It’s a few days after the Singapore General Elections and Tan Kheng Hua is propped on a leather chair in the studio where we are shooting her, sipping an inky-black kopi from an innocuous plastic bag propped in a mug. The 57-year-old is bright-eyed and effervescent. Her waif-like frame, clad in a sleeveless green top and a miniskirt, looks as befitting on her as they would be on any tweenager. There is no pretence about her—on the contrary, she is 10 minutes early to our appointment and oblivious to the fact that half the crew had yet to arrive. She swivels around in her chair and addresses our photographer and videographer, both in their 20s, who are discussing the election results.
“I just want you all to know that I waited until my late 40s to vote. I had no options. I looked at my daughter and I go, ‘You’re 22! Here you are, not even out of university, and you have a choice.’ To me, it’s not about winning or losing, it’s about choosing,” says Tan, who speaks with calm conviction. (Ed’s note: she couldn’t vote till her late 40s as the areas she lived in weren’t contested.)
Tan is proudly Singaporean and professes to having a penchant for telling stories about her home country. She has grown with the hearts of locals since 1994, from her role in Masters of the Sea and Phua Chu Kang—two stellar dramas that were popular here in the mid- 1990s—to NBC’s The Philanthropist and the HBO Asia Original Series Serangoon Road. The prolific actress also plays a significant part in the Singapore theatre scene, creating and producing stage and television content across multiple genres. Her most memorable role of late was that of the heroic Kerry Chu in the award-winning Crazy Rich Asians, mother of protagonist Rachel Chu (played by Constance Wu).
“I’m practical and hardworking,” she muses. “I know what I want and more importantly, I know how to try and get it. And I do see these traits in Singaporeans a lot.” It’s that determined mindset, alongside a go-with-the-flow attitude, that has propelled her to where she is today in her career. While many in her position might be enjoying the fruits of their labour and leading a slower-paced life, Tan shuttles between Los Angeles and Singapore while adhering to a rigorous filming schedule. Since Crazy Rich Asians, Tan has appeared in Netflix comedy series Medical Police, crime series Magnum P.I. and the ever-popular Grey’s Anatomy. She is now filming the pilot of The CW’s Kung Fu, a modern-day adaptation of the 1970s martial arts series.
At the time of our interview, Tan is a few weeks away from returning to Los Angeles to pack up her one-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica before driving to Vancouver—“It’s more COVID-safe,” she assures me—to film Kung Fu. Her life in Hollywood and beyond is a stunning reflection of a woman who has evolved and arrived. Tan’s agent and manager have her up for Asian women roles between the ages of 45 and 65—a booming market in Hollywood—and she’s genuinely content.
“I’ve never felt weak. I’ve never felt not seen,” Tan pauses pensively. “I do feel seen and heard, but I also have a responsibility to make all sorts of layers of representation work—myself as a woman, an older woman, a Chinese woman, a Singaporean in Los Angeles, an Asian actress in Hollywood.” She leans forward, her voice rising with fervour. “Bring it on, because all of them are so Kheng,” she says. “This is who I am. I’m not an older woman wanting to be a younger woman. I’m not a Chinese woman wanting to be any other race.”
“This is who I am. I’m not an older woman wanting to be a younger woman. I’m not a Chinese woman wanting to be any other race”
Tan is a wizard in front of the camera. With each flash and familiar beep from the camera, she transforms into a different being. Her facial expressions are strong and empowered, and tweak indistinctly with a change in pose. Dropping her shoulders, flattening her heels and staring into her favourite corner—they come like second nature to her as she executes them with an air of composure and grace.
She gingerly adjusts the wool jacket we put her in as she emerges from the dressing room. “The most vain thing about me is that I want to be a size small all the time,” she openly declares. “I want to always wear the same clothes that I wore in university, and I have.” Tan has an enviably easy regimen of keeping her figure. She considers herself to possess athletic genes and exercising comes naturally to her, although these days, she no longer pushes herself to grave extents.
“The consistency of my body has changed and I quite like that. Everything has gone softer and gentler, and my ease with how I look is powerful—what I consider beautiful really helps me to grow old,” Tan says with a smile.
It begs the question: does she feel sexy at 57? Tan stops briefly and ponders the sudden turn of events, before speaking no holds barred, even though I gave her no forewarning of this question. “Maybe I feel more sexual and you come to realise that you don’t need to be a particular shape to be sexy,” she begins. “If we allow ourselves this lens—and not just women, but men—to understand that sexuality is so much a part of our lives in all the different degrees and forms, then we will all feel at peace with it.”
Tan expresses herself eloquently with such clarity and thought, she could have easily been a politician or an activist with a TED Talk series. She adds, her hands gesticulating wildly with emotion: “Why even think you have to give up that part at any age? Why even consider that? Why fear that?”
Tan is tight-lipped about her relationship with actor Lim Yu-Beng, with whom she has a 22-year-old daughter, Shi-An, whom Tan staunchly professes to be the love of her life. When I tell her about my own two-year-old daughter, we exchange knowing looks and she asks to see pictures and videos of her. Tan squeaks with delight when I offer her the countless toddler photos on my phone and insists I have more children.
“To be honest, till this day, I wish I had three kids—just to see how their lives are going, how they’ve developed, what they look like, whether they are tall, who their boyfriends are… but I just have one. So sometimes I have to pull back this outpouring of love for Shi-An,” she says. Tan gave birth to Shi-An at the age of 35 and suffered a miscarriage two years after in the later part of her first trimester. She then went through a period where she desperately wanted another child, until she one day came to the realisation that she had more than enough loves in her life.
Tan is a naturally devoted mother who loves Shi-An fiercely and palpably, and the mother-daughter pair often exchange love notes and appreciation for each other on their social media channels. Tan’s face instantly lights up when I bring up the topic of her only daughter. “Maybe mothers will understand this,” she gestures kindly towards me. “Being a mum is the easiest and most profound natural goodness that I have in me. I’m not a good person; I’ve got darkness, you know? But the thing about my kid is that everything to do with her that comes from me—it’s just good.”
Spending time with Shi-An and indulging in activities with her is hugely important to Tan. “Don’t underestimate getting your eyelashes done with your daughter at 3pm on a weekday,” she laughs. She attributes their extraordinary relationship to great chemistry and that she’s a liberal mother. “I believe I’m a really good mum. My leash is very long and I’m great at keeping quiet when I need to and not going, ‘Oh my God, I hate that’.”
“I really like the time and oiling of romantic love and the excavation of it all. I want the long and steady loves”
Tan grins wryly and admits that Shi-An is a good-natured young adult who loves to hang out and be with her, which makes her role as a mum an effortless task. “The best sort of relationships is when the person you love so much can just be—there’s no gatekeeping.” It comes as no surprise then, that if there was one thing that would slow her down from fulfilling her own dreams, it’s being a grandmother. “I can’t wait to experience that sort of love begets love feeling where you love your kid so much and you see your kid love their kid so much. I really thank my teen self for being a non-drinker and non-smoker because I feel so healthy at my age. I have these visions of me as an interesting, funky grandmother running after my grandkids.”
It’s past lunch hour and we slide into the pantry to dig into our packets of food that have arrived. Tan peels open her char kway teow—with “lots of vegetables” as per her request—and dives right in. “It’s so good,” she exclaims in between satisfied mouthfuls. Her natural inquisitiveness takes over and she starts firing questions at me instead, about my husband, daughter and the launch of Vogue Singapore. We’ve just spent the last five hours together on set and she’s as sprightly as she was when she first burst into the room.
We dive into the topic of romantic love because there’s something about it everyone on the table can relate to. It mystifies and tugs at our heartstrings, whether we’re in our early 20s or 50s. Tan leans forward, crosses her slender legs and tells me, like how she would to a close confidante, that “romantic love is vital”. It’s a wondrously personal topic that women live for, that conspiratorial sharing of information that draws us closer to each other.
“I loved my daughter from the day she was in my body; even now at 22, I love her so much. But romantic love has got that mystery and excitement and element of changeability—the dynamics and fluidity of disappearing and being angry and yet all-encompassing,” she says. “We need that feeling in our lives because it makes you feel so alive. Everything I’ve just described is how I see the role of romantic love in my life. I’m so happy when romantic love is there, and when it’s gone, the sadness is something that my age allows me to accept and feel. I always feel like it will come again.”
Tan might be moving towards her 60s in a few years, but her heart still beats for deep romantic loves and the constant discovery of another person over time. “Everyone defines their romantic love differently, but time is like the oil on the wood for romantic love,” she sums it up, as her expressions soften. “For a lot of people, and no judgement here, romantic love is fleeting and spontaneous, and they really enjoy that. But for me, I really like the time and oiling of it and the excavation of it all. I want the long and steady loves.”
Photographer: Wee Khim
Stylist: Desmond Lim
Hair: Christian Maranion using Vernon Francois
Make-up: Zhou Aiyi using Dior Makeup
Styling assistant: Joey Tan
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