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Tan Kheng Hua

Become – High Profiles
June 21, 2019

“How many Chinese actresses in their fifties do you see on the red carpet?” Tan Kheng Hua asks, albeit rhetorically. “There’s Michelle Yeoh. And then there’s—me.”

This isn’t a vain statement. Hollywood is not particularly kind to mature actresses, and plummeting popularity and fortunes are well-recorded after the mid-30s. Add ethnicity as a filter and the pool of veterans reduces to Gong Li, Lucy Liu, and a handful of others. Conscious or otherwise, Kheng, as she is more fondly known, made her debut at a propitious time where studios are paying more attention to Asian American audiences and diverse representation. Phone calls rolled in after her role as the fiercely protective immigrant mum of heroine Rachel Chu in Crazy Rich Asians, and launched her second wind overnight.

Hollywood is a different beast unlike the close-knit camaraderie of the acting circle in Singapore. An impressive oeuvre of accolades and works carries less weight when everyone else is just as hungry and talented. The game has to be played by their rules, which means red carpet events, countless auditions, and after-parties “with bouncers every three metres to ensure no photographs are taken so that Bradley Cooper can enjoy the evening with his supermodel girlfriend.”

The whole shebang doesn’t faze Kheng, whose tenacity plays a worthy counterpart to her joie de vivre. Being represented by three different international agents only serves as an invitation for greater dreams and bigger plans. “I still hunger for so many work adventures,” she gushes. “I want to fly to France and be in an arthouse film like Isabelle Huppert. I want to spend more time being with talent that have such incredible depth, and yet are so willing to share, just like those I’ve met here in L.A.!”

Real-life Kheng isn’t so different from her Kerry Chu persona. She’s sharp as a tack, resilient, and a woman of action. She doesn’t mince her words. She speaks her mind. And she certainly isn’t one to take any bullshit, especially when it comes to her loved ones. Fortune, as they say, favours the bold, and the gamble on Hollywood is one that Kheng has never been more willing to take.

Kheng Hua: The Second Act

Actor & Producer
Text by Xiangyun Lim
Photography by Juliana Tan

XIANGYUN LIM: How has L.A. been for you?

TAN KHENG HUA: It’s a completely different market in L.A. Singapore is such a simple country to manoeuvre. The media is a monopoly. There’s just one television station and the same few theatre companies. We have a close-net community where I can recommend a friend even if I don’t get a role. I can ask someone for help if I don’t get a sponsor. Here, I can’t even tell anyone what I auditioned for because of all the NDAs I have to sign! It’s massive in comparison, and the decision as to who gets chosen as the main cast is the result of a complex network of all sort of politics. Oh, the casting directors here are amazing. They know how to get exactly what’s needed for the studio executives and directors, and they work with you to get it out. They’re the ones with the net in the industry.

XIANGYUN: You pretty much jumped from being a big fish in a small pond, to being a small fish in a big pond. How does it feel to be around a different group of celebrities?

KHENG: Have you heard of the philosophy of celebrity culture? Do you believe you’re a celebrity, and how? What do you have to do to keep that belief? It’s fascinating. Being a celebrity is an absolute perspective and a construct. They are, in fact, just like anybody else. I didn’t feel that Bradley Cooper was in any way different when I sat across him. At the same time, you can really feel their presence once these celebrities walk into a room. The gravitas they carry is out of this world—way beyond what you can find in Singapore. You’ve seen their work. You know how exquisite and hard it is to act. And they’re there in front of you.

XIANGYUN: It’s also possible to become a celebrity, not on the basis of acting.

KHENG: You mean those like the Kardashians? They’re another sort of celebrity. They may not be your sort of celebrity, but they’re someone’s. They’re that of millions of people. Don’t take it away from them. They are celebrities, they feel it, and they work for it. It’s truly hard work, you know. I was ready to tell my publicist that I wasn’t going by the second awards for Crazy Rich Asians. The red carpet can go on for more than two hours—and it’s good if it does, because this means there’s interest. “You have to go,” she told me. “You have to go, because there will be 300 photographs of you as this mid-50s Chinese actress from Singapore. And if they see your face, they’ll say, hey, that’s the type I’m looking for! Who’s representing her?”

“Do you want that?” Yes, I do. Not the 300 photographs. I want the work!

You know, one of the biggest challenges is to live with the fact that I may not get a role again. Yes, I got my visa and have representation, but having a green card doesn’t guarantee any work. Can I live with the fact that I may not get a role again? It’s hard but I have to tell myself, yes. I have to be prepared. You have to eat humble pie.

XIANGYUN: You gave it your all.

KHENG: You have to try. You have to. But there’s still no place like home, you know? See those broken lights? I can fix them immediately when I’m here. This blackie (one of Kheng’s two cats) only comes back when I’m around.

"I want to be a Chinese mother of a Chinese Marvel hero. Just like Nicole Kidman in Aquaman, and Michelle Pfeiffer in Ant-Man and the Wasp."

XIANGYUN: Do you think you’ll start feeling too comfortable in Singapore after being in L.A.?

KHENG: It’s not about being comfortable. I was with Chris Pang recently, and told him that I feel like going back. “You’re not allowed to,” he said. When I asked him why, he replied, “Kheng, what is your most most most commercial dream role?” I thought about it, and this is it: I want to be a Chinese mother of a Chinese Marvel hero. Just like Nicole Kidman in Aquaman, and Michelle Pfeiffer in Ant-Man and the Wasp. Chris simply replied, “Can you be that in Singapore?” He’s smart. He knows I can do arthouse films in Singapore, but not commercial films. Commercial blockbusters can only happen if I stay in L.A.

XIANGYUN: What else has been happening for you in Hollywood?

KHENG: I tell a lot of Singapore stories, I do a lot of them with Kevin Kwan, usually at a book event, and we have a public chat which is usually framed by us sharing details about how Singapore has inspired a book like Crazy Rich Asians. You’ll be surprised by how little people know about Singapore—that we speak English, that we were a British colony… They ask: “What does a colony mean? Like the British used to rule you?” Oh, God! Honestly, they know nothing.

XIANGYUN: Do you think the arts is the only way to bridge the gaps of understanding between our differences?

KHENG: Of course it’s not the only way. But it is such a gorgeous way for healing and for understanding, for sharing thought, for opening up discussions, for commenting, for rebelling, and more. Art frames life. And good art is an effective way to frame life. Art isn’t an elitist concept. I myself started from sitcom, and Phua Chu Kang was really good art. It opened up amazing discussions at a time in Singapore when nobody was talking about issues so specific to our culture—issues like the class divide and how people from one class treated those from a lower or upper class.

XIANGYUN: How can we encourage more of it in Singapore?

KHENG: Just by doing it. Keep doing it. Continue being an artist, or a photographer, even a writer, if that’s what you want to be. Don’t give up and become a lawyer. The best thing you can do for any art industry is to continue to do your art. And make it work, for God’s sake. If I can make it work, anybody can. Learn to be practical. If you need money, take three months off and get a job. I have done that many times. You cannot imagine the number of marketing proposals I’ve done, or dinner and dances I’ve hosted for quick money. Why not? It can actually be quite fun.

We just need more dialogue about making art in Singapore. Look at cities like New York and London. Art is so much a part of life that there is no need to overcomplicate things. Artists don’t have to justify what they’re doing nor be so precious about what they do. Neither do they or their work become glorified. Making art is like any other job. I’m sure being an astronaut is just as difficult.

Kheng-Hua-Art-Large-2Dress by Klarra

 XIANGYUN: How do you think being an actress has shaped you as a person?

KHENG: Acting has channelled my mind, body, heart, soul, my spirit, into a space where I’ve had to crystallise all the emotions that I’ve had to invite into my life through the different roles I've played. It’s like discovering doors into yourself that you may or may not know to a certain degree, were there.

The devil’s in the details. Knowing details will change your perspective of the world, and of humankind. Acting is a privilege and a gorgeous career because you are exposed to details all the time. They may not be actual facts in your day-to-day life, but if your mind, body, spirit, soul and heart can move into different emotions and worlds, and if you can use your imagination to shape a reality of all these windows that you’re being asked to look through and inhabit, a lot of these details can suddenly become quite real.

XIANGYUN: Were there any emotions that you felt or expressed that you didn’t even know you had?

KHENG: Many times. Because the people you play aren’t you. When I played the mother of an autistic child in Pangdemonium’s Falling, I felt so many emotions and battled with the everyday complexities that do not exist in my reality. Acting helped me to understand myself better.

"I'm so much more complete, detailed, and full as a person because of my love and passion for the process of acting."

XIANGYUN: What would you say is the biggest lesson that acting has taught you?

KHENG: That the world is wide, and the human heart is immense. I'm so much more complete, detailed, and full as a person because of my love and passion for the process of acting. Many people enjoy many other things about it. But I enjoy the details. I enjoy thinking about it, I enjoy the research, I enjoy delving into all corners of my being to try to garner from them the things I’m going to need to play these characters. I love, love, love it.

XIANGYUN: You’ve played multiple characters from being a lesbian lawyer to a prostitute, Empress Dowager to even a horse. How much of yourself do you reveal in each character?

KHENG: It depends. Revealing too much of yourself won’t work if it turns the spotlight onto you and not the character. Sometimes what you need to reveal are the movements of your heart rather than other parts of yourself. And don’t forget how collaborative the process is. The decision isn’t just yours. You have to find a way that works for your director and fellow actors.

XIANGYUN: So those who watch you on stage, aren’t really watching you act.

KHENG: It’s not necessary to separate or quantify how much of a person you see on stage is false or real. What is necessary is whether you connect to him or her. Are you engaged with what you see? Otherwise, let the mystery be. You don’t need to know everything about everyone in your life.

XIANGYUN: Does putting yourself out there make you feel exposed?

KHENG: I like it that way. Those who choose to be an artist put a vision out in the world, and sometimes that vision is more personal and intimate than anyone in your life knows about. But these people don’t know some other things. And that makes it okay.

XIANGYUN: How would you define yourself?

KHENG: I love that question. How would I define myself? Hmm, I am more Kheng than I’ve ever been in my entire life.

XIANGYUN: Tell me more about Kheng.

KHENG: Kheng is very curious. Kheng loves to follow her compulsions. Kheng loves her work. Kheng loves her family. Kheng wants to see what else is there in her life and in her world that is not currently there. Kheng is very organised and chases her curiosities in a very organised fashion. Kheng wants to bring everybody that she loves along with her in one way or another on her adventures. And Kheng is, to a certain extent, more able to love everybody in a better way than ever before, simply because she knows better how to let go or to let them be.

XIANGYUN: What do people not usually know about you?

KHENG: They don’t know a lot of things. And you know what? They don’t need to know. If they needed to know, they’d already know.

XIANGYUN: Mystery is a beautiful thing.

KHENG: Absolutely. But being known is beautiful too. And being seen by those whom you want to is very important, and beautiful too.

Kheng-Hua-Art-Large


Kheng’s stamina on stage and screen mirrors a capacious zest for life. Her career has spanned multiple hats as a producer, director, actress, and marketer, often at the same time. Even pregnancy was not enough to stop her as the obsessive-compulsive Margaret Chua in Singaporean sitcom Phua Chu Kang—Kheng continued filming till she was 7 months into term, hiding her bulge behind furniture and cleverly-angled shots. She speaks of her love for acting often—for the process, the craft, and the way it serves as a balm in times of crisis, such as when news of her mum breaking her thigh bone came in the middle of filming in L.A.: “Having work actually helped me to calm down. I’d otherwise be on the phone, irritating my elder brother who’s doing the actual work since I’m so far away, you know?”

Her love for her 21-year-old daughter is also palpable. “I have never felt such a genuine, and consistent and true love as I have for another person,” Kheng says. Shi-An is her number one, her queen, and like every proud parent, Kheng found herself bawling her eyes out during Shi-An’s first professional theatre production. Being a mother, she says, brings out her best “with no effort at all”. “The Kheng who is the mother of Shi-An is the best amongst all the Khengs that I am... Generous, calm, wise, playful, nurturing, loving, kind and understanding… mind you, I am not like that naturally with everyone.”

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XIANGYUN: You’ve had a varied career, even co-owning a yoga studio. How do you think these experiences reflect the way you are now?

KHENG: Hmm, that’s a great question. I’m a very task-oriented person. So I see to-dos in terms of tasks no matter what it’s for. And all these ‘tasks’ will emerge instinctively arranged according to what’s important to me there and then. When I got crazy about yoga, for example, my focus went to mastering moves one after the other, as if they were tasks to complete.

I also go through these crazy phases and can drop what I’m obsessed with completely once something else starts distracting me. I make my decisions clearly and have almost never regretted them—I buy all my houses within 15 minutes. That’s one of the common denominators of everything that I do, so it’s obvious to see what I’m fixated on at the moment. Maybe it’s more to do with control. I like to know what I need to do to get things done, and I won’t be able to do anything else or relax if I don’t do so.

XIANGYUN: Is it always clear to you what to do?

KHENG: Yes, it’s always clear in my head once I wake up. Clarity of thought is something that I generally have. I always know and follow what I’m feeling and thinking. There’s both good and bad in that... I don’t think I’m hurting anyone by knowing what I like and dislike, or what I want and not want to do. But my knowledge isn’t always good or right.

"I was so self-righteous about doing what I felt all the time for the most part of my life. It was only much later that I felt that doing things that way didn’t always work."

XIANGYUN: Have there been moments when this clarity is shaken?

KHENG: Many times. And I’ll hole up when that happens. It’s usually because of some sort of emotional devastation. Never work. I turn into an utter and complete mess, and I’ll simply shut down and go to sleep.

XIANGYUN: That’s a fantastic ability.

KHENG: It’s excellent, isn’t it? But I will wake up. Even in those moments of chaos and devastation, I know exactly what I feel and what I’ll be doing, and I know I’ll get out of that state in time. I may not know exactly how, but I know it will disappear in time.

XIANGYUN: You seem to be very able to separate what you’re feeling from what you’re thinking.

KHENG: It’s funny. I was so self-righteous about doing what I felt all the time for the most part of my life. It was only much later that I felt that doing things that way didn’t always work. It did in a lot of ways for me, but it also didn’t in some major ways.

XIANGYUN: There’s a sense that the way you describe ‘feeling’ is individualistic. ‘Thinking’, in contrast, takes into account external factors like other people.

KHENG: I think you’re right. And like I mentioned earlier, there seems to be a balance between my heart and mind that came in a natural and organic way after I turned 50. Nowadays, I’ll feel something and think for one or two seconds before acting. These one or two seconds wouldn’t even happen in the past.

I just want to find a kind of easy peace as I grow older. And I think using my brain a little more seems to be working. Things also become more thought-through (pardon the pun), which is always a good thing.

XIANGYUN: It sounds like something worked out better for you recently.

KHENG: Instead of jumping into things when opportunities for international representation opened up after Crazy Rich Asians, I spent many months talking to the reps who expressed interest. I paid for my own trips. I wanted to better understand the kind of life these changes would entail. Looking back, all the calls came at the perfect time. I was 55. My mortgage was paid, I had enough confidence, a lifetime and a career in Singapore I was proud of. My daughter has grown up and I daresay I’ve done a good job with her. All my important relationships were squared out and in great places. At the same time, I’m not unhappy here in Singapore, you know? I love Singapore.

I took things step by step as they came. First it was the opening weekend. Then came the calls and interest from reps. From there, it was about finding out what would be needed for the U.S. and UK if I was represented in those countries, because it wouldn’t be the same. I’d need to stay in the U.S. for pilot seasons for example, because of how intense they can be. You can have three scenes to film the very next day! So it’s just continually learning as you go each day. Having that marriage between my brain and heart just led to making better decisions and a more level-headed timeline I was comfortable with.

XIANGYUN: Do you have an example of when listening to your mind would’ve been a little wiser?

KHENG: [long pause] I’m thinking about an example that I can and want to share.

[another long pause] I had a miscarriage nearly two years after I had Shi-An. It led to a couple of years when all I wanted was just another kid. Something happened, a strange obsession that was more heart-led than brain-led, and I think it stressed people out. It continued till I was 40. I still hadn’t conceived then and my gynecologist passed me a letter. She told me that she had done everything she could, and that the next step would be IVF. The letter was a referral she prepared for me.

I looked at that letter and for some strange reason, my brain just kicked in and said: Tan Kheng Hua, you’re 40 years old, you got a really great, healthy kid. Just let it go. And I felt so level about everything all of a sudden. I remember telling myself then: If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, so be it. Meanwhile, you’ve still got so many other loves in your life. Just make yourself happy. Right after that, I had some really gorgeous years in terms of my career.

XIANGYUN: It sounds like your heart slowly quietened down over time.

KHENG: Yeah. It’s as if my heart needed the time to exhaust itself. I couldn’t stop it, because it’s all hormones and stuff like that. I read later that quite a few women do go through this. They get obsessed about having another child after they suffer a miscarriage, especially when they’re getting older.

XIANGYUN: Suppressing what your heart desired might have led to something worse.

KHENG: I guess my heart just needed to find its own way, you know, and you’re right, because I’m someone who just needed to try. I needed to go through all those steps.

Kheng-Hua-Art-2


There is a massive bookshelf
in Kheng’s Singapore home that fills up a wall with stacks of books. The top shelf is dedicated to all the scripts of roles she has played. It’s one of the few permanent installations made to the Peranakan shophouse, which is otherwise decked with a wondrous mishmash of furniture pieces collected from relatives, picked up, or adopted from past productions. Kheng calls her home a “living museum”—a place made up of things that lie close to her heart, even if she no longer spends most of her days there. Soon, Shi-An will also join Kheng in L.A. for a school exchange programme. The two cats which only return when they are around will need new spots to prowl.

Mother, daughter, wife, friend. These roles that were once tethered to Kheng have matured, making space for her to be emotionally, mentally and physically freer. While many celebrate her body of work, not many are aware of the work that Kheng has done on herself to balance her heart and mind, let go of emotional baggage, and find peace from within.

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XIANGYUN: A few years ago, you shared quite a few thoughts about ageing gracefully. Turning 50 seemed to signify a big shift for you.

KHENG: There were these massive turning-50 parties being thrown that year by many of my peers like Ivan [Heng], Glen [Oei], and Keng Sen [Ong]. But when it came to my turn, I couldn’t find it in me to celebrate in a big way. I chose instead to do one-to-one meals with a carefully curated and small group of friends I was very close to during the week or so around my birthday. I felt at the end that I had done it exactly in the way I wanted to. It was a quiet space I craved for together with the intense and private connection with people who knew me well. Two or three years after that, I did throw a big cook-in party to celebrate, and felt so much better then.

XIANGYUN: Are you able to describe some of these feelings that you had to deal with?

KHENG: My years from 35 to 50 were a time of wonderful work which I grabbed and splashed all over myself. I was so happy. I was producing and acting a lot, there was my kid, it was all great… But I did feel that there was some sort of personal void that maybe I wasn’t confronting in a very direct and real way.

Some people eat ice cream to distract themselves from worrying. Me? I jump into projects. Oh, there’s this thing that’s bugging me, but oh my God, there’s this new project and it’s like so fun, and three months go by before you know it. A little of what was bugging you comes and eats at you when that’s gone. But you take on another job that’s fun and exciting, and there’s something to do again. Time can pass so quickly that way.

XIANGYUN: And yet you mentioned finding more balance after 50.

KHENG: I think just letting what I was going through run its course into the years of 52 and 53, which gave me the strength and courage to address those issues surrounding this ‘void’. I felt more ready mentally and spiritually to deal with them in a grown-up way.

Now that I’m 56, I find it easy to just stay still for a bit and not move if I don’t feel like it. I also feel it’s easy to jump when I feel like it. Like taking this adventure and spending time in LA. Why not? It’s not going to hurt me.

There was this moment when the three days I was supposed to film in a plane fell through for Crazy Rich Asians. They put me up in a gorgeous hotel in KL while sorting things out, and I was sitting in my hotel with nothing to do. I felt so suddenly happy with myself and being by myself there and then. The feeling came from nowhere, almost like how the IVF letter had kicked my brain into gear. It was as if suddenly I had grown up in that moment. Something opened up to allow me to let go of a lot of things, and I could find a sense of peace.

Kheng-Hua-Art-4Top and pants by Klarra

XIANGYUN: Do you think this peace related to a fear of being lonely or an inability to be okay by yourself?

KHENG: Yes, I think so. It’s also perhaps to do with the negotiation between the traditional and free-spirited. Being free-spirited can take a lot of courage when the traditional roles you invite into your life turn out to be structures that you hold on to simply because you learnt that they help to keep things together.

XIANGYUN: They’re more widely accepted.

KHENG: They are. Structures like being a wife, a mother, and having work are so deeply ingrained in you. You grow up with them, and then you hold on to them for dear life. But see, you get older. You turn around and your child is an adult. She’s got a life of her own and you know you’ve done a good job. There she is. She’s free.

XIANGYUN: One of things that first drew me to you was your relationship with Shi-An. Was it ever difficult to balance such definitive parts of you?

KHENG: Nope. It becomes very clear when you have such great loves. But own your decisions no matter what you choose. Be there if you choose to be there. It’s horrible to want to be somewhere else when you are in one place. Everybody has to make difficult decisions, so let’s not mollycoddle ourselves. And don’t feel guilty!

XIANGYUN: How did you know when to let go of these structures then, like being a mother?

KHENG: I didn’t let go of those structures because they are still part of me. I just modulated them a little bit. You get older, you know… Your friend who’s the same age as you gets ill. Parents are going three in a row in the same year. You realise there’s not much time left. Isn’t it time to deal with all that’s inside you? So you start sorting out your priorities. You gain the courage to look at yourself and what you want. You look with the same eyes but a much wider vision at the kind of life you want to lead for the time you have left.

XIANGYUN: Where does that leave you?

KHENG: I am more Kheng than I’ve ever been in my entire life. I feel that I’m in one of the best places of my life now where my mind and heart are more balanced. Learning doesn’t happen in a linear fashion. Free agents are running around in your brain, making patterns and separating out. In a gradual step-by-step way, my heart and mind just kept finding themselves closer and closer to each other, and I’ve never felt more together, and happy with where I am.

 

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Edited by Wy-Lene Yap