Joan Chen main.jpgThere are two phases in the life of an Asian actress in Hollywood, says Joan Chen.

“When I was younger and more beautiful,” she says, laughing, “I was the sexy vixen, the object of desire. Then I got older and I was the dragon woman. Evil. They don’t want you as a human – they want you as a spice, a colour, an exotic element.”

Chen, a China-born actress who broke out internationally in the Oscar-winning The Last Emperor (1987) as Empress Wanrong, is now 51.

She spoke to the press on Wednesday about her role in Serangoon Road, a detective drama series set in Singapore in the 1960s, now being filmed in a studio on Batam.

When she found her character in the show too confining, she was not afraid to use whatever clout she has to expand it.

Talking to Life!, she says her part as Patricia Cheng (right) was “bare bones” initially. Her character is a widow, a woman who becomes the unwilling owner of a detective agency after the murder of her husband. Through her, new cases are introduced each week.

“She helps tell the stories of other people. When I got on board, I made her story fuller,” she says.

She felt Patricia needed more pathos and introduced the idea that she be infertile. “She had to be more vulnerable. In that era, in Chinese culture, and probably across Asia, a woman who is incapable of conceiving must have a deep sense of unworthiness,” Chen says.

She also suggested to the writers that Patricia be given the goal of finding her husband’s killers, in a story arc that stretches across all 10 episodes of the first season, to begin airing later this year.

The drama is a co-production between HBO Asia and Australia’s ABC TV, with the bulk of the filming taking place on soundstages of Infinite Studios on Batam and around Singapore, in spots such as the Raffles Hotel and other heritage buildings.

Local actors in the show include Alaric Tay, Pamelyn Chee, Melody Chen and Randall Tan. Los Angeles-based Singapore actor Chin Han will also have a role, along with American actor Russell Wong playing Patricia’s late husband in a guest turn.

Chen’s strong suggestions for her role in Serangoon Road are indicative of her turn towards behind-the-camera action.

She is no stranger to writing or directing. Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl, the 1998 drama set in the Cultural Revolution which Chen directed and adapted from a novel by Yan Geling, won her Best Director at the Golden Horse Awards and a Golden Bear nomination at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Her next feature as director was the romance Autumn In New York (2000), starring Richard Gere and Winona Ryder. It fared badly, critically and commercially.

She has just completed a short film, Shanghai Strangers, which she wrote, directed and co-produced. Still, she is not yet ready to jump back into the director’s chair to helm another feature. Since 1992, she has been married to cardiologist Peter Hui and lives in San Francisco with their two daughters, aged 14 and 11.

Being away from her family for long stretches during filming is not an option, not until her children are older, she says.

“My kids are young. It’s hard to be a director, especially if you write your own material and make an independent film. It’s an involvement of at least 18 months,” she says.

As an actress, she spends short spells working around the world, including China. That is where, in 1979, she became a household name as Xiao Hua (Little Flower), in the TV series of the same name.

The adoration of millions, however, soured into dislike when she worked in the West and took on stereotypical Asian female roles, such as playing the mistress of a white man in Tai-Pan (1986). There was a deep sense of betrayal because Xiao Hua, and consequently Chen herself, had become a “cultural symbol”, she says.

“When I look back, I understand the antagonism. People hate Lance Armstrong because they put him on a pedestal and that’s what they did with Xiao Hua,” she says.

But the China of today has moved on. The naturalised American citizen finds steady work in the film and TV industry there.

“If you talk to the younger generation and tell them that I played a sexy woman who was the lover of a white guy, and because of that I was officially criticised, they will be, like, ‘What?’,” she says. “Many Chinese actors and film-makers have residences all over the world. The children of the top leaders study abroad. It’s a different time.”

This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on January 26, 2013. For similar stories, go to You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.