TV and film star Tan Kheng Hua dishes on finding career satisfaction and raising happy kids
Crazy Rich Asians set the world on fire when it premiered in 2018, becoming one of the most successful romantic comedies of all time and making a bold statement about the importance of diversity and representation in Hollywood. Yet despite its Singapore setting, there were just a few Singaporean actors who appeared in it. One of them was beloved Singapore TV and theatre actress Tan Kheng Hua, who played the crucial role of [main character] Rachel’s mother in the film.
With a real-life daughter of her own (Shi-An, who is currently in university), Tan Kheng Hua balanced motherhood with starring in Singapore’s longest running and most popular sitcom, MediaCorp’s Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd (PCK), which ran from 1997 through 2007. Prior to that she also starred in the original production of the legendary Singaporean stage musical Beauty World. And before all that she graduated university in the U.S. with a science degree and had a successful career in marketing!
Prior to the premier of of Crazy Rich Asians, we sat down with the Fly Entertainment Artiste in her absolutely stunning Joo Chiat shophouse (which is filled with props from her previous shows, including the portrait above, which was painted by castmate Bobby Tonelli as something of a joke!) to hear about her unusual career trajectory. She told us what it was like working on Crazy Rich Asians, talked about her experience with pregnancy and giving birth in Singapore, and shared her her parenting advice for raising happy kids.
Read on for some highlights from our enlightening and wide-ranging conversation with Tan Kheng Hua…
‘Crazy Rich Asians’ has put Singapore in the global spotlight! As one of the few Singaporean cast members, did you feel like something of an ambassador?
I wouldn’t be so bold as to say that but, I always feel like I’m some sort of Singapore ambassador simply because I love my country! I’ve stayed here, I’ve built my family here, everybody I love the most is here. Most of my work is created around my feelings toward my own country.
How did you become involved with the film?
I got involved in the way many actors get involved with movies: I got a casting call, for a particular character. I was sent the script, I read it and really liked it, I went to auditions, I got a callback with the director. I felt pretty good in the meeting with the director, and then a couple weeks later, it was confirmed. It was pretty much the normal process.
How was the filming experience? Did you shoot your scenes here in Singapore?
All my scenes were shot in KL, Penang and Singapore. The experience was beautiful, because of two things: 1) I love the machinery that is so well-oiled from a production company like Warner Brothers. That allows you, as an actor, to do your work so concertedly, so freely, and so focused. They make it so easy for you to not have to worry about anything except your own role and portrayal, how you’re going to tackle the scene. 2) When you’re surrounded by a group of talents, from the director to the makeup artist, to the wardrobe people to your fellow actors…everybody who does their job, does it well. It is a pure joy, because you love your work.
I love my work! Otherwise I wouldn’t be 55 years old and jumping out of bed and doing it today. It’s all the work that I want to do nowadays; I don’t take on work that I don’t want to do. What a beautiful way to live, and I get to live it every day!
How did you become involved with theatre and acting?
Theatre and acting came about very late. It was only around 30 years ago Singapore started to open up opportunities for English language television, and a more indigenous English language theatre.
In my early 20s, just like many of my friends here in the English language theatre scene, I went to get a university degree, just like every good child! I got a Bachelor’s of Science, and I actually spent most of my school years being a jock – a very competitive jock! I’m very competitive by nature, and even to today I have a deep love for physical activity and sports. [In school Kheng Hua competed in track and field and gymnastics, and was also active in outdoor sports like canoeing, abseiling, and climbing]
So I went away to Indiana University-Bloomington [in the United States]. During that time, Singapore had introduced a new rule that you needed to pass a second language to get into university here. It was a shock to a lot of our systems, and therefore there was a diaspora of very anglophile people like me, like [her cousin and legendary theatre actor/director] Ivan Heng, who were just like, What?! We don’t speak Mandarin! Our juice comes from literature! And so many of us went abroad.
I wanted a university that had as few Singaporeans as possible, that was very cold, and that had a very natural beauty to its campus – just a total change of scenery. Then I saw the movie Breaking Away [which takes place in Bloomington], and the minute I watched that movie, I said I’m going here!
So I went. And at one point I was looking for an early-morning elective so I could finish my school day early … and I took Acting 101. It was such a womb-like, falling-in-love-type experience. The other students were so hardcore! We were a small, hardcore group of young actors with a brilliant graduate student teacher, and I fell in love like a brick in the sea.
Then I came back, got a full-time job, and my cousin Ivan was already doing some theatre work at NUS where he was studying to be a lawyer. I was working in Marketing for FJ Benjamin; he asked me to be in his play at NUS…then before I knew it I was in Beauty World…then I was somehow doing three plays a year! AND working full-time, and earning a lot of money but not spending any of it because I was so busy.
When I was 30 I bought my first house, I got married, and I quit my job!
When did you realise that acting could be your full-time career?
As luck would have it, just when I quit my job, the first English language drama was happening. It was Masters of the Sea [which debuted in 1994]. Some people pooh-pooh it, but it was wonderful for me, because I’d never done camera acting before. In fact, you can YouTube it – recently when I was filming Marco Polo with Chin Han we googled it and looked at the title sequence…it was so funny! I had padded shoulders like oh my God!
I gave myself two years, but I was also able to be on a retainer with my employer, so they would pay me a little bit for consulting work. So after seven months, that fear of not having a full-time job started to wear off, because I kind of felt, I can do this! If I ever need some money, I know how to just go out and get it!
I tell that to young actors all the time: Where’s your stamina? Just go out and get a job if you need some money, then stop doing the job, then go and do what you love. And when you need some more money, go and get another job!
You were pregnant when starring in PCK. What was that like?
It feels like the easiest, most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. Parts of me just flowed out, it somehow organized itself on its own, without any effort on my part. With the best results.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I was an older mother – I was already 34. I knew what I wanted from the experience. I was very influenced by [PCK co-star] Gurmit Singh’s wife, Melissa, because Gurmit and I were working together then. Melissa is a woman ahead of her time; already she was really into Montessori, when honestly it wasn’t really trendy yet. And she was the one who introduced to the the concept of a natural birth, particularly the benefits of drug-free birth.
Because I had a buddy in her, and because we were both pregnant at the same time – our kids are just a couple months apart – it was so easy to both share information, but also receive encouragement and support. She introduced me to the importance of writing a birth plan.
The short of it is, I told my gynae, Baby’s health and my health first. But if everything goes well, here’s what I would like.
I filmed until I was 7 months, and nobody knew I was pregnant. I’m small, so if I was sitting, nobody would notice and it was easy to hide. I had the easiest pregnancy. But I remember – and again, I want to stress how far Singapore has come in just the last 20 years – I’d be wearing a singlet and I would go walking, and people would look at me funny, being very pregnant and moving around like that. Nowadays, all mothers are encouraged to not just walk, but do all sorts of Prenatal Yoga, and Prenatal Pilates – all sorts of things!
And did your birth experience go according to plan?
I had 14 hours of labour. I remember going into prenatal classes with my then-husband and thinking, This is absolute nonsense. I’m going to develop my own pain management system. And that’s exactly what we did! Because you know, we did theatre, we were very physical actors, and I knew my body. I read a lot; my two bibles were What to Expect When You’re Expecting and Miriam Stoppard. And that’s just how I am; I read a lot, and when I want to learn something, I will learn it! It’s a very actorly approach, and basically it’s my approach to life. I mean, why be a victim?!
First of all, I had the power of always know what I want. And I was an older mother – I didn’t know if I was going to have multiple children. And so I figured, might as well go for broke!
So…14 hours of labour. I didn’t want oxytocin, I didn’t want the epidural, I just wanted it to be as natural as possible. I told my gynae, Dr. Chan, I don’t want to have an epidural if I can help it. And then she looked at me and she said, “Kheng Hua, if anybody could do it, I think you can!” So she was game.
That makes such a difference, having a supportive doctor…
SUCH a difference. I mean, it’s such a moneymaking business in Singapore, so many gynaes want to schedule their births so they can pack in as many possible, make five times as much money today, rather than waiting and seeing when a mother will dilate.
But my gynae was willing to wait and see. When I went into labour, I was only dilated 5cm. I only had some laughing gas, I was walking around, not wanting to be bedridden, but after 14 hours, I couldn’t even open my eyes when the contractions came. And then I remember – through closed eyes – I said to my gynae, Alright, I’m ready for a half-dosage of pethidine, only a half-dosage because I don’t’ want to be drowsy! And she agreed, because I was only 5cm dilated, and assured me I wouldn’t feel drowsy, but it would help.
Before the needle went into me, I opened up my eyes and said, I need to give birth! I’m bearing down! And so very quickly they turned me around, I got up, and within the third push, the baby just came out!
Everything you hear about Chinese women just giving birth in the rice paddy fields, then going back to work, it must be true, because I was perfectly fine! I remember asking for the phone as she was stitching me up, and I just called my mom to let her know everything was fine. And then I just got up and walked, I took a bath, I ate some food, and then I put on some lipstick, because my whole Phua Chu Kang gang was outside to visit me, and I had them all in to talk and laugh!
Did your empowering childbirth affect your outlook as a parent?
I think more people – not just women – should just take a moment. I always call it “Go into your cave” – and just think to yourself, What do I want? You don’t have to ask yourself why, although that helps. For me, I just knew I wanted that whole [natural birth] experience, because I didn’t know if I’d have another child.
I think not enough people go into a dark corner, block out noise, and just ask themselves what they want. I do that all the time, I still do it today!
Ever since then, the confidence of childbirth kind of shaped me as a mother. I never ponder too much; I always kind of know what, and how, I want to mother. I think nothing of saying to Shi-An, Ok, I won’t be home at night for the next month because I’m performing. Love you! And I’ll go. Pilots do that! Helpers do that out of economic necessity. It doesn’t mean they love their children any less. You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.
I’ve always believed in a bit of benign neglect. Because, before you worry about them falling from monkey bars, look at how physically adept they are. Just let her climb, because she’s going to learn so much more doing that than if you are fussing over her with your fear – which I see all the time. I mean, just stand where you can catch her, and just watch! You don’t have to infuse the air with fear and expectation.
What was your parenting approach to academics in competitive Singapore?
My outlook was, I don’t really care what you get for PSLE, but what school do you want to go to? What do you need to get into that school? Just get what you need to help you get where you want to go.
I refused to go for parent-teacher meetings from the time she was 13, because I just sort of felt, There is nothing you cannot tell me about my daughter that I do not know. And if you can tell me something that I don’t know, I think I’m failing as a parent.
I mean, if I go and a teacher tells me that my daughter’s not doing well in Chinese, and then I look at her report card and see that, is there really much I can do to help her? I mean, have you heard my Mandarin?! All I can do is tell HER, not her teacher, “Honey, I can’t sit with you in the exam room. You know what you need from your grades.”
“But, I WILL love you. And I will support you, and encourage you, and tell you that all I need is for you to do your best. You will get the same hug whether you get a red mark or a blue mark, as long as you did your best.”
It comes back to that same idea: clear out the noise, create your own cave, and decide what you want.
I don’t understand this whole thing with Tiger Mums. When my child was young, we used to go to Club Med all the time. I remember watching her maybe when she was about 7, and she said, “When I grow up I want to be a Club Med G.O.!” And I said, OK, you don’t need Chinese to be a Club Med G.O., you don’t need 250 PSLE marks, you don’t need a university degree. You just need to be a very good G.O.!
My mum never had a Primary 6 education, and is such a gorgeous, great, wonderful, highly effective person. It’s a good lesson: they’re gonna be ok! It’s all good.
How was it balancing your television career with raising your daughter?
It really helps to be clear-minded. You’re not guilty when you ask your theatre-company if you’ll have your nights free, whether you’ll be rehearsing on the weekends. And at times maybe I took on a television role instead, where you’re filming fewer hours, until such time when you think your kid can handle it, and then you work more.
For three years, Phua Chu Kang was perfect, because we would rehearse Monday to Wednesday, and then I’d leave my daughter with my mum – she was the first grandchild, so it was like giving my mum a pot of gold – and then pick her up around 3or 4pm, and we would film Thursdays and Fridays in front of a live studio audience, and then I’d be free on weekends. This went on for three years, and then, I put her into full-time daycare.
It was just a simple daycare close by; I kind of felt, I didn’t have Montessori, I turned out OK. As long as you have a love for learning, and curiosity, any learning environment would be fine.
Then I really started to work a lot. I went back to the theatre in addition to Phua Chu Kang. My husband [actor Lim Yu-Beng, from whom she is now amicably divorced] and I were the sort of parents who would just say, “Oh, we’re both free and not filming for a month. Let’s take her out of school. We’ll just go away.”
I remember a time when Yu-Beng was filming in Prague, and we just spent three weeks or something faffing about. They’re just kids! You learn so many things when you’re there.
So yeah: benign neglect, clear-mindedness, but be fair to your children. Don’t scold them for running, they’re kids! Running is not a bad thing; scold them if they hit somebody, if they steal something.
Has Shi-An shown interest in following in her actor parents’ footsteps?
Recently she’s been most interested in a more business-oriented route. Right now – and all decisions are only for the present – she thinks she’s going to double major in Business and Theatre Studies.
She has acted before, to some acclaim, and I’ll say, Do you miss acting? And she’ll say, Not really.
We always thought she would go away for school, and then one day, like a child coming out to her parents, she came out and said, “Honestly I don’t want to go away, I want to stay here, and have a Singaporean life.”
Who are you wearing for the Crazy Rich Asians red carpet? Are you a fashion maven?
I’m wearing Singaporean designer Thomas Wee. He doesn’t have much of an online presence, so I’m looking forward to sharing his gorgeous designs with the world.
I’m not a glitz and glamour type of girl; I’m wearing makeup today because there are people taking photos, but there’s only one type of makeup I know. I’m very restless in a hairdressing chair.
I think nothing of wearing clothes that I’ve bought for RM30 to a premiere. Who cares? As long as I think I look good in it. I wear exactly the same clothes as always to the market – which I love to go to, because I love to cook – without any makeup, without doing my hair, because I’ve always done it that way.
I’m very stingy when it comes to my own grooming. I’ll usually just go down the road to the neighbourhood salon. But I am very lucky to receive sponsorship support, in terms of clothes or hair or skincare.
Your skin is AMAZING! What’s your secret?
Write it down! I’m sponsored by Nu Reflections, I think they’re really doing a great job!
What’s your fitness routine?
I love to dive. I love to ski – I can’t wait to be a skiing grandmother! I do yoga. More regularly, I run, usually between 5-7 kilometres. I’ve got all sorts of routes around the neighbourhood; I cannot treadmill, which is why I’m so dark. That’s usually one of the first things on my contract with skincare companies: if you expect me to stay indoors, I just can’t! I’ll wake up in the morning, just put on my running shoes and head out the door.
I also love to skip with a jump rope. I highly recommend it. I prop up my phone, put 30 minutes on it, open up my computer and go to my favourite Netflix or whatever, and then I skip and watch. Every 2-3 minutes I’ll just stop for a few seconds, and then resume. Anybody can do it! If you google, you’ll see people might start out only able to do 15 seconds before getting winded, then within a week they can do 30 seconds. And then within a month, chances are, you can go a full minute without stopping. Always put on good shoes, get a good skipping rope. It’s such a great workout: it tones your shoulders, it’s great for your core, it’s very low-impact. You can do it indoors; I carry my skipping rope along with me when I’m filming on the road because I can do it in my hotel room. It’s portable, it’s free, and it’s quick!
When does the Crazy Rich Asians promo tour begin?
There are two premieres, we’re flying off on August 5 for the official Hollywood premiere. I’m very excited for that, but I’m also very level-headed about it. At the end of the day, if it wasn’t a role that I wanted, I wouldn’t have taken it. Just go out for the roles that you want!
In terms of what I hope to get out of the premiere: I want to get more work that I love. Over the last year I’ve done a lot of theatre, on the Singaporean stage, and I’m just as happy as being there as being on-set with Crazy Rich Asians and an international Hollywood team.
I just want to continue to do the work that I love to do. If, internationally, I get more opportunities to do it, bring it on!
Thank you SO much for your generosity and candor, Kheng Hua! We can’t wait to see what comes next in your brilliant career. If you’d like to follow her exciting journey in Hollywood, be sure to follow her Instagram account at @khenghua!
This interview originally appeared in 2018