A Talk with Kung Fu’s Star Kheng Hua Tan

The Asian actress opens up about her new role and the path to Hollywood.

Kheng Hua Tan may be a familiar face to those who loved the film Crazy Rich Asians. The actress played Kerry Chu, the mother of Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), who had unconditional love for her daughter. This year, she is back on the screen in The CW Network reboot of Kung Fu as Mei-Li.

Turning 58 this year, the famous Singaporean actress has been acting since her early 20s, balancing that out with her full time job. At 30 she became a full-time artist. Kheng has received various awards and nominations, including The Art Nation (Best Actress), the DBS Life! Theatre Award (Best Actress) and two Asian Television Awards (Best Comedic Performance by an Actress and Best Dramatic Performance by an Actress). 

Kheng is also an independent creative producer. Her series Do Not Disturb was the first local, English production to receive a five-star rating from The Straits Times.

Currently in Vancouver to film Kung Fu, Kheng has not had many chances to travel due to the COVID-19 restrictions. However, she hopes to explore the country once the border restrictions ease up. “Everyone [in Canada] has been lovely,” she said.

Culture Magazin interviewed Kheng recently and she spoke about her path from Singapore to Hollywood, as well as sharing a message about the Anti-Asian issue in North America.

CM: How did you feel when you found out you had a major role in the Kung Fu series? 

Kheng Hua Tan: Incredibly excited, of course. And thankful. I had only started working out of North America since Crazy Rich Asians and so to get this role so quickly after that was a real bit of magic. 

CM: You play Mei-Li in Kung Fu. How would you describe her personality? Are there any similarities between you and this character?

Kheng Hua Tan: Mei Li is like a sea urchin. Prickly and hard on the outside, but really soft and vulnerable on the inside. She is first and foremost a mother. An incredibly flawed mother sometimes, and sometimes an incredibly great mother. Like all mothers, I suppose. And most certainly like the mother I am in real life.

CM: What do you love the most about Mei-Li? 

Kheng Hua Tan: I love everything about Mei Li because she is such a well-rounded character with all sorts of idiosyncrasies, bright spots and darkness. She is so very fun to play. 

CM: What has been most challenging about the role?

Kheng Hua Tan: The most challenging part about playing Mei Li has also been the most enjoyable for me – the emotional depths she has to go through. 

CM: Can you share a good memory of working with the Kung Fu cast?

Kheng Hua Tan: One of the best memories about my fabulous Kung Fu cast is that they call me Mama Kheng. They love everything I feed them. Even when I think what I am cooking is not great, they eat it like it is so delicious. 

CM: Have you been filming all through COVID? 

Kheng Hua Tan: Yes, the filming of Kung Fu has spanned the year of the pandemic. We started when COVID wasn’t taken seriously in North America. We got shut down when it did and had to ride out the lockdowns in our own countries when the series got picked up. Now, we are two weeks to the end of filming the first season. A vaccine has been found and the whole world is moving towards a better place. What a ride. And there’s something about the feng shui of shooting this series and that of the pandemic that I’ve yet to work out. But I think the universe is trying to tell us something. The restrictions on movement have made this cast and crew so much closer. We rely on each other and protect each other fiercely. 

CM: You are an actress and a creative producer. How do the two positions support each other? 

Kheng Hua Tan: As an actor, my sentences usually begin with “I…” and it is all about me. As a producer, my sentences usually begin with “You…” and it is all about others. I never want to be an actor and a producer at the same time, though. That would pull me in two different directions that don’t work together. When I am an actor, I seldom want to be a producer and vice versa. 

CM: Can you give us an example of your work as a creative producer?

Kheng Hua Tan: I creatively produced an original idea for a television show in Singapore called Do Not Disturb. It featured nine episodes about what goes on in a budget hotel room. It was the first TV series in Singapore to get a 5-star review from our major newspaper. 

CM: You are an advocate for diversity, equality and empowerment. Can you tell us where this stems from? 

Kheng Hua Tan: As a Chinese Singaporean woman, I have always felt respected and powerful. It stems from having a family that believed in supporting me in all I hoped for myself – as long as I was willing to do the hard work to get to where I wanted to go, and in healthy, positive ways. This sort of family background helped so much in terms of setting me off on a footing of great confidence and self-belief. Now, as a 58-year-old, I still am living my dream. And why not? 

 CM: Anti-Asian violence has become a hurtful issue lately. How do you feel about it, and does this problem impact you?

Kheng Hua Tan: It impacts me greatly as I have come to know and love many Asian Americans and have learned what they and/or their families have gone through. Senseless violence and hate are despicable on all fronts and I would love to see it stopped. 

Photos by: Noah Asanias
 CM: Is there any message that you want to tell the audience about this problem?

Kheng Hua Tan: Treat others how you would like to be treated yourself. That’s a good place to start. 

CM: As an Asian actress, have you had any difficulties working in western countries? 

Kheng Hua Tan: I have encountered nothing but love, support, protection, consideration and respect from everyone I have worked with here in the West. I am so thankful every day and strive to be worth all that no matter where I am in the world. 

CM: Do you have any advice for Asian actresses/actors who want to pursue an international acting career?

Kheng Hua Tan: I don’t believe in giving advice, but I will say that having a steady mind, a simple lifestyle, a stoic heart, good health and stamina, a clear vision and purpose, and being in a state where you are able to love and be loved in equal measures has helped me greatly. Rather than sit and wait for all of this to happen to you, it is important to be that way today, right now. All that and be on time and wear sunblock every day. 

 CM: Have you ever visited or filmed in Vietnam? 

Kheng Hua Tan: I have visited Saigon and loved the food especially. I love spicy, fresh tastes and you get lots of that in Vietnam. 

CM: Have you traveled in Canada? 

Kheng Hua Tan: I have not gone to enough places in Canada. I would love to do that once border restrictions ease up. 

CM: What are your future plans?

Kheng Hua Tan: I only believe in present plans – and that is to be better.

This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt

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