Interview: Tan Kheng Hua Can’t Wait for You to Fall in Love With the Women of Crazy Rich Asians and Singapore

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Singaporean actress Tan Kheng Hua is well known for her stage work and television roles in Asia, but American audiences will likely recognize her as Xie Daoqing from Netflix’s Marco Polo. This month, though, it’s likely that many, many more will see her as Kerry Chu, the mother of Rachel Chu, Constance Wu’s protagonist in Crazy Rich Asians.

Tan and I spoke over Skype, where she was so lovely and open that I almost felt like I should take her invitation to see Singapore seriously, rather than as a polite pleasantry. (Tan does that nice thing where she says your name when talking to you, which makes you feel very special.) She’s very open about her love of Singapore and the pride she feels as a Singaporean. We gushed over our love of the Crazy Rich Asians books, how it feels to watch it as an Asian vs. an Asian American, and her onscreen daughter.

Some lines have been edited for length and clarity.

TMS (Charline): There’s been such a buzz among Asian-Americans about Crazy Rich Asians in terms of representation; did you feel the same when you were on set?

Tan: You know, it’s quite on the contrary, because I guess, here in Singapore, Asians are the majority. So, I guess things are quite different here. I think what the Singaporeans are excited about is that the country is going to be featured and represented in a way that is new.

TMS: I feel like there are these go-to “movie cities” like New York, or L.A., or Toronto now, and it’s cool to see Singapore in the backdrop of a major rom-com.

Tan: I know! Our country is so small; I myself was so surprised to see how beautiful it can look. Because my country is tiny, and we know it so well. It isn’t like America, where there are so many places to see—you just wouldn’t be able to see every inch of America in one lifetime. But we can see almost every inch of our country all the time. So, when I saw the scenes, when I saw how Singapore was represented through the eyes of Jon Chu, I was, I just felt so—I don’t know, inspired? So loved, I guess, as a Singaporean.

TMS: So tell me a bit about what it was like to play Kerry Chu. She’s one of my favorite characters in the book series because she’s just so resilient and strong.

Tan: So it was really interesting because, of course, one of the main features of Crazy Rich Asians is that it features a culture and a country called Singapore, and I’m Singaporean, and I got cast … but I’m not playing a Singaporean!

TMS: Kerry is a Chinese woman who immigrates to the United States!

Tan: That’s right! Having said that never once was that an issue for me. As an actress, for me, what was most important was that I played a character that spoke to me. And like you, I read Crazy Rich Asians a very, very long time ago—way before there was even any news of it being made into a movie. When I knew that I was going to read as Kerry, I was very happy, because I think, like you, she just represents to me a sort of tenacity and resilience. I really, really identify with that.

Kerry, giving the look any child of a Chinese mother will recognize.

I hope one day, Charline, you’ll be able to come to Singapore. You’ll be able to see that this country is run by very tenacious and resilient women. I would say that Singaporean women are very well known to be just sort of really out there—they run the whole country. I have never felt discriminated upon here in my country; I have never felt penned in in any way, just because I am female.

Therefore, I really locked in very easily with all the qualities that Kerry has. I identify with it, I personally admire those sort of qualities in a woman. I’m so glad and so honored to have been given the role and to be able to bring out all those aspects of me into the character. So, yeah.

TMS: Crazy Rich Asians is a movie filled with these really interesting female characters, like Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), Rachel (Constance Wu), Kerry, and the other Singaporean characters who are all so different and dynamic.

Tan: I love all the women in the story, and I’ll tell you why, Charline: because, I guess, as a woman in my mid-50s, there is so much of me that I love. And there’s also so much of me that is flawed. And I think a lot of the female characters that Kevin Kwan has drawn up in his books are so beautiful because of everything good, and not so good, that they are. And therefore, as an actress, I just feel there’s so much me—so much muscle in these characters to portray, and at the end of the day, they are all so human.

It may be a romantic comedy, for sure—it may be a book which can very easily be categorized as summer reading, but having said that, when I was reading the book, I never once felt that the characters were unreal. And when you come to Singapore, you’ll see that Kevin really captures the kind of rhetoric, the tone of the language, the way these women communicate with each other, the idiosyncrasies of not just the Singaporean women, but women, and how they talk to each other, and how mothers and daughters talk to each other, and how expectations between mothers and daughters … are the sort of unconditional love that women and the family have for each other—that women in the family, that only women in the family can have for each other.

It’s an unusual sort of love, and it’s very different from, let’s say, between a father and a daughter. You know, it’s kind of like, this tone of womanhood that Kevin has captured is so real—so enjoyable and so identifiable.

TMS: There are so many aspects of the book that I love for their specificity—from the footnotes and the dialect that are really distinct.

Tan: Absolutely! And for as unusual and specific a culture as the Singaporean culture—which is not widely known—let me just tell you, Charline, Kevin has really gotten it to the T! All Singaporeans, he has been on the best-sellers list for such a long time! He really captures and knows how to draw out what is so unusual and entertaining and specific about our culture and to weave it into this story that is also so universal and easily identifiable. And I must say, he’s one of the first few people—Singaporeans—to be able to do that. Because it’s not an easy culture to capture.

That’s why, as an Asian society, Singapore is very unusual. We are English-speaking and yet we speak so many different Chinese dialects. We’re so multicultural. My best friends are Eurasians and Malays and Indians, and it’s such an unusual place. And wow! He really got it down pat!

TMS: What was it like on set? Was the energy as big as we see onscreen?

Tan: I would say on set it was a party every day. I think, for many Singaporean actors, it’s not every day that we get to be on a big Hollywood set. And perhaps entering into it for some of us, we didn’t really know what to expect. But here is where I have to say: the leaders of the project, Jon and Nina [Jacobson] and Kevin, they really set the tone. They were so down to earth. They made the work so agreeable, so loving, and I guess they really knew on to make everybody really concentrate on the right things, make everybody comfortable and secure. It was such a safe place, and for that, I really applaud them.

I think in today’s world, building safe places is the way to go. Not just in terms of a movie set, but in everything that we do. So many places have become unsafe and unpredictable, but certainly not on the Crazy Rich Asians set. Everybody was so loved. Everyone was so well-taken care of, and not in an unnecessarily luxurious way—in a very calm and peaceful and vital and energized and simple, and you know, all the things that I think should be the way things should be handled.

TMS: I wanted to ask you about your onscreen daughter. I think it’s so fun that Constance Wu, who’s been playing a strict Asian mom on Fresh Off the Boat, is now in this film where she has to deal with two Asian mothers. What was it like working with her?

Tan: The first thing that struck me about Constance is the minute I touched down into KL, on my very first day—it wasn’t really on set yet—I was brought straight away from the airport into the office, and before I knew it, somebody called me from behind, came up to me, and gave me a big hug, and it was Constance. And she said, “I just needed to meet you. I needed to meet my mom!” She made a concerted trip just to meet me.

We had the luxury of a few rehearsals, and it was at the rehearsals that I knew I was in very excellent actors’ company. She and Jon were—they gave me that sort of work high, you know, that I guess I so appreciate. No airs. Obviously, she had thought and done so much work on her own for her character, for the movie, and it was inspiring and energizing to be in the company of such work colleagues like that. Certainly that sort of energy was carried out into the set.

She is such an excellent actress. Her emotions are on the surface of her skin all the time. She never has to waste anybody’s time to give Jon and to give me and to give everybody—giving us the sort of emotion that was needed for the scene. That is amazing. It’s wonderful. It’s really really wonderful to be able to get that from your fellow actor.

TMS: How do you want viewers to experience Crazy Rich Asians?

Tan: I want everybody to experience the movie in a way that will just make them happy, just like what I feel I would like a lot of media or entertainment to do. That’s what it’s there for and that’s why—whether or not it’s a rom-com, or an art house film, or whatever—I want them to be able to walk away feeling good or feeling happy. And it’s just that this particular story is about a bunch of Singaporeans, and I’m so happy about that.

Of course, I am a Singaporean, and a very proud Singaporean if I may add. I am so excited to show off my country. But larger than that, I just want to make people happy, and I think this film is definitely going to do that. I never underestimate how important it is to have something, or to watch something that makes you happy—that makes you laugh, that makes you joyous. So I would like that, very much, from all audiences.

TMS: You said that you can’t wait for people to fall in love with the Singapore onscreen. What would you recommend people do if they ever visit?

Tan: One of the first things that Nick (Henry Golding) gets Rachel to do is to go eat! And there are these very lovingly shot scenes of specific Singaporean food, and I would say, I highly recommend that for anyone that comes to Singapore, because I think the food in Singapore is certainly something special—because we get such a mix of all sorts of food, and you get it 24/7. You can get food any time of the day—you can get cheap food, cheap good food any time of the day. It’s really a special part of our country.

TMS: What kind of roles are you hoping to do in the future?

Tan: I just want to work. I want to work, in the work that I want to work in. I guess that has always been my motto. You know, I’m 65 years old. I’ve been doing this for a very long time—I don’t have a dream in that I never had that sort of concept, or notion, like, “Oh, I want to break into Hollywood. I want to break into the international scene or Netflix” or anything like that.

I just want the role that I want. Whether or not it is something here in Singapore, or whether or not it is on Netflix, like Marco Polo, or whether it’s Crazy Rich Asians, the sort of enjoyment and love and fulfillment that I get as long as it’s a role that I’m compelled to work; it’s the same. So yesterday, I just closed a stage play that I’ve been acting in, and it was just as joyous as every day on Marco Polo, just as joyous as every day on Crazy Rich Asians, and I’ve always seen it as such a privilege to be able to be doing what I love and to earn money for it.

Tomorrow I fly off to London, and I’m filming a channel 4 miniseries there, and I’m very excited for that, as well. Then I’ll be coming back and just resting for just one day, and then I’m flying off to film an HBO Asia film in Malaysia—I just am so thankful, you know—and then after that, I’ll come back, and I have some work lined up here in Singapore, in my home, and I’m just as excited about that. So yay! As long as I keep getting the work.

Crazy Rich Asians is out today! The reviews are amazing (including ours), so celebrate the last of the summer weekends with a fun, delightful, and hilarious rom-com.

(image: Mayhem Entertainment Public Relations, Warner Bros.)

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