This interview was originally published in the September 21, 2018 issue of The Slant, a weekly newsletter featuring Asian American news, media and culture. Want more features like this? Subscribe today for free.
Actress Tan Kheng Hua, known for playing Kerry Chu in Crazy Rich Asians and for decades of television and theatre work in Singapore, is very happy about what Crazy Rich Asians spotlights: diversity, motherhood, and Singapore.
“I feel like all you hear is that one story about how you get thrown into jail for chewing gum. But I’m glad Crazy Rich Asians opened up not just seeing Singapore, but seeing lifestyles, and the music,” she tells me. “The soundtrack of CRA is so great!”
I caught up with her over wine in Santa Monica, and she displayed immediate affection and warmth. She was just as interested in getting to know me as I was to get to know her. “Where is your family from?” she asks me. “Do your parents speak Vietnamese to you?” I tell her yes. She responds, “Now that is very powerful. That is your X-Men ability.”
We discussed her upbringing, Singaporean values, and how Crazy Rich Asians is changing everything for her and everyone. You can read the whole interview transcript here.
On the timing of Crazy Rich Asians:
So right now, Crazy Rich Asians have opened up a host of international agents that have wanted to see me. My daughter is all grown up, my mortgage is all paid, I’m free as a bird! I’m on my own […] Crazy Rich Asians came at this time in my life. So all these Hollywood and UK agents are knocking at my door. But Crazy Rich Asians could have come 7 years before and it could have been completely different. It had to happen right now when I’m free so I can accept this.
On her own mother:
“I’m really close to my mom. She’s 82. Still highly dynamic, very very energetic. Yet my mother and I hardly hug. She caned me with a cane when I was young. Same with my brothers. We were deathly afraid of the cane. But she is the best mom, I love her to death. She is the center of my family. My brothers and I are completely devoted to her. And everything that she’s done, she does with no guilt. She came from a particular generation. I mean, everyone caned their children […] She did what Kerry Chu and Eleanor Young does, and that is doing everything you can within your own circumstances.”
On dialect diversity:
“You know how people think people think Chinese is just Mandarin. Well, I’m Teochew. I can speak some Teochew. Well my mom, is Hokkien, another dialect, and married my dad. My dad’s family was more powerful. So my mom had to sit down and learn his dialect. So there’s a hierarchy in languages. […] I could understand a little bit of TeoChew but as Singapore just developed and became a cosmopolitan city, and English became their business transaction language, and then suddenly all the dialects are falling by the wayside.”
On her relationship with her daughter:
My relationship with my daughter, our closeness is based on trust. Acceptance. And enjoyment. We really enjoy each other! We’re really close! She would say, “I would prefer to travel with you over anyone else!”
On the diversity of entertainment in Singapore
It’s very funny because the diversity issue, all our English language television and films are all multiracial. But we never sell it as that. That’s never how Singapore markets it. We never sell it as a “most diverse cast” because that is our reality.
But becoming friends with Asian American actors and seeing how American films are done, it is real. The emotions and the challenges and the hardships that Asian American immigrants feel and it is very real. And you MUST respect them. And until you know details. And until you give everybody a voice and chance, and how they got here — it’s just not enough to just talk about it under Asian American or immigrant. It’s not enough to cover it in just a word called diversity.
On the death stare:
One must not forget, the main manipulator of that scene, of everything good who has a big hand in it — is Jon M. Chu. Who would whisper in my ear, you know, “Your stare! It’s not ‘f*ck off’. You have to layer it with a bunch of things.” It’s Jon as well, who has a very strong relationship with his mother. The layers you see in this scene had to do with Jon. It has to do with everyone around us. It takes a village. And for one stare to get that, you need the camera man! I loved my camera man and the team!
On Michelle Yeoh:
Being on set with her is knowing you have a queen who is compassionate and beautiful and intelligent and talented. You feel so safe. She has this way of being so light! She’s just like “Hello! Hi! Hey do you want this! Do you want this! Do you need water! My assistant is going out to get drinks — do you want one?”
Tan Kheng Hua is a Singaporean actress, who recently appeared in Crazy Rich Asians. See her in that film, or find her on Twitter.