In ARTS & MUSIC, WOMEN

MS TAN KHENG HUA – AN ACTRESS OF STEEL

Ms Tan Kheng Hua (“Kheng Hua”) is one of the most prolific and popular actresses in Singapore. She shot to fame with her role as Margaret Phua in Mediacorp’s longest running television comedy sitcom Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd.

The interview with Kheng Hua was candid, straightforward and with many learning points. As we want to credit, commend and acknowledge the entire interview to one of the most down-to-earth, no-nonsense and realistic actresses, we have decided to keep the interview intact and in its entirety.

Q1: After graduating from University, you worked in marketing first. Were you afraid to make a foray into acting or did your parents want you to work in the corporate world first and then make a decision later?

KH: Neither. After graduating, going into acting full-time was never in my consciousness! A full-time English speaking actor in Singapore in the early 1980s? Was there even such a thing? I didn’t know any part-time actors much less full-time actors. I took a marketing job because I was interested in it, studied it at school, found that I could do it reasonably well and because someone actually thought I was good enough to join their company! My parents are very lenient. They’d let me do whatever I wanted.

Q2: The first stage play which you acted in was The Waiting Room by John Bowen and produced by Ivan Heng? How did you feel about your first stage play? Were you nervous?

KH: I felt very excited, very nervous, very in love with the theatre, very hooked on acting and very indebted to the person who gave me that opportunity in the first place – my cousin, Ivan Heng! He’s still one of my heroes today.

Q3: Was your family supportive of your decision to go into acting?

KH: After many years of working full-time and spending every other moment outside of work in the theatre, I told my parents I wanted to quit my full-time employ and I still remember what my mum said, “Good. Good. Now you will have more time to go on holidays with us”.

Q4: You took about 10 years to move into full-time acting. Why did you take one decade to move into acting full-time?

KH: The short answer to that is that I really enjoyed my full-time work – doing public affairs, marketing services and PR for C K Tang Pte Ltd. I had a great boss, Gerry Rezel and great colleagues and everyday was really a joy there. And every moment after work running into the theatre and being obsessed till way past midnight and then having supper and then sleeping late and waking up again to go to work and having that cycle start all over again was…HEAVEN! I call those the GLORIOUS DAYS! So in love with what I was discovering about life, myself. It was intoxicating and therefore I didn’t feel the urge to change it for a long time. I could cope. I did well in both my corporate as well as my artistic life. It was only after I got married, bought a house and felt more emotionally secure after Yu-Beng came into my life that I seriously thought about changing it in a big way. And with his support, and a bank account that benefitted from someone never spending any money I earned because rather than be in the clubs, I was in the theatre, I did!

Q5: You are one of Singapore’s most popular actresses and best known for your role as Margaret Phua in MediaCorp’s longest-running English language hit television sitcom Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd. Did you like the sitcom itself? Do you think it was your best performance? Were all of you like a real family after working together for so long?

KH: I didn’t like the sitcom. I loved it. At first. And then after awhile, I may not have loved it as much, but I loved being IN it, because going to work and hanging with the PCK family was a hoot everyday. We were uncontrollably mischievous and spent most of our time laughing and doing stupid things and playing games rather than rehearsing. I still miss that and miss them and we keep in touch with a very silly whatsapp chat group. No, it was not my best performance. I am at heart, a drama actress and by no means a comedienne. But acting with very funny people like Gurmit and Sweenie helped loads.

Q6: Since 2000, you became a producer and produced critically acclaimed box-office hits like “Revenge of the Dim Sum Dollies”, “Dim Sum Dollies – Singapore’s Most Wanted!” and “Dim Sum Dollies in Little Shop of Horrors”. In addition, you were also named the best actress by DBS Life! in 2002 and Art Nation in 2003. What are your thoughts about achieving so much in your acting career?

KH: Honestly, there are days I wake up and I feel as if I haven’t achieved a lot. Then there are days I wake up and I feel really proud of what I have done. There are days I wake up and I feel I want everyone to know how much I have achieved, and then there are days I wake up and I think, “My God, Kheng, get off your high horse and give something back. “  Most of the days, I don’t think about achievements at all. Wouldn’t you say I am like the next person when it comes to perceptions about “achievements in life”.

Q7: You are married to another successful actor Mr Lim Yu Beng since 1996. Was it difficult to be married to a fellow actor? Was it a competing relationship or was a complimentary relationship? (I just wanted to know if you competed in your acting careers or was it a complimentary relationship whereby you discuss about your acting gigs or stage productions and provide each other with support and advice?)

KH: I wouldn’t say Yubes (that’s why Yu-Beng is commonly known as by people close to him) and my relationship is competitive or complimentary. Our approaches to work and life are often very different, and that has sometimes made talking about our “shared” passion difficult. Having said that though, there are areas in our relationship where our simpatico and agreement is unbelievably aligned. Our love for our daughter, for instance, and how the both of us are so often in agreement as to how to raise her, even without any in depth discussion. And she has joined the triumvirate because she is in the School Of The Arts – and in handling her emerging artistic streak, both Yubes and I have also found how aligned we are in many artistic, and philosophical perceptions. Having said all this, we are now currently working together as producer, me, and writer/director, Yubes, for a theatre project in Penang called 2 Houses and so far, things have run rather smoothly. I think old age, greater tolerance and a growing distaste for dissention as well as understanding that it’s not THAT important to have it your way, helps a great deal. Oh, and we’ve been married since 1992.

Q8: What was your first reaction when you knew you were going to be a mommy?

KH: Pure joy. No other time have I experienced pure joy like that moment.

Q9: Were you prepared for your pregnancy?

KH: I never prepared consciously for my pregnancy. But pregnancy and motherhood are two of the most natural things for me. I never felt a need to work so hard at it, like “prepare” etc. Many other things I struggle with, but not pregnancy and motherhood.

Q10: Was your husband supportive during the pregnancy?

KH: Extremely.

Q11: Were you prepared for your own childbirth?

KH: Shi-An is my first child, I think no matter how hard you prepare, you can’t really. As much as I think preparing is important, I have also seen people prepare TOO much, think they can control their childbirth too much. And that’s not good too.

Q12: How have things changed since you have become a mother?

KH: Wow. This is a difficult question. My first instinct was to say everything has changed. But on second thought, it’s more like, everything is enhanced more than changed. Life, love, joy, sadness, anger, frustration, my work, my free time, my relationship with my own mother, relationship with Yu-Beng, even my relationship with close friends and my brothers, the tones of these feelings or relationships are enhanced in one way or the other, good and bad. And the reason for this is because of the deep, unquestioning, unconditional love for her.

The best thing that has changed since I became a mother is probably that of all the sides of Kheng, I like myself as a mother most of all. She brings out the best things in me. And I am very thankful that the one person I love most in this world does that for me. It would be tragic if the one person you love most in the world brings out the worst in you. I have seen that happen. It’s not pretty.

Q13: Did you take time off from your career during your daughter’s early childhood years to spend more time with her and bond with her?

KH: Even until today, I am very protective of my time with her. I love to be with her! We have a good time. I don’t do it because I need to “bond” with her. I do it because she’s really fun to be with! People think that parents setting aside special time to be with their children is for the child’s sake. I would like to introduce the notion that it is very much for the parents’ sake as well. Without my time with Shi-An, I am not as steady. That’s how it is with a good love. You need each other to get the day going good, for our hearts to build the right muscles to tend to the things we need to tend to.

Q14: You have an extremely tough working schedule as a stage and television producer, so how do you manage your schedule and spend enough time with your daughter?

KH: Easy. Just decide and do it. Commit to it. Commit to this schedule, this amount of sleep, this chore, this holiday, this work problem to solve, this activity with your child, this trip to the supermarket, this trip to the vet, this phone call to your mum, and then just do it. Follow through the best you can. Try to be good natured while you’re doing it by reminding yourself that you want ALL these things in your life and if you WANT all these things in your life, well then, you just got to go out and do it and don’t complain. And if you don’t feel like doing ALL these things for awhile, that’s possible too. Decide and do.

Q15: As a mother, what do you expect from your daughter?

KH: I want her to do enjoy life. Discover and then hone some skills that will allow her to find her place in the world in a joyous and effective way. I want her to love and be loved on terms that will make her and her partner happy and fulfilled. I want her to know that I am there if she needs a chat anytime she wavers. A Chat, rather than a Lecture as to what to do. I want her to know nothing is insurmountable and that she is not alone. I want her to know the highs and lows of human nature, to try not to judge and that she has the option to choose the way to be and the sort of life to live.

Q16: What type of education or values do you want to inculcate or have inculcated in your daughter?

KH: Honestly, Yubes and I have left her education pretty much to her. We haven’t helped her in her homework since she was 9. And not very effectively before that even.  We don’t take parent-teacher meets too seriously because honestly, we don’t think her teachers can tell us anything about our daughter we don’t know better. We don’t really know when her exams are and we leave her to do what she feels needs to be done. She sets her own schedules, chooses her own subjects, decides whether she wants tuition or not and whether she needs to buckle down and mug or have some time out and play for a bit so she can buckle down later. We’re there, as people to take care of her, love her, give her the emotional support so she knows if she doesn’t fulfill her own expectations, it’s going to be okay. But when it comes to studies, exams, what sort of curriculum, how much to study etc, we’ve always left it pretty much to her.

Q17: Are you satisfied with your daughter’s current school curriculum?

KH: I don’t know much about it really, even though it’s SOTA and I am in performing arts. My role there is as Shi-An’s mum. Not an actress. Not a producer. Not her teachers’ friend.

Q18: How do you bond with your daughter?

KH: I am lucky in that I can live everyday life with my daughter without consciously having to plan “bonding” sessions, which can be a bore and very contrived. What is very naturally bonding is sharing similar interests and finding comfort in the same things. For example, Shi-An and I love topotter about at home rather than fight crowds in a mall. I love to cook, and she loves my food. We love to watch movies on her computer. We have the same taste in what clothes we think suits us and each other, which does not mean we have the same taste. I like her friends and her friends feel comfortable with me and that makes it easy for her to bring her teen world into the one she shares with me. That’s very important, being able to share the different parts of your daughter’s world (because honestly, you can’t and don’t want to be the be all and end all of your children’s lives) so that she can share parts of her that does not include you  WHEN and IF she feels like it. Children should have that privilege and privacy, because they need to learn to be their own people and if you’re meddling all the time, they’ll never learn that. And if you’re judging and telling all the time, they’ll keep away from you.

Q19: Do you mind if your daughter takes up acting as a full-time career?

KH: Of course not!

Q20: What is the latest family activity or family trip that you have taken with your family?

KH: We all went skiing in Europe at the end of last year. It is a yearly affair and has been for the last 11 years. We love it.

Q21: What are your current stage or TV projects?

KH: I will be The Empress Dowager in the new Netflix mini-series Marco Polo shooting in Johore from May. I am also currently helping out with The O.P.E.N., the public engagement initiative of The Singapore International Festival of Arts 2014 and producing a big project call THE SIN-PEN COLONY for The Georgetown Festival 2014, a series of four projects celebrating the shared heritage of Penang and Singapore.

Q22: What kind of advice do you have for mothers who are struggling with their career and family?

KH: Gosh, I don’t know if I believe in giving general advice because what helps one can be totally detrimental for another. If you ask me what has helped me when I felt a struggle between career and family, I’d say – decide what you want from both aspects of your life, decide who is affected by those decisions and take their well-being into consideration, decide on an action towards those goals, and then do it the best you can and minimize the guilt. Guilt can be very detrimental, degenerative and counter-productive.

In conclusion and beyond a shadow of doubt, I enjoyed my interview with Kheng Hua . At first, we wanted to conduct a face-to-face interview, but I was so caught up with work, I missed my interview with Kheng Hua. She empathized with my situation and told me it was alright. I thought to myself I could not have met someone more gracious. After many arrangements and when we could not meet, Kheng Hua was kind enough to pen out the whole interview via email. All I can say is that I am grateful to her and I have learnt so much about the passion for acting and parenting from an amiable, engaging and friendly artiste.

Tan Kheng Hua- The Actress Of Steel
Tan Kheng Hua- The Actress Of Steel
Kheng Hua During A Make-Up Session
Kheng Hua- Acting In A Movie
Kheng Hua- Acting In A Movie

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