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.
Nylon windbreaker jacket and matching bucket hat, Moncler
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.
Metallic leather, leather, velvet and shearling patch jacket, knit turtleneck, velvet and shearling shorts, and leather and fur sandals, Fendi
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.
Living life on your own terms is really not as scary as you think it is.
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?”
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.”
I think it’s easier to be my age now, but only because I’ve had all those rites of passage.
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.
(Left) Knit dress, Hermes. (Right) Leather and cotton jumpsuit, and knit bodysuit, Hermes
PHOTOGRAPHY Brendan Zhang, assisted by Ryan Loh CREATIVE DIRECTION Windy Aulia & Elizabeth Lee HAIR Colin Yeo & Doreen Low / Tress & Curvy, using Wella MAKEUP Red Ngoh