It is a blisteringly hot day in early August and rehearsals have just started for the second run of the highly anticipated The LKY Musical—the first large-scale musical to take place on our island state in over two years. There’s a hum, tinged with a tangible underlying excitement, in one of the light-filled rooms at the Drama Centre, where the cast is about to read through the script for the first time. Adrian Pang, who plays the esteemed Lee Kuan Yew—Singapore’s first prime minister, lest you forget—ambles in quietly and takes his seat.
All eyes are on that last empty black chair. Kit Chan enters the room, dressed in a white T-shirt, skinny jeans and a colourful, shaggy vest—in a nonchalant, off-duty, Jennifer Aniston kind of way. She flashes everyone a bright smile and the ensemble begins to sing. Chan is the only woman in the sea of 20 males cast for the musical. She plays the role of Kwa Geok Choo, Lee’s wife, the lesser-seen but strong driving force behind all his endeavours.
A few days before on a Zoom call, Chan, who turns 50 this year, tells me how she’s always wanted to play Mrs Lee even when The LKY Musical first aired in 2015. “Even in its conceptualisation, I remember thinking that. But I couldn’t do it then as the timing clashed with my own concert. I was confident they would do it again, so I was like, ‘I’m going to wait for you’.”
Kwa was a quiet rebel, as Chan describes, an older woman who was elegant and understated—”almost stoic”—but her life as a young girl suggests otherwise. “When you read about her life, you realise she is spunky to do what she did. Being the only girl in Raffles Institution and then studying in Cambridge, getting married in secret,” says Chan pensively. “I totally relate to her inner rebel. It’s about holding your own and having this particular strength and determination.”
Chan, like Kwa, forged her own unconventional path in life from a young age. Having attended prestigious schools like Raffles Girls’ School and Raffles Junior College, it might have been expected of her to eventually end up in a high-flying white-collar profession. “My parents weren’t snooty so they didn’t expect me to be a doctor or a lawyer, but they certainly didn’t expect me to become a singer,” Chan says with a laugh. “Remember, this is the 1990s and the mentality was only ‘bad girls’ became singers. They were worried about the entertainment industry being complicated.”
“Once in a while, my mum will still bring up the fact that I am now a singer. When I was kid, I was abnormally shy and had a stutter. Whenever relatives came to visit, I would be jittery for hours before and when they finally arrived, I would hide, traumatised, in my room. If they poked their heads in, I would start screaming and crying, which is very extreme.”
“I totally relate to her inner rebel. It’s about holding your own and having this particular strength and determination”
As Chan sings for the first time during the open rehearsal, and again during her duet with Pang (it is especially poignant as this is the first time they’re practising together), the rest of us look on in captivated awe. It is no wonder being a singer and actress—alongside other endeavours like songwriting and creative direction—has been Chan’s calling for the last 29 years.
She possesses a voice that is euphonious and pitch-perfect, and has a brilliant stage presence. Chan has established herself both locally and globally, with over 40 albums in her repertoire, having played the lead role in the soulful musical, Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress, and is the first solo artiste to perform the iconic National Day song, ‘Home’, in 1998. Yet, she is veritably aware that the position she holds today is not one she takes for granted. She still gets stage fright, she muses, and believes it means she still cares about what she does. “The only people who don’t have stage fright are those who have overdone it. Say, if you’re talking to someone on Broadway who has done the same show for like, six years? They can be on site laughing about something and then go on stage and cry. I think that’s pretty scary,” she chortles.
Apart from her work, farming is the other purposeful thing in Chan’s life at the moment. She tells me earnestly that the spark for her interest in agriculture was born out of existential reasons. “With COVID-19, I realised as supermarkets started selling out of things that there are times you can’t buy food even if you have a lot of money. I’m a proletariat at heart and I was very inspired by frontliners and people who work with their hands,” she explains with refreshing candour.
“It was the idea that I couldn’t do the most basic thing—grow food to feed myself—that got me into it.” Permaculture—the growth of agricultural ecosystems in a self-sufficient and sustainable way—and owning her own farm is a long-term dream for Chan. She is well-aware of the challenges that come with it in Singapore owing to the staggering cost of land and a humid climate, which means weeds grow quickly so farmers don’t get much downtime. However, that didn’t stop Chan, a self-confessed pathological dreamer, from taking her first baby step.
Last year, she started volunteering at a farm and was surprised by how she felt after her first experience. “You’re under the sun, you’re sweating and getting bitten by mosquitoes, but I didn’t mind it. There was something very satisfying about it all,” she says, smiling. “I find it inspiring that most of the people working permanently on the farm are below the age of 30,” adds Chan. “When I talk to them and ask them why they chose to be farmers, they tell me they want to work with their hands which is amazing. I try to encourage them and let them know I’m proud of them.”
Chan’s warm demeanour is palpable during our shoot, which went from 6pm to 11pm. It had been a long day of rehearsals for her, but she is effusive in thanking everyone for their time and help. Her professionalism is admirable—there was a particular shot towards the end of the night which everyone loved, but Chan had the wrong shoes on. Others might have shrugged it off, but Chan gamely insisted we reshoot. Off-camera, she is as proudly Singaporean as the next person. Her face lights up when we banter about Link Rewards Card points at NTUC FairPrice. “Were we as passionate before talking about fashion?” she jokes, reaching into a bag of Percy Pigs.
“I’m someone who lives without regrets. I’m aware that in order to have known what I know now, I had to take that journey”
Chan reveals with a small smile that she’s never been in a better place and is doing life on her own terms. She speaks with a joyous lilt to her voice: “I haven’t worked much this year, but that’s actually been great. I believe in paying your dues. I worked so hard in my 20s and 30s; now, I get to work in seasons.”
Chan was in Europe for a couple of months at the start of the year, and coming back to work after that felt like the first day of school all over again. “I loved being able to be in touch with those feelings. It’s very pure,” she adds.
I ask if there’s anything she would have changed about her youth that might have afforded her that light-bulb moment earlier. Chan shakes her head immediately. “I’m someone who lives without regrets. I’m aware that in order to have known what I know now, I had to take that journey,” she says. “My album which I put out in the 25th year of my career, A Time for Everything, is inspired by Ecclesiastes 3:1-15 from the Bible. It is one of my favourite verses from the Bible, which you don’t even have to be religious to understand. It talks about how there is a time to die, a time to be born, a time to weep and a time to laugh. To me, that sums up life.”
Photography Wee Khim
Styling Desmond Lim
Hair and make-up Marc Teng using IGK and Chanel
Manicure Ann Lim
Photographer’s assistant Ivan Teo
Stylist’s assistants Jiajia Tan and Jason Sonja