Formerly known as Dai Yangtian, Dai Xiangyu moved to Singapore in 2007 after he was discovered by a talent scout in Shanghai in 2006. His first accommodation, he said, was a helper’s room in a Thomson Road condominium. Looking at our widened eyes, he smiled, “I was in my early 20s and did not have much money and the rent was really high at $800 per month; I lived like that for two years. Most people assume actors have lots of money, but that is definitely not the case when you are a newcomer. It never bothered me and I was just happy to have a safe and comfortable bed to come home to after long days of work.”

The 38-year-old’s disarming humility and straightforward personality did exactly that from the beginning of our interview: disarm. While not necessarily politically correct, his candid answers were refreshing and he did not shy away from any of the questions posed. He also made it clear to the hair and makeup artist from the beginning that she had free rein with his hair and face.

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HBS 0823 BAZAAR Man Dai Xiangyu
Coat, Bottega Veneta

“Acting is just a job to me,” Dai said matter-of-factly. “Even me sitting here right now, getting makeup on my face and chatting with you—they’re all part of my job. If I’m given a choice, the introverted me would never choose to do all these if they’re not part of my job.” If he’s not working, he would be at the gym every morning or at the park chatting to old gentlemen to hear about their life stories. “To be honest, I think that’s work too.” Dai explained, “Even though I’m curious by nature, learning how others live and struggle help me add depth to the roles I play. I’m willing to do anything and work really hard to make sure I excel at my job.”

With his curious nature, would he choose to be a journalist if he wasn’t an actor? He paused, “I believe I’d be a businessman or entrepreneur. I’ve always been great with numbers and since my late 20s, I have been watch collecting, not just because I like watches, but I also really enjoy being able to resell my watches for a profit.” His preferred brands? “Patek Philippe, Richard Mille, Panerai and IWC Schaffhausen.”

Dai’s good taste isn’t restricted to just timepieces. The brands you’ll see him shelling out for are Fear of God and Louis Vuitton. “I don’t want to spend time thinking about material things but I make sure I’m well-dressed and comfortable,” Dai said. “So when I have Fear of God and Louis Vuitton in my wardrobe, I don’t need to overthink.”

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HBS 0823 BAZAAR Man Dai Xiangyu
Jacket; shirt; turtleneck; trousers, Tod’s. Shoes, Prada

As for his grooming regimen, he laughed, “I use whatever cleanser my wife (Chinese actress Chen Zihan) or a makeup artist gives me and that’s the only skincare product I use. I work out daily and I think that’s my best beauty advice.”

But Dai was all excited when the topic of food came up. The self-professed foodie admitted the food in Singapore was one of the best things about living here. He had lined up his meals over his three-day promotional work trip here and his first meal was popiah. “I’ve really missed popiah and I like it the way locals do it—more chilli!”

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HBS 0823 BAZAAR Man Dai Xiangyu
Jacket; trousers; scarf; boots, Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello

So why did he return to China to restart as an amateur in 2013 when he was already a household name here? “That was what my manager asked me. He felt I was not being smart or strategic about my decision,” Dai was pensive. “The local media started referring to me as an Ah Ge (Big Brother in the acting scene) but that term made me feel like I’d hit a plateau. Seven years in a career is not long and I believed I still had much to learn and to grow, so I decided to move to China. I was only 30 years old then.”

In Shanghai, he didn’t get a single acting gig. He recalled, “Two years was a long time to not work and, of course, I was worried about my financial situation, but I also did not want to give up trying. I changed my birth name from ‘Yangtian’ to ‘Xiangyu’ for better luck and it didn’t help that I refused to take on supporting roles.”

Fortunately, his hard work paid off and Dai is now recognised in China, with over 2.5 million followers on Weibo. Some fans have even paid to be on the same flight as him. But he is careful with his image as close scrutiny on Chinese artistes due to recent scandals means he can’t be seen publicly chatting with a fellow female actor. “Nowadays, after filming with female cast members, I would head straight to my trailer and not speak to anyone to avoid being caught on anyone’s smartphone camera. It’s so easy for the truth to be misconstrued.”

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HBS 0823 BAZAAR Man Dai Xiangyu
Jacket; trousers, Prada

In his newest television series Sisterhood on iQIYI, Dai plays the lead as a young gangster in mid-1930s Singapore. Does he find it intriguing that his career and life are often deeply intertwined with Singapore? “I don’t think it’s fate. I made that happen through my decisions and hard work to come to Singapore to work and succeed, and then returned to China as a newbie actor,” he replied matter-of-factly.

“I’ve always wanted to bring the stories of Singapore, especially the TV shows I’d worked on such as The Little Nyonya to China; to expose the Chinese production crew to the amazing history of Singapore. I think I’ve come full circle with my career and accomplished what I’d hoped to achieve.”

Hair and makeup: Wee Ming
Photographer’s assistant: Ivan Teo
Styling assistant: Zoe Tauro
Producer: Cindy Ow
Digital content manager: Navin Pillay