From The Straits Times    |
fann wong

Fann Wong, an “idiot” at life? Not quite how one would describe the actor with a glamorous career as one of Singapore’s screen queens, best known for roles like Xiaolongnu (“Little Dragon Girl”) in The Return of the Condor Heroes (1998), and Chon Lin in the Hollywood action comedy Shanghai Knights (2003), where she co-starred with Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson, becoming the first Singapore actor to play a major role in a Hollywood production.

Currently, Fann is featured in an Artscience Museum exhibition, Goddess: Brave. Bold. Beautiful, together with international actors including Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi and Marilyn Monroe. Curated by ACMI, Australia’s national museum of screen culture, the exhibition (which runs until August 2024) celebrates iconic women stars spanning over 120 years of cinematic history.

Despite the accolades, “sheng huo bai chi” (“life idiot” in Mandarin) is what the self-effacing 53-year-old calls herself, when asked to describe what it was like when she took time off from acting to focus on motherhood after her son Zed was born in 2014.

“In the past, my whole life was me and my career, going from one set to the next, and work, work, work,” she says. “I didn’t have to do anything else; I didn’t have to learn how to do anything. But after I had my son, I had to start from scratch. I learnt to be a mother; I learnt to be the chef, the baker, and the ‘secretary’ of my home. I became the tutor and coach of whatever sport my son was interested in.”

Having a child helped her realise: “I’m not the most important person in my life.”

“Family became more important, and I learnt to take care of them,” says Fann, who is married to actor Christopher Lee. The couple have one child, Zed, who turns 10 in August.

For the record, Fann has not retired from acting – she recently wrapped filming on an upcoming Taiwanese series Breeze by the Sea, directed by American-Hong Kong-Taiwanese director and entertainer, Peter Ho, who co-starred with Fann in the film The Truth about Jane and Sam (1999).

Fann Wong ralph lauren
Cotton twill admiral jacket, and mesh tank top with inner slip, Ralph Lauren Collection
fann wong fendi
Silk dress with embroidery, and cotton gloves, Fendi

But given her various creative ventures in recent years, you might be forgiven for thinking that she has moved on from her days in front of the camera. There’s her online baking business Fanntasy, started in 2021 after she rediscovered her love for baking during the Covid-19 circuit breaker.

And in 2022, she launched two children’s books, Awesome, the Loud Little Boy, and Planet Virus, which she illustrated, the first launch of a four-book deal with a Taiwanese publisher.

More recently, Chinese fans might have spotted her hosting live-streamed shopping events on Xiaohongshu (China’s version of Instagram) where she has over 220,000 followers, and can be seen modelling outfits, and talking about her favourite fashion pieces and beauty products.

Being a multi-hyphenate is not new to Fann. Her career has spanned modelling, acting in TV dramas and films, recording hit albums as a Mandopop star, and even writing. Her debut as an author-illustrator dates back to 2004, when she published the semi-autobiographical comic Girl, Illustrated.

But her latest ventures have the breezy, unscripted confidence of a woman who’s comfortably pursuing personal passions that were set aside for a meticulously managed and choreographed career in the limelight.

“I wouldn’t say baking or illustrating are new things for me,” says Fann. “I have always loved drawing, but I stopped, because I wasn’t a professional, and I didn’t pursue my dreams because it didn’t seem like a very realistic dream at the time, but the universe has a way of bringing things to you.”

“And now, it really feels like I am going back and reflecting on what my passions and interests were, and finding that creativity again.”

fann wong dance louis vuitton
Draped silk chiffon shirt, multi-layered silk chiffon skirt, and leather pumps, Louis Vuitton

Growing with age

For many, pivoting into new career paths in their 50s would be intimidating, but Fann finds that age has given her the confidence to banish self-doubt and criticism as she challenges herself.

Asked if she is worried about how her illustrator and baker ambitions would be perceived, Fann says: “Of course, there was self-doubt. When I was approached (by the publisher), I was the first to ask myself, ‘Can I do this?’”

As her own “biggest critic”, she subjects every opportunity that comes her way to “many, many rounds of questioning in my own head”.

“By the time I agree to something, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks anymore,” she says candidly. “I’ve already persuaded myself and, everything else, the voices in the background, they’re not important any more.”

It took years to develop the “self-love” needed to silence her inner critic. “As you age and experience life, you will get to know yourself more, and understand what you need, and gradually, the self-doubt you used to feel will go away,” says Fann. “At some point, you learn what matters to you and what doesn’t… and when the opportunity arises to do something, you trust yourself.”

One might assume that it must have been difficult ageing in the public eye and seeing roles that used to be offered to her go to younger stars, but Fann recalls how, in her 30s, she was “always playing the same kinds of roles”.

“Honestly, I was getting tired of it. I wanted to do different things,” she says. “Yes, the opportunities will not be the same, but you will not be craving for the same opportunities any more.”

After all, the best thing about acting for Fann is the opportunity to try new things. “Because you are growing as a person, your thinking and your way of life changes, and this influences you as an actor,” she says. “I think that’s a beautiful thing.”

Motherhood meant that acting had to take a back seat, and Fann felt a pang of regret over the opportunities she’s had to pass up. However, after decades of “thinking about nothing but work”, getting married and having a child felt like a much-needed change.

“I married late [at 38], and had my child late [at 43]. Taking time off to focus on them felt like a true luxury,” reflects Fann.

Now that Zed is older, she is excited to once again explore the roles being offered to her. “I think with age, and life experience, we [as older actors] can bring a different style of storytelling to audiences, and that’s something that I want to embrace,” she says.

Fann shares that while she’s read some scripts that have piqued her interest, taking up a role “depends on Zed’s needs”.

fann wong bottega veneta
Embroidered cotton dress with faux pearl straps, Bottega Veneta

Unbothered and uninhibited

With live-stream shopping taking off in the region (Singapore director Jack Neo recently got in on the action, starting an e-commerce live-stream platform with actor Terence Cao), Fann has also dipped her toes into the arena with Xiaohongshu in China, where live-stream shopping is extremely popular.

These live-streams typically feature an influencer or media personality, who interact with audiences in real time while modelling a product. Audiences can ask questions, and giveaways and one-off special deals are part of the experience.

Although Fann was initially nervous when approached to do a live-stream, she felt it was important to try something new. “As an actor, I always had a script to follow, but I’m not very experienced at hosting, so it was new for me,” she said. “But I always believe that you have to stay curious no matter your age, and I felt that by doing it ‘live’, I could learn something and also have a connection with my audience.”

She was also assured by the professionalism of the set-up, and the fact that there would be rehearsals and a loose script for her to follow. But even with her years in the public eye, there was much for Fann to learn.

“The first time, I didn’t know what to do, so I just went on and on about the product because as a consumer, I love knowing about the product and all its specifications,” recalls Fann with a laugh.

“I remember people were asking me, ‘Why are you just talking about the product instead of interacting with your fans? And why are you taking so long to change outfits?’ For me, I was slow because as a perfectionist, I wanted to make sure every outfit matched my hair. And they were like, ‘No, people just want to see your face.’ So it was a really different experience for me.”

Beyond live-streaming, social media has also given her the platform to pursue her interests. “It’s better now, because you can have a say on your own platform. You have a choice, and you have the freedom over what you want to present to your audience,” says Fann, who shares a mix of candid snaps from her holidays, updates about her bakery business, as well as polished editorials and photographs from the events she attends on her Instagram account, which has 458,000 followers.

“And you have the power to use your voice, so the media can no longer say something that’s twisted or inaccurate.”

Fann has seen her fair share of controversy in her day, including a firestorm of criticism from the public who thought she was getting too big for her boots when she accepted her Best Actress trophy at the 1995 Star Awards by saying, “What else can I win next year?”

Back then, the uproar left her in tears in the ensuing days, but today, an older and wiser Fann has learnt not to let public commentary get to her.

“You cannot let yourself be affected, after all, people don’t understand what is really going on in your life,” she says. “You cannot control what others say or think, and I don’t want to spend my energy on that. Our focus should be on ourselves, our family, and our happiness.”

kate spade new york fann wong
Sequinned tank top and matching pants, Kate Spade New York. Leather flatforms, Gucci

STYLING Lena Kamarudin
HAIR Gary Low / Passion Hair Salon
MAKEUP Clarence Lee, using Dior Beauty
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANTS Daniel Oliver West & Ivan Martynyuk