For Singaporean-born actress Tan Kheng Hua, the opportunity to star in international Box Office Hit ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ has come at the height of an illustrious career in the Asian film industry. In an exclusive interview, the actress reflects on her breadth of experience to speak on racial perspectives, opportunity, and evolving with the tides of change.
For audiences in Hollywood and beyond, the film Crazy Rich Asians has been a cultural tour de force. Since its release, the film has stormed through the global box office, testifying to the expanding power and influence of Asian culture in popular media. Not since the release of the Joy Luck Club in 1993, has a film helmed by all-Asian cast taken the lead in presenting the experiences of the modern Asian diaspora to the masses.
A Cinderella-esque story retold in the lavish vision of Asian wealth and opulence, Crazy Rich Asians has grabbed the attention of Western media and sparked new conversations about race, representation and speculations regarding the changing cultural tide of present day Hollywood. However, the unforeseen successes of this film lie far beyond the sensationalism of its Box Office earnings or the column inches in Hollywood’s broadsheets. For many of its Asian stars, the significance of this hit has struck upon a deeper conversation of self-representation, and what their future will look like as Asian representation moves away from Hollywood’s sidelines and onto its glittering main stage.
The Bod Edit: The success of Crazy Rich Asians has given many Asian American actors a platform to discuss their struggles with racial representation in Hollywood. As an Asian Actor from Asia, how do you feel your experience has differed from your film’s co-stars?
It’s so funny because in the last two days, I have heard myself in conversations with the people who are around me in LA, saying how back in Singapore as a woman, being Chinese, I don’t know of any challenges. I feel heard, I feel empowered, and I feel respected. Sometimes I even feel feared! (Laughs)
I don’t feel a lack of opportunity at all, and I sometimes even feel privileged. So, although I’ve always known about the Asian American challenges and issues, it did become very real to me when I was acting with all these Asian American actors in CRA.
We’ve always read about the Asian American Diaspora and the Asian American situation from Singapore where we are a majority. But when I was in Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Premier night for Crazy Rich Asians, I could feel the emotional swell from all my Asian American cast. It was so real and it was very very powerful, some were even in tears that this was actually happening.
Tan Kheng Hua
I have been able to break out of stereotypes because I live in a country where the eyes that look at me as an Asian woman, have a wider vocabulary to reference.
I have been able to break out of stereotypes because I live in a country where the eyes that look at me as an Asian woman, have a wider vocabulary to reference. Whereas in a very western country, the storytelling is restricted by the vision; that lack of vocabulary in how they look upon the Asian person. I know that for many Asian American or British Asian actors, their experiences have been not as happy because the storytelling happens in a world that has a particular vision of you as an Asian, and it tends to restrict itself according to that vision. Now, of course I have to qualify this and say this is my own, specific point of view. I don’t want to speak for every Asian. I am an Asian in a country where I am the majority, but this is what I surmise so far.
What do you think of Asian actors having to play up to certain stereotypes in order to enter mainstream American cinematic culture?
You know I built my career playing a stereotype. I played this uptight, Chinese tiger mum for 11 years of my life. I built my career on that, and I’ve never been ashamed of that because somehow in playing the stereotype, it helped me get known. People liked what they saw, and as I got more known, I had more opportunities, and with those opportunities, I had more opportunities to do other things that have led to what I proudly express as a pretty varied career playing a wide variety of roles on stage, the small screen and on film.
Tan Kheng Hua
She has already singlehandedly extended the ways in which people see her. And I hope for more opportunities like that, not only for minority actors, but for all actors.
So playing a stereotype has been a way into a mainstream culture and achieving a bigger platform to broaden the conversation about race?
What the minorities and the Asians are trying to do, is to stretch and extend that vocabulary in storytelling. I think from what I have seen of Constance Wu from Fresh off the Boat, to a large extent, she is playing the stereotype of an uptight, Asian mum. But she does it so well, and she is completely different in Crazy Rich Asians. And so she has already singlehandedly extended the ways in which people see her. And I hope for more opportunities like that, not only for minority actors, but for all actors. I think the task for everybody, is to learn how to appreciate and extend the vocabulary of storytelling, so that as many people as possible get a voice. When good voices and good storytelling stands out, then people get to learn of a particular culture, or particular details of a culture, in ways that are enlightening, inspiring and bridging, rather than delineating or alienating.
Tan Kheng Hua
A lot of the things I am happy about in my life are due to 40% luck, and the rest, is being able to recognise it and do something with it.
Do you believe that these opportunities come to you as a result of chance of luck?
I feel that not only just in acting, but alot of life is about 40% luck. The task comes back to what do you do with luck. Do you have the capacity to act when luck strikes you? Because the same lucky thing can happen to one person and another, but one person can turn that into ten other lucky things, and for another person it can lead to absolutely nothing at all and dissolve. They can basically upend that lucky thing with negativity, laziness or an inability to identify all the doors that can be open from just that one incident.
But if you ask me personally, a lot of the things I am happy about in my life are due to 40% luck, and the rest, is being able to recognise it and do something with it. This is something that I will say I would like to claim more credit for.
Being able to discern when good things happen to you is also such a finely tuned skill, not many people have.
Absolutely. I would like to claim more credit for that than to simply claim ‘I’m a lucky girl”.
Tan Kheng Hua
I have always looked for meaning in my life, and I think that has been the underlying energy in the decisions that I’ve made.
What were you looking for when you first embarked on this journey of becoming an actor?
I have always looked for meaning in my life, and I think that has been the underlying energy in the decisions that I’ve made. Not just in my professional career, but also in my personal life, and I don’t think that’s going to end. When I accept roles, it is about meaning rather than making money or clearing the path towards ‘Hollywood’ or any award. Otherwise, I would have come to Hollywood in my 20s. Why am I here in my mid 50s? Somehow, the steps I have taken in accepting the career opportunities of my local hometown have brought me here. I know many Singaporean actors who have been trying to ‘make it’ in Hollywood for the past 25 years, and they haven’t really made it. They have tried to play the game according to a more established way of playing the game, in order to ‘make it’ in Hollywood. But they haven’t really. And then suddenly, there are these bunch of theatre actors from Singapore walking the red carpet. How much of that is luck? How much is it really about making the right choices? How much of that is pure hard work? And how much of that is being honest with the work you do? All those questions are not things that I have answers to, but all actors of all races should start thinking about this. Why do you want to act? What do you want to say? What is your personal story about? And what is the impact you want to have on your audience?
Tan Kheng Hua
I feel free. I feel like I have never been as much myself, and it’s a glorious stage to be in.
How do you think you experiencing Hollywood now in your 50s is different to experiencing Hollywood in your 20s?
I am so much more humble, realistic, calmer, and patient. These are all the qualities that I enjoy, and that I have worked to achieve in my mid 50s. It’s because of all the hard knocks, the joys, the responsibilities that I have started, seen through, and ended. My daughter is now an adult, and I’ve done a good job raising her. I feel freedom now in a way that comes with knowing you have followed through on some important responsibilities that you have invited into your life, and that you have followed through with them well.
Now my time is so much my own to explore. I have so little other considerations that have to do with my responsibilities towards others, and therefore I am thoroughly enjoying these opportunities that are present to me now in my mid-50s in Hollywood. I feel free. I feel like I have never been as much myself and it’s a glorious stage to be in. I really have to thank myself and my lucky star for the fact that I have my health, so much so that I can enjoy it optimally.
Tan Kheng Hua
I think happiness has also come from my ability to be on my own, and that took me a very long time to learn.
Are you happy with the recent success that has come your way?
Happiness and Success are both very deeply ensconced in one word for me, and that’s peace. I strive for that. I strive for some sort of peace and alignment in everything that I do, and I have felt closer to that here in my mid-50s than any other time in my life. Even times in my life where people can very easily say, was the prime of my career, say in my mid 30s. But I didn’t have that sort of peace. I do have that sort of peace now. And I think that particular happiness comes with accepting everything that is good and bad within myself; trying to let go of all the bad, and to reinforce and increase all the good. I think happiness has also come from my ability to be on my own, and that took me a very long time to learn.
But once you are honestly happy on your own, I think you really find life so much easier.
What advice would you give to young creatives and people searching for that breakthrough success?
I urge everybody, not just actors, to look at the opportunities that come their way, and find ways of owning those opportunities according to their own terms. And to be patient. Build your body of work with as many good and wise decisions you can make. That’s what I wish for everybody. That’s certainly the way I have brought myself here to where I am.
Tan Kheng Hua is a well-known and respected award-winning actress/producer in Singapore and Malaysia. Tan has been seen in The Philanthropist (NBC), The Patriarch (UFA), and Serangoon Road (HBO Asia Original Series). She has also appeared in the film adaptation of Singapore-born Kevin Kwan’s best selling novel Crazy Rich Asians (2018), where she plays Kerry Chu, the mother of protagonist Rachel Chu played by Constance Wu. Besides film and television, Tan is also highly respected in Singapore theatre scene where she’s a prolific actress and independent creative producer in Singapore.
Follow Tan Kheng Hua @khenghua