Thirty years in the entertainment industry is a massive milestone, and one typically marked by celebrations named “Big Bash” and the like. Not for Kit Chan. As Singapore’s queen of Mandopop celebrates her own big milestone this year, she’s named her concert Little Things.
“When people found out I was celebrating with a concert, they all said ‘wow’. This got me thinking: Maybe it is a huge milestone. But I couldn’t think of any [huge milestones]… All I could think of was that it wasn’t about these big things. Instead, it’s the little things that have helped me through these 30 years,” muses Kit.
“My favourite memories include late night suppers with the team after shooting a 26-hour music video or concert. You’re tired, but happy. Also, laughing together, and the relationships [we have forged]. It extends to life as well. I think when you’re on your deathbed, you’re not going to be like, bring me that award that I won, but you’ll want to see the people you love.”
This wisdom comes with age – Kit turned 50 last year – but it’s also clearly the result of deep introspection, and learning from the experiences that life has thrown at her.
Throughout her 30-year career, Kit’s gone through her fair share of challenges and transformations.
When she first started out, she received plenty of backlash from people around her, including her own parents, who didn’t think that the life of a performer would be profitable.
However, she says, she was determined to succeed. “I went to really good schools [including Raffles Girls’ School and Raffles Junior College],” she says, “but by junior college, I had lost all interest in academic studies. When we were expected to choose a faculty, I really thought about it, and knew that I would only be happy if I could make a living from performing. My mum said, ‘If you want to go that way, don’t expect a single cent if you don’t make it on your own.’”
She started her career in the early 1990s, during the golden age of Singapore’s entertainment industry. However, despite the rising popularity of local celebs, there was still the sentiment that being a performer was not a viable career for a “smart, Asian woman”.
Back then, record labels ruled the roost, and dictated everything, from the sounds the artistes produced to the clothes they wore. Today, she operates more like an “indie artist”, and is not tethered to any recording label.
It’s easy to get the sense that she’s finally at a stage in her career and her life where she feels both professionally and personally fulfilled. She’s comfortable in her own skin, and it comes across in the thoughtful reflections on her journey so far: “I survived 30 years [in the industry] because I don’t usually give myself a lot of time to indulge in how ‘great’ it is. I don’t really think about it, and kind of dismiss it, but [in a] healthy way. The entertainment industry is a rat race, but I got out of the rat race a long time ago.”
At the start of her career, she wanted to perform in English only. She remembers vividly telling her producer about her ambition, and he replied: “Do you see this as a hobby or as a career?”
Ever single-minded, she responded: “I want to make a living from performing. That’s very important to me. That will make me proud.”
He told her candidly that she would not make it if she pursued her career in English, and that they wouldn’t even sign her on as a performer.
She says: “He said, ‘What’s the purpose? Do you want to get into the US market?’, to which I said no. So he said, ‘One day, when you make it, and have your own concerts and audience, you can sing whatever English songs you want.’ And that’s exactly what I do now; I always sing some English songs when I perform!”
Becoming more youthful with age
When she first started out in her 20s, the media labelled Kit as “aloof and cold”. She’s so chatty and forthcoming throughout the interview that it’s a surprising revelation. When we chat, she’s just finished an entire day of shoots for this Her World cover, but she’s razor sharp, giving us her undivided attention and putting us at ease with her candour. Ever the professional, she had prepped some of her answers beforehand, but didn’t bat an eyelid when the conversation meandered to other topics.
“People often thought I was cocky, cold, and aloof, especially during media interviews in my 20s and early 30s. I didn’t smile much, and that was hard [to hear] because I don’t consider myself a cold and aloof person.
“I don’t blame them for thinking that way though, as that was exactly how I appeared. It took me many years to come out of my shell, which is why I think I was misunderstood in the beginning. However, I believe I’ve overcome that, and everything has become easier,” she says.
As a teenager, Kit was moody, and she held onto that sense of heaviness throughout her 20s. “I’ve always been reflective. Even as a child, I would think of things in the darkest way, like ‘I will never find love in my life’. I had a very heavy spirit, and it showed in my face. It’s kind of like [the movie] The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; I started to become more positive in my 30s. I think I became more childlike, more enlightened.”
When asked what had changed for her, she mulls for a while before answering, measuring her words carefully: “I was very hard on myself. If I did a show and everyone told me it was good, I would go, ‘No, no, I didn’t do that’.”
Her light-bulb moment came after she performed in singer Jacky Cheung’s seminal production, the Snow.Wolf.Lake musical in Hong Kong in 1997. After every performance, the producer would give feedback to everyone, and Kit would get upset when he’d just say: “Good, I’ve no notes for you.”
After a few nights of reassuring her that she had performed well, they finally had a chat. “He said, ‘What do you expect yourself to do? Do you expect 100 marks?’ I said, ‘No, of course not.’ He asked, ‘Is 85 acceptable?’ I said yes, and he replied, ‘But most nights, you hit above 90.’ He continued, ‘If you go on like this, you’re not going to survive.’ That really changed [things for me]. I am a bit of a perfectionist and, over the years, I’ve become less so. I still [work hard], but I’m like what’s the big deal, I still get above 85.”
She adds: “You may think at this point that I am a super high achiever. I am not. I am only like that for things that matter to me.”
Change is constant
There have been two turning points in Kit’s life: The first was when she decided to join the music industry, and the second was in 2007 when she exited it to pursue a degree and become a PR professional. At that point, she was at the peak of her career, so there was plenty of speculation – and dare we say, snarkiness – about her decision.
“I believe the most challenging phase of my career as a performer occurred during my 20s. Looking back, if I were to go through it all again today, it probably wouldn’t feel as daunting. At that time, I had just graduated from school and the demands placed upon me were immense. It was physically and mentally exhausting.
“Moreover, being introverted, I didn’t have many industry acquaintances; instead, my social circle consisted mostly of friends with regular jobs. As we grew older, I started to feel a disconnect when we met and they discussed their work. I realised that I wasn’t truly relating to their experiences,” she shares.
At that point, she was severely burnt out, and could feel her confidence slipping away. “Despite appearing confident on stage, I gradually began losing confidence in myself as a person. With age, ignorance is no longer endearing; what might have been forgivable at 21 is no longer amusing at 35. I started to sense my inadequacy as a person in the real world,” she says.
There was fear, but she knew she had to confront her problem head-on to solve it. Her hunger for corporate experience saw her taking a role – and a pay cut – at international PR company Hill + Knowlton. She gave it her all for a year, and when asked whether she’d be keen to be groomed for the position of regional director, she decided to bow out, as she had always known that she would eventually return to her first love: the stage.
“I think [being in PR] really changed my life,” she says. “Sometimes, you have to do things that might not become your favourite thing, but you feel like you’ve conquered [your fear]. I think it also helped take the stress out of my performance.
“I realised that many of the things I was made to do when I was young, even if I didn’t like 80 per cent of them, doing them made me stronger. First of all, I learnt [a new] skill. Then, I learnt what’s not for me. But there was also the other 20 per cent where I went ‘Wow, I never knew I’d like this’.”
The performer, whose most famous ballad is undoubtedly her rendition of Home for the 1998 National Day Parade, still has a tremendous respect for the stage.
“I’m very proud that some things didn’t erode: For example, the fear and respect for the stage is still very much there. And I am so glad because I’ve seen veterans who no longer respect the stage and no longer fear it. So they could be like just laughing their guts out, and then come on and sing a sad song. That is so weird.”
She adds that she’s never cried on stage so far. “I’m not very good at showing vulnerability on stage,” she says.
Though if you have cried over a particular Kit Chan ballad, rest assured that she’s not immune either. If it’s a particularly poignant track, she does cry while rehearsing, and this allows her to let her emotions out.
“An example is Tian Leng Jiu Hui Lai (If There’re Seasons), a narrative of a young girl’s life journey and how music played a part throughout. It resonated deeply with me then, and even now,” she shares.
Enjoying the little things in life
Today, Kit works seasonally, and she says doesn’t know what’s next for her after Little Things. What she does know, however, is that she has no plans to retire… yet.
“When I was 20, I wanted to retire at 30. Same for my 30s and 40s. But when I turned 50 last year, I was on stage performing as Kwa Geok Choo in the LKY Musical, and I loved working on my birthday [on Sept 15]. I realised that I don’t need to retire,” she says.
When Kit is not acting, singing or songwriting, she’s found a new passion: permaculture farming, where you grow different types of fruits and vegetables on a plot of land, as opposed to the current, commercial practice of growing just one type for acres.
“[Monoculture] is good for mass production, but bad for the earth, because that’s how it’s supposed to be. So permaculture is for the lazy farmer, and you make nature do the work for you,” she explains.
She discovered the practice when on a trip to Scandinavia during the pandemic, and now volunteers at a farm during her off season.
“My interest in farming started as a philosophy,” she shares, adding that her research led her to the esoteric website of a Singapore farmer in Johor Bahru. They’ve been communicating regularly since then. “He probably doesn’t know who I am,” she laughs.
Averse to heat and mozzies, she was formerly apprehensive about this new hobby, but has since grown to love farming. She reveals that it also came about thanks to a mini existentialist crisis during the pandemic, when the supermarket shelves were empty, and she realised that money meant nothing in such a situation. This led her down a path of realisation that: “It’s a burden to want things, because you’re constantly striving.”
That doesn’t mean she’s ready to live like a hermit, but she’s learnt how to enjoy the simple pleasures, without craving or desiring more.
“I think [I just like] being connected with nature, and not feeling the need for things. I just don’t have cravings for other things,” she says.
A day after the interview, she follows up with a voice note, one that perhaps best summarises the phase of life that Kit is in: “The one important philosophy that links farming to my career, to the way I live my life, is the principle of sustainability. What is so attractive about permaculture is that it is sustainable, and I think that over the years, that’s how I’ve tried to do my work and live my life.
“I really don’t believe in shortcuts, and always believe in taking the long view. While I am very impatient in normal life with small things, I am very patient when it comes to bigger things where there is greater good at the end.
“The way I choose to live my life is to do things in a sustainable way, and really enjoy the process, knowing that I am leaving the world a better place – or at least not a worse place.”
Little Things: Kit Chan 30th Anniversary Concert runs from Sept 8 to 10 at Sands Theatre, Marina Bay Sands.
PHOTOGRAPHY Wee Khim, assisted by Ivan Teo
CREATIVE DIRECTION Windy Aulia
ART DIRECTION Ray Ticsay
MAKEUP Andy Lee
HAIR Ben Leong /Passion