experience is very different. When people ask me whether I feel underrepresented,
I remind them that I lived all my life in Singapore and I have never felt underrepresented. Even as a woman, I’ve never felt unheard, I’ve always felt seen. My life in Singapore is just not the same as the life of my kids and the people I act with in Kung Fu. I don’t know what it’s like to be a minority race.”- Tan Kheng Hua
While I’ve pretty much had Tan on a pedestal since 1997, her animated and enthusiastic love for Korean variety show Physical 100 underscores her perspective on feminine strength. “I rooted for that Korean wrestler [Ed’s note: Jang Eun Sil]; she was so confident and positive whatever the challenges she faced and that was so admirable! I found myself rooting for her! The very next day, I went to try for myself that hanging challenge, it’s so hard! That said, my partner is this big, strong Canadian alpinist and paramedic and yet it was so much easier for me to hang on than he could manage because of my size!”
Suffice it to say, given her gumption and tenacity, she’s an exemplar of strength, and so where does that leave in terms of her imagination for ideal paragons of masculinity in her life? “I find it very reductive to use the word ‘ideal’,” Tan explains. “I hardly ever use these terms in my daily life. In the 60 years of my life, I have defied how people have defined me and every day I’m discovering how different it is than what I thought I would be. It’s such a privilege and an honour that you are sitting with me, a 60-year-old woman, for a cover shoot.
I don’t know if something like that would have been possible as recently as 10 years ago. I like to be surprised by the positive.” I ask, do you believe in equality with men and women exactly the same, or complementarity where men and women are equal but different? “In my life, I would say that I have many masculine and modern traits which I love about myself,” Tan reveals.
“I think nothing of paying, I’ve always enjoyed being in absolute control of my own bank account. It has nothing to do with being a woman or a man, it has everything to do with being independent. That doesn’t mean that I don’t depend on people; I’m highly dependent on my mother, daughter and even my ex-husband [actor Lim Yu-Beng]. This is to do more with the relationships as opposed to men and when I need something done that seems stereotypically male – let’s say, [if] I need to renovate a house, I would go for expertise as opposed to a man. If I would call the professionals and it turned out that she was a woman, it would not be a problem.”
Is there such a thing then as toxic femininity? I press. Tan smiles. “Honestly, I don’t know anybody who can actually say they don’t need anything or anyone. We all need somebody, we all need people. ‘Toxic’ is another subjective word. I don’t expect my partner to open doors for me, but when he does, it feels nice. And it also feels nice for him when I bring him a cup of water at night before bed. How different is that? It is all about how we relate to one another. The real experience for me is that all the significant men in my life have to be good men. What do I mean by that? They’re kind, they’re hardworking. Being hardworking is an attractive quality, man or woman.”
The makeup artist hasn’t caked cosmetics on Tan, but before me stands a woman transformed as she picks the garments that the stylist has handed her. In fact, rare is the woman has given me pause to reconsider my own world view and perspectives and so I decide to ask for her life advice. “Be better,” she smiles. “Yu-Beng was the one who told me that at one of the lowest points in my life. Know your lines and respect everyone else. Follow your joy.”
Main Image: Tan Kheng Hua wears a sheer chiffon dress with velvet appliques and glass-stone fringed embellishments, Bottega Veneta; Clash de Cartier earrings in yellow gold, and Tank Française yellow-gold watch with quartz movement and diamonds, Cartier; stockings (worn throughout), stylist’s own
Photography: Franz Navarrete; Styling: Daryll Alexius Yeo; Hair + Makeup: Hongling Lim using YSL Beauty + Kevin Murphy; Photography Assistance: Halid + Eugene Loo; Fashion Assistance: Amos Chin