All The World's Her Stage
One of Singapore’s most prolific and versatile thespians, Tan Kheng Hua has been involved in Singapore television, stage and film productions since 1985, and has cut her teeth in many genres — musical-theatre, drama, comedy, theatre and dance. This time, she takes her creative energies up a notch as the Festival Director of the SIN-PEN Colony, a cross-Straits pop-up festival celebrating the shared heritage of Singapore and Penang.
By Goh Hwee Leng
To many in Singapore, Tan Kheng Hua is probably best known for her portrayal of the stylish Margaret Phua in the popular Singapore television sitcom Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd. To those who have followed her illustrious acting career, the 51-year-old is a multi-faceted artiste who has been seen in nearly every genre of the performing arts — films (both drama and comedy), stage plays, musicals, and of course, television.
It’s hard to imagine that Tan’s foray into acting happened quite by chance. As an undergraduate at the Indiana University in the US, she opted for an early morning acting course as an elective only to free herself for the rest of
“I had a nurturing and very good graduate student as a teacher, and the classes were held in a most beautiful old cottage, in the middle of nowhere in a forested part of the University. Inside that cottage, we were exploring emotions, working through all sorts of stories, allowing different parts of ourselves to come through, parts you never knew were there…I was hooked.”
“I have toured Japan for Beauty World. Perth for Lao Jiu. Filmed in South Africa and Malaysia. Been to Egypt for Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral. Kyoto for Butoh training. And Penang, of course, for the SIN-PEN Colony festival held during the George Town Festival (GTF). I am not sure I have helped. I hope I have, of course, in some small way, just by continuing to do the best work I can, and being Singaporean.”
The Accidental Actress
Like many actors in Singapore who have had corporate careers before becoming professional artistes, Tan worked in marketing, public relations and publications in the retail industry for several years and, in her own words, “loved it!” She reflects: “If I didn’t chance upon acting, I think I would have been very happy in that career for a long, long time.”
Keeping her day job as a marketing executive, Tan dabbled in acting. “My first public performance was a play, The Waiting Room by John Bowen, which was directed by Ivan Heng, a Cultural Medallion 2013 recipient known for his pioneering work in theatre.” It was to be nearly a decade later that she decided to take the plunge and go into acting full-time.
She recalls her eureka moment: “I had just gotten married, and just came back from a wonderful tour in Perth for TheatreWorks’ Lao Jiu. I remember sitting across from my actor-husband Yu-Beng and saying — ‘if I don’t quit now and experience what it’s like to be an actress for the whole day, I don’t know when I will ever do it!’ I was 30 then. I had enough money from my corporate career to buffer me. I saved so much because I was always running to the theatre as opposed to shopping or going out! I told myself I’d just try it and if it didn’t work out, I could always go back. Well, I guess I didn’t.”
“If I don’t quit now and experience what it’s like to be an actress for the whole day, I don’t know when I will ever do it!”
— Tan Kheng Hua
From Actor to Producer
Her choices in real life have been almost as gutsy as her stage roles, like the chain-smoking lesbian lawyer in Eleanor Wong’s play Invitation to Treat — The Eleanor Wong Trilogy, and steamy sex scenes in director Glen Goei’s film The Blue Mansion. Her professionalism and passion have earned her numerous acting awards and accolades that include the
Art Nation Best Actress Award (2003) and Asian Television Award for Best Comedic Performance by an Actress (2003), among others.
Tan’s contribution to the local arts scene extends off-
stage as well. She is also known to be a successful producer, having created programmes for television and theatre.
These include the critically acclaimed hit drama series 9 Lives
and Do Not Disturb, the highly-popular infotainment programme Heartland Getaways and the series of Dim Sum Dollies musicals.
Theatre As A Universal Connector
She has also shown herself to be a credible cultural ambassador for Singapore, having performed in various countries around the world. She elaborates: “I have toured Japan for Beauty World. Perth for Lao Jiu. Filmed in South Africa and Malaysia. Been to Egypt for Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral. Kyoto for Butoh training. And Penang, of course, for the SIN-PEN Colony festival held during the George Town Festival (GTF). I am not sure I have helped. I hope I have, of course, in some small way. Just by continuing to do the best work I can, and being Singaporean.”
The SIN-PEN Colony festival is an inaugural pop-up festival-within-a-festival that took place in August this year. It comprised a play, a supper club, a playwright exchange programme and a showcase of Singapore designs. Tan, who is the festival’s producer and curator, said her love affair with Penang started some 16 years ago. Tan explains: “The turning point came when I stayed in Penang for seven weeks filming The Blue Mansion in 2009. The next year, I met Joe Sidek, festival director of the GTF, who invited the director and cast to Penang for a screening of the film. And that was it. My chemistry, friendship and love for the man and his vision, together with my love for the city, began a relationship based on easy companionship and a constant free flow of ideas for projects we wanted to do.
Celebrate A Common History Through The Arts
The cross-border collaboration saw more than 37 Singaporeans from various fields, including visual arts, music, theatre, food and fashion travelling to Penang for the GTF. Since Singapore and Penang were once part of the Straits Settlements, the event is about celebrating shared culture and heritage while showcasing new directions. “It was the development of many late-night chat sessions with Joe, and a realisation of some whims and dreams I have about bringing a group of privately-curated Singapore or Singapore-based creatives over to Penang to enjoy, share and learn, through process and party. I see Singapore and Penang as sister islands.”
The highlight of SIN-PEN was the site-specific drama 2 Houses produced by Tan and written and directed by her husband Lim Yu-Beng. The cast included some of Malaysia and Singapore’s finest actors. Other events were installation works by artists Alan Oei and Sam Lo, and a Singapore-Penang youth playwriting immersion workshop mentored by celebrated Malaysian playwright Huzir Sulaiman and his Penang-born director-wife Claire Wong, both now Singapore-based.
“The SIN-PEN Colony is the development of many late-night chat sessions with Joe, and a realisation of some whims and dreams I have about bringing a group of privately-curated Singapore or Singapore-based creatives over to Penang, to enjoy.”
— Tan Kheng Hua
Apart from forking out money from her own pocket to facilitate cash flow while the project was going on, Tan actively raised $150,000. It included cash and air flights to boost the funding of RM400,000 given by GTF. “I would say I have been very lucky, all the institutions — the Singapore International Foundation, National Arts Council and Singapore Tourism Board — I approached supported me.” She stresses: “It was very important for me, and this I did out of my own accord...I wanted to make sure that the ‘SIN’ part of the title was there for a real reason and not just for show. I wanted Singapore to have as much ownership and see as much meaning in SIN-PEN Colony as the ‘PEN’ part of the name.
Leaving A Good Mark
“I guess every citizen is an ambassador, and all ambassadors have their own definition of why and how they represent their country. I wouldn’t impose my own goals and vision on others, but I will say this for myself: when I am abroad or at home, I try to be myself. I speak in the same way even if I am in a Western country, as opposed to taking on a new accent. I communicate as clearly as I can but within my own terms, meaning, if I want to communicate, then even in my own Singaporean accent, I will be able to do so. I try not to be judgemental but replace that with curiosity,” explains Tan.
“I guess every citizen is an ambassador, and all ambassadors have their own definition of why and how they represent their country. I wouldn’t impose my own goals and vision on others, but I will say this for myself: when I am abroad or at home, I try to be myself.”
— Tan Kheng Hua
“Being in a different land is a privilege. It is like stepping into someone else’s home. Be sensitive to the fact that this home does not belong to you. Bring back what you want and impose change in your own home. Share what you can, generously, with good humour and in a loving and gracious way. Leave a mark you can be proud of. And if that mark is good, then ensure that you leave that mark where it is most important — in your own home.”
Tan will be part of the Diversity 2014 that opens to the public on 10th December 2014. Turn to page 8 for
Singapore’s leading artists are featured as citizen ambassadors at this year’s DiverseCity, the Singapore International
Foundation’s biennial arts and culture showcase that celebrates their role in bridging communities through arts and culture globally, as well as the diversity and global reach of Singapore culture. Stage and film actress Tan Kheng Hua joins other citizen ambassadors to harness the power of the arts in connecting communities, promoting understanding and building relationships across communities.
Citizen ambassadors in this field imbue traditional cultural practices with a uniquely Singaporean spirit and its multiculturalism and harnessing this to promote understanding between Singapore and world communities.
Producer-actor Tan Kheng Hua created SIN-PEN Colony for this year’s George Town Festival in Penang, Malaysia. Over one weekend, Singapore was transposed to the streets and architecture of Penang through an immersive mix of drama, Singapore design and cuisine, as well as an exchange between young playwrights, promoting cross-cultural understanding and friendships between Singaporeans and Malaysians.
“Kheng and I always felt the strong ties between Penang and Singapore. We have so much in common — history, family, business, culture and food. The SIN-PEN Colony is just a continuation of our joint obsession to celebrate these similarities and share them with as many people as possible! The creatives involved in this project enjoyed the best the two worlds had to offer.” — Joe Sidek, Director, George Town Festival.
The collaborative works of our citizen ambassadors have connected and developed friendships across countries with communities in China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, United Kingdom and the United States, among several others, as well as the diversity and global reach of Singapore’s culture.
A self-taught photojournalist, Zann Huizhen Huang focuses on socio-political and humanitarian issues, and has backpacked around Asia to build a portfolio that offers fresh insights into the communities she
On the eve of the closing of the historical Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, Huang captured the emotions of travellers and traders who have built their lives around the landmark in a photo documentary, bringing to life multiple facets of the place, people and practices that have connected Malaysians and Singaporeans for 79 years.
“Singapore and Malaysia’s relationship is like two sisters, we still share very close ties. Even though the trains have stopped running, I am sure there will be lots of connections in future.”
COLLABORATING FOR CHANGE
Citizen ambassadors lead the way to harness the power of arts to enrich lives of underprivileged children and marginalised communities and effect positive change in areas such as sustainable development.
Esther Joosa is an arts education consultant who founded Arts of the Earth Learning Hub, an education centre that focuses on the arts as a means to effect positive change and enrich lives.
Through her project ‘Unmasking the face of HIV’, she used art as a platform for HIV patients in India to tell their stories and express their unique identities.
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