Tan Kheng Hua is a presence—and present. The actor/producer, petite and unpretentious, fully invests in conversations before her, be they about falsies or young creatives. She leads with “Call me Kheng!” and asks after everyone. The questions aren’t the autoresponders of a seasoned celebrity, but those of a conscientious student of her environment and its humans, inviting reciprocal warmth.
Back in 2008, she poured that energy into stage production It’s My Life!, spending a year working with then-teenagers (today’s millennials) to capture their coming of age amid nascent social media channels.
“I still want to do something like It’s My Life! again,” she says. At her Joo Chiat home, where she lives with her 23-year old daughter Shi-An and their cat Toastie, she marvels at the up-and-coming centennials. “I personally love looking at their creativity on TikTok; on Instagram. I love what they’re doing in the films I see on (online video content platforms) YouTube, Not Safe for TV and Viddsee. We have so many wonderful songwriters, all Singaporean, who are so, so good.”
Related article: These Singaporean Celebs On TikTok Will Keep You Entertained
She’s working on a possible stage production here next year. And, over a pandemic that stalled live performances, she kept a packed schedule, commuting between Singapore, Los Angeles and Vancouver as a regular on The CW’s action-adventure television series Kung Fu (2021), now available on HBO Max.
The series has an all-Asian cast. Replacing David Carradine’s fugitive Shaolin monk Kwai Chang Caine in the 1972 original is female protagonist, Nicky Shen (played by Olivia Liang), who spends three years mastering kung fu at an all-female monastery before returning home to San Francisco and becoming a vigilante (reminiscent of The CW’s other hit series Arrow).
Kheng Hua plays her mum, Mei-Li Shen, a mother different from her Kerry Chu role in blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians (2018). In between, she landed character roles in the Netflix show Medical Police and CBS’s Magnum P.I. On Grey’s Anatomy (Season 16, episode 20), she played Vera Kitano, a patient who cannot stop singing post-surgery. In 2023, she’ll also be one of the voice talents—with Sandra Oh, Michelle Yeoh and Henry Golding—in Paramount’s animated full-length feature The Tiger’s Apprentice.
She’s struck by the high standards of professionalism in North America, from stand-ins to showrunners. Because she’s in the main cast of Kung Fu, for example, supervisors sign off after every makeup session to safeguard her image. “It’s wonderful to be ensconced in an environment where everybody is so good at what they do,” she says.
Related article: Henry Golding on ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ And Breaking Asian Stereotypes in Hollywood
She’s ever exploring ways to take Singapore stories overseas too, but those aren’t the only pieces of home she travels with. She shares Singapore style items as gifts. “My luggage is three‐quarters filled—not with my own things, but with gifts from Freshly Pressed Socks, The Art Faculty (coasters, sustainable cutlery, picnic mats, pouches and more), SCENE SHANG (house items) and Binary Style (scarves).”
Her favourites—“all Singapore designers and brands!”—include KLARRA, Stolen, Ong Shunmugam, TheKANG accessories, CHARLES & KEITH shoes and Beyond The Vines’ Dumpling Bag. Also on the list: Chunky shoes, shorts, denim, flared pants, one‐piece pantsuits or playsuits. “I love a nice dress for a day press event. I love a nice, unusual and easy-to-wear outfit for more dressy night events.”
She dresses simply and doesn’t feel she needs to spend a lot to look nice, or too much time primping. “I always immediately know what I like when I go shopping,” she says. “I know what shapes suit my body, how I move, how I talk and how I like to live. I like a masculine edge. I never dress pretty. I steer clear of pastels. I love rummaging, and mixing and matching. I love exploring malls where you’d never think to find nice things… One of my favourite things to be in the whole day is a bikini.”
Well, this one time, there was orange lipstick. As style mistakes go, she says: “I bought one, never used it and always wondered what made me do it…” Otherwise, her sartorial sensibilities are constant. Her one must-have item has been a fixture in her wardrobe since her teens for its look, feel and fit: “Clogs! I have so many pairs of clogs. Heeled, and not, in brown and black!”
STAYING GROUNDED IN UNCERTAINTY
Given her track record that includes earlier stage outings, local TV series Masters of the Sea (1994) and Phua Chu Kang (1997 to 2007), films such as Cages (2005) and major theatre blockbusters, Kheng Hua is a consistent overachiever.
Before TV fame, she’d graduated magna cum laude from Indiana University’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs with a Bachelor of Science degree, and held corporate jobs from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s in public affairs at fashion retail and distributor F J Benjamin, then department store C.K. Tang (as it was called then).
Simultaneously, she acted. That corporate phase was “invaluable”, providing her with financial stability and people who nurtured her. “The muscles built during that time really, really help in my entire life, no matter what I do.”
She is an ace at managing time. “As a creative, that is so important, because your entire life is your work,” she says. “The more you know how to organise what you need from it, the more you can harness all the good things that you’ll need for your expression.”
Those years still inform her work. “At C.K. Tang, they were very interested in telling a Singapore story, because we were a local department store. And this lens is something that I’ve carried with me. I still have that DNA—telling the Singapore story.”
Related article: Welcome A Bright New Season Of Hope And Romance With Our September 2021 Issue
At 31, in the afterglow of an Australian tour with TheatreWorks for (the late) Kuo Pao Kun’s play Lao Jiu (literally “ninth child”), as a newly-wed and homeowner, she turned to the arts full-time. “I thought: I’ve got enough of a financial buffer. I’ve got nice, emotional support. I think this is a good time to try—for a couple of years—this other side of me… see whether I like it or not.”
It’s been 27 years since, with a body of work arguably more diverse than any other Singaporean actor. “I peppered my life with a whole bunch of stuff,” she says. “I acted for the camera, I acted on the stage, I produced for television, I produced for the stage. And I’m a mum.”
She’s driven to move towards clarity, making her a fast decision maker. “I only work on clear, 100 percent yesses, which give you a clarity of mind and spirit. I’ve always found it very natural to live my life according to my own terms. I never feel that I have to fight and claw and everything’s, like, choking me up or whatever.”
She also embraces past mistakes: “I think some mistakes I haven’t—and probably will never—fully recover from. But I’m almost glad for that, because there are some mistakes that keep reminding me to never do them again.”
By contrast, in her 30s, she took on too much. “I found myself saying ‘yes’ a lot, afraid that if I didn’t, people were going to forget me,” she reflects. “But it was very good that happened to me in my 30s. Because in my 40s, and definitely now in my 50s, I’m so much more healthy in the way I make my career decisions.”
These days, she carefully considers each project before agreeing to it, mindful that she’s also committing to accepting its outcomes. “You’re only as good as your last project,” she says. “Because your body—which is a mystery in itself—is your instrument and sometimes, it doesn’t work and you don’t really know why. But all you do is just get back into the ring and you just try.” In her 50s, she has found her balance in a volatile zone. And she says: “I love it!”
“I was very ready to redefine myself,” she points out. “Fresh eyes looking at me means no expectations, no baggage. Nothing. I’m just this person who looks like me, walking into a room, and they’re very excited to see what I can give them. I can be something completely different. They don’t know that you’re Margaret from Phua Chu Kang!”
For her, finding renewal comes with a focus on purpose, not accolades. She recalls a walk with a dear friend, when the pair covered more than 10,000 steps, surprising themselves. Their intent was to reconnect, but the happy bonus was the achievement. “I think that’s the way to handle [things]. You just take one step after another. Just make sure that the one step you take, you’re giving 100 percent, you’re trying to be present and you don’t waste your time.”
To stay well in mind and body, she shares advice from her doctor: “Do what you can.”
“It’s a beautiful piece of advice, isn’t it? Sometimes, you just need to be reminded. Sometimes, ‘do what you can’ is very little, but there are days when I can do a lot. That’s what I encourage people to do too.”
Photographer: Shawn Paul Tan.
Stylist: Windy Aulia
Makeup: Red Ngoh
Hair: Colin Yeo/Tress & Curvy
Stylist’s assistants: Lauren Alexa; Nadia Lim