It’s like a horse gave birth to a deer!” jokes Tan Kheng Hua as she peers at the laptop where images of her daughter, Lim Shi-An, ethereal and enigmatic in a dusky pink Prada dress, are flashing across the screen during our photoshoot for this story.
As Shi-An – her daughter with ex-husband, actor Lim Yu-Beng – poses with her head turned ever so slightly towards the camera, Kheng Hua beams with pride. The petite and slender 59-year-old exclaims with infectious enthusiasm: “She looks like an elf! We are a family of elves, as opposed to orcs, humans, dwarfs or hobbits.”
It’s been over 24 years since the mother-and-daughter duo appeared together in the pages of Her World. Speaking animatedly with us on set in an airy studio tucked away in Geylang, Kheng Hua recalls an article that she wrote for the magazine back then, which featured an accompanying spread of both her and Shi-An.
“We shot these beautiful photographs of me and Shi-An as a little baby. I was wearing this gorgeous gown, and I was holding this baby, and then she peed on the set because we had to take off her diaper!” she laughs, her eyes twinkling with mirth.
“I also remember that as I was writing that article, I cried, because you know how you get involved with your emotions.”
To this day, the veteran actress and producer, knocwn for her roles in Crazy Rich Asians and Singapore’s longest running hit sitcom Phua Chu Kang, bares her feelings with poignant prose on her Instagram account (@khenghua), with posts that celebrate the special memories she shares with Shi-An, who is 24 this year.
Kheng Hua chuckles affectionately and expresses a slight hint of disbelief as she relates an anecdote about Shi-An, whom she says enjoys the company of her parents. “Yu-Beng and I were always saying, our daughter, she likes hanging out with us. That’s great!”
She continues: “The other day, he and I said, ‘Goodbye Shi-An, we are going for a walk.’ [She asks] can I come? I’ll rollerblade very fast in front of you so you can have your chit-chat. We said, ‘Yeah, sure’. When she was rollerblading, we were like, at least she likes us there. And she makes it a point to travel [overseas] to see me.”
Uninhibited and unstoppable
Kheng Hua travels anywhere her work takes her and is currently filming in Vancouver as part of the main cast of American TV series Kung Fu. In this remake of the 1972 action production – which has recently been renewed for a third season – she plays Mei-Li Shen, the estranged mother of lead character Nicky Shen, a college drop-out who uses her martial arts skills to protect her community in San Francisco.
Although she portrays a strict disciplinarian in the show, Kheng Hua often has impromptu get-togethers with the younger cast members off-set, who call her Mama Kheng.
“I love hanging out with young people. When you look at my Kung-Fu cast in Vancouver, we are like a tiny little bubble family. We are away from our own families for eight months in a year; we only have each other. It’s no holds barred – a lot of times I’ll tell them whatever, and they’ll tell me whatever… They love to come to my house and sit down. I feel that it’s very much like me and Shi-An, but of course, we are extraordinarily close,” she shares.
Still, while Kheng Hua enjoys spending time with her reel-life family outside of work, there is a decorum that both she and her co-star Hong Kong-American actor, Tzi Ma, expect from the younger actors on set.
“The older people, myself and Tzi Ma, we kind of set the tone: Don’t be late; know your lines. If we didn’t have the ‘older guards’ there, then maybe they would be a bit more lax,” says Kheng Hua.
She describes the dynamics between both older and younger cast members as “an intense exploration of young people and older people”, where there is a very “natural” exchange of information. One example involved Kheng Hua having to navigate gifs, memes and stickers for the series’ social media push.
“Oh my god – before every episode, marketing will send us this Dropbox link, and it’s called Social Media Assets. [I’m like] kids, how do you do this? How do we open… They were very good, they were immediately like, Mama Kheng, press this, press that… Recently, they shared stickers. I have a sticker of myself, you know? And I’m like, what am I going to do with a bloody sticker? But it’s very cute,” she laughs.
Kheng Hua is more amused than frustrated by these tools of engagement. In fact, she approaches the ever-changing media landscape with an open mind. “Don’t fight it,” she says of the popularity of Tiktok and the fast-developing Metaverse.
“I don’t post on Tiktok, but I love the gardening ones, the farm ones, the where-to-eat ones. I’m not very into the funny ones, but the dancing ones are always interesting.”
On the subject of Metaverse, she adds: “I think I’m quite rooted in reality. My joys come from something closer to the ground. I like to smell and touch things. I do think that I’m very tactile, and very sensual. I have emotional responses. Recently in Canada, I was brought to a very beautiful view and I literally yelped. I literally, organically, let out a sound. That is something that I think Singaporeans sadly don’t have enough access to. A simple sense and moment of absolute awe. A.W.E.”
Kheng Hua is deep in contemplation as she continues her reflections on the impact of social media.
“I do think the accessibility of cameras has given our existence the kind of sheen of self-consciousness. At my age, one of my greatest pleasures and joys is not being very self-conscious. I’m not very self-conscious when I’m acting, or about my resume, or what people think about my work anymore. I feel a sense of peace with regards to my work, as well as in my relationships. And a lot of it comes from the fact that I don’t need to make a public announcement about anything.
“I think I’ve grown into it. I must say, at 59, if I was any less at peace with the world and with myself – I’m not saying that I’m 100 per cent, I don’t think anyone is – it would be hard. I’m a big proponent of intimacy. Because you really get a sense of the depth and power of existence when you find an intimacy that will work with your family, yourself, and with your partner. That, I think I’ve always had,” she says.
On her own terms
Despite the inevitable digitalisation of everyday life, Kheng Hua still enjoys a simple morning routine of walking to the nearest convenience store from her home, buying a hard-copy of the newspaper, and then making a stop at the kopitiam.
“I order one Kopi-O to have there, and one Kopi-C to bring back. You don’t have to work on everybody’s terms; you just have to work on your own terms. But you must just accept. Living life on your own terms is really not as scary as you think it is.
“Things are not scary for me simply because I feel privileged to have been born in 1963. From then until now, you’d have run the gamut of many different major shifts in the world. You’d have seen the emergence of technology,” she muses.
Kheng Hua lights up as she tells us how a stint at Times Periodicals as a teenager was her first “serious part-time job” before university in the US. Speaking with renewed gusto, she says: “I was so brave, I walked into Times – Go Magazine, Her World – at the time Pat Chan was the editor, or was it Betty Khoo? All of them were there – [fashion journalists] John de Souza, Tom Rao. I just walked in, this kid who had just finished A-levels and I’m like, I just want a part-time job… and I said, I’ll do anything! I started out bringing coffee and running errands, and after that, I started writing. All sorts of stuff. Tennis tournaments, all those self-help topics.
“A couple of times, they even made me do simple modelling to accompany a feature article – they’d just need an anonymous person walking down the road. I had so much fun and as an 18 year-old, I would go into the office, and they would be talking about all their young adult life with no censorship in front
“It is one of those things about living life on your own terms. You’re interested in this, you are young, and you don’t think about, oh, is it going to fail? Is it going to work? There is much less at stake. You do it because it’s kind of fun.”
Oh, the places you’ll go!
The Indiana University alum, who majored in Public & Environmental Affairs, caught the acting bug when she took a theatre elective in university. Upon returning to Singapore in the mid ’80s, Kheng Hua worked in public relations, marketing and public affairs for local retailer FJ Benjamin and afterwards, CK Tang Ltd where she also conceptualised and edited the in-store fashion publication Tangs Studio Quarterly.
Then in her 20s, she pored over magazines like British Vogue, Vanity Fair, Interview, and even House and Garden for research and inspiration.
“Italian Vogue was the epitome of really fashion-forward stuff. Those were the days of the rock stars of fashion, like renowned photographers Steven Meisel and Patrick Demarchelier – we would study them, you know? [Home-grown photographer] Mark Law, when he was this young guy, walked into our office with his portfolio, just fresh from the UK. It was glorious,” she recalls.
All this while, the budding performer split her time between her corporate day job and theatre gigs after work. Her first stage play was The Waiting Room by John Bowen (1987), which was produced by her cousin, famed actor and theatre director Ivan Heng. Kheng Hua decided to try acting full-time in the mid ’90s after more than 10 years in the corporate world. She has, over the years, garnered numerous awards and accolades for her roles in film, theatre and TV productions.
Her foray into Singapore’s theatre scene, then flourishing with visionary practitioners like Stella Kon, Ong Keng Sen and Michael Chiang, saw her working with like-minded contemporaries who were as passionate and fearless about their craft.
“Everything was in our hands. Every dream that we had; we didn’t put them in someone else’s hands. We said to ourselves, ‘I want to experience acting’. We didn’t have anybody to ask… imagine we were just on our own. We didn’t have laptops. And no phones! One of my first auditions when I came back to Singapore was published in The Straits Times by TheatreWorks. I was working at Tangs at the time, maybe 35 years ago.
It said, ‘local musical looking for actors’, and I remembered that I went to the Drama Centre [for the audition]. The names that were there are names that are still working in this industry today.
“Ong Keng Sen was in the actors’ room, to audition the acting part of you. Dick Lee was in the other room, to audition the singing part of you. Najib Ali was in the another room, auditioning the dancing part of you. And Michael Chiang was walking around, excited, looking at the young people coming in. Same people. Why? Like me, they’ve still got it. And it was in their hands. Did any of them ever go to West End to see what an audition was like? No,” she says.
Throughout the interview, Kheng Hua reiterates that one should chart their own path. She is both open and plain-spoken, often offering unconventional analogies to make a point.
“I’ve likened it to giving birth without epidural, which I did. If you can feel the pain – I’m just using this as a metaphor – you know what the joy is, and also what to avoid. And you know how to manage your pain. One of the most important things that I’ve read comes from an old-fashioned baby book, and so much of my life philosophy comes from parenting: The first thing you need to teach your child is how to comfort themselves, by themselves.
“I feel a lot of these techniques help you to keep close to the ground, close to yourself, which ultimately is the secret to keeping young, curious and interested. Because you know how to comfort and manage your pain by yourself. And you become resilient and resourceful. Of course, many times you take a risk. You have to decide if it’s worth the risk and just go for it. And if you don’t go for it, it’s fine. Just be comfortable with yourself,” she says.
Coming of age
Kheng Hua jokes about being a “delinquent parent” to Shi-An, but what she really does is give her daughter plenty of room and space to grow into her own person.
“We go through many different phases and changes in our lives, and you don’t have to be always at the same timing. Because sometimes, you have to be considerate that you are on this page right now, but your kid or your mum may take a little bit of time. But more or less, you chart where everybody is, as opposed to not caring or not being mindful about it. These are people who are affected by your life, so you should try and navigate that,” she explains.
By now, lunch has arrived and Shi-An joins our table. As both mother and daughter share a meal of green chicken curry, their bond is palpable from the ease that they have with each other. At one point, Kheng Hua turns to Shi-An and asks: “It’s hard to be a 20something in Singapore, what do you think?”
“No lah, it depends on your perspective,” says Shi-An.
Shi-An inspires her with her goodness, shares Kheng Hua, her eyes welling up with tears. “I get emotional because she’s a good girl. Don’t underestimate that simple sentence. She makes her decisions towards the light. My parenting has a light touch. It’s a different sort of light – it has you know, a long leash. I cannot express the sort of intimate feeling you have when you watch a grown-up child, and she’s a good person. She would never hurt anyone.”
Kheng Hua pauses, then shares: “I think it’s easier to be my age now, but it’s only because I’ve had all those rites of passage. If I didn’t have her, and I’m 59 years old and travelling in Canada, I would be very depressed, you know? But because of her, I look forward to so many things.”
Her favourite thing to do with Shi-An? Absolutely nothing at all. Just enjoying each other’s presence is
“I know the thing she misses the most when I’m not around is coming down, and seeing me cleaning the table or on my computer. It’s sort of like having another movement around the house, a movement that’s peaceful and calm, like a pet. And I certainly miss that about her,” says Kheng Hua.
She now looks forward to seeing the new adventures that Shi-An, who has recently graduated from university, will uncover as a young adult who is just embarking on her very own journey – just as Kheng Hua did all those years ago.
“At this point in our lives, now that she’s moving into adulthood with real adult considerations, I am enjoying and claiming a little bit of my own time. All the way until she graduated, I think there was a large part of me that felt like a mum. This entire year, she’s made her own decisions of what she wants to do. I am enjoying taking myself out of the equation.
“And it’s a little bit funny about claiming a bit of my own life. It’s not as easy as you think it is. Because there is something very addictive to be needed. It’s not a bad addiction and you don’t have to let it be one, but there is something wonderful and anchoring about being needed. And when your child is really on her own, you can see that with or without you, she’s going to be okay. It’s a different phase,” she says.