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These are exciting times for Tan Kheng Hua. Earlier this year, the actress scored a main cast role in The CW’s Kung Fu, an upcoming reboot of the 1970s action series of the same title.
Kung Fu is being remade with an Asian female protagonist, as opposed to the male character played by David Carradine. Tan’s role is the mother of the main character, played by Olivia Liang. It’s the Singaporean’s first major, non-guest-star role in an American TV series.
The 57-year-old thespian has been based in Los Angeles for the last two years since she got the attention of Hollywood playing Kerry Chu in Crazy Rich Asians, which, as we know, became a runaway hit. That role, though a supporting role as the mother of main character Rachel Chu, became her springboard for more gigs in the US’s film and TV industry.
Tan went eye-to-eye with Michelle Yeoh herself in Crazy Rich Asians, so we had to ask her how development on the sequel to the hit movie is coming along. Understandably, she says “actors are the last to know”. Also, the movie is still in the scriptwriting/pre-production phase. Fair enough.
Since Crazy Rich Asians, Tan has played various guest-starring TV roles in Grey’s Anatomy, Magnum P.I., Chimerica, and Medical Police. Last year, she also starred in the feature film The Garden Of Evening Mists. Even before her Hollywood big break, though, Tan had turned heads as the Empress Dowager in historical epic Marco Polo.
We chatted with Tan recently as she was promoting reality TV singing contest, Asian Dream, in which she appears in the fifth episode which will air this Thursday on AXN.
Pop legend Michael Bolton is a co-creator of Asian Dream, and is also a judge on the show, which features aspiring singers from around Asia. Tan mentors the contestants in the art of tapping into their emotions during performances. She humbly prefers to call her role on the show a “facilitator” rather than a mentor, because she isn’t a professional acting teacher.
Tan is no stranger to singing, although she considers herself an actor rather than a singer. She has to “sing in character”, she says. Tan has performed singing roles in musicals like Beauty World, Forever Young, Company, and La Cage Aux Folles.
When we spoke with her, Tan was in the midst of packing for her upcoming trip to Vancouver, where she will be filming 13 episodes of Kung Fu until April next year.
Tan says her role as part of the main cast of Kung Fu brings her back to the days when she was among the main cast on another milestone project in her career – classic Singaporean sitcom Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd, in which she played Margaret Phua.
“What (being in the main cast) means is that you get to be part of a select group of people to shape and grow this brand new project, and that is very exciting for me, as opposed to a guest-starring role where you just drop in one episode, do your thing, and then you go out,” said Tan.
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Speaking of Phua Chu Kang, Tan is very much aware that the beloved Singaporean comedy has been making waves again in her home country recently. Season 3 of the ’90s sitcom was acquired in August by Netflix, which has sent Singaporean audiences on a trip down nostalgia lane.
“I got so many people (messaging) me, you know, on my Instagram, that they are loving (Phua Chu Kang),” Tan said.
She laments that she can’t share Phua Chu Kang with her American friends, though, as the show is not available in the US. “It's not available in this particular region. I'm so sad.”
Tan is glad for the doors that Hollywood has opened for her. “That source of opportunity is glorious because for me as an actor, it is all about the type of roles or the projects, the stories,” said Tan. “And the more opportunities for work, the better... Because of the added opportunities, I'm just glowing with thankfulness.”
When asked whether she misses family or food in Singapore, Tan says she misses her family greatly. “I just miss them so much; I can do without the food… COVID doesn't make it any easier,” she said.