What Has Bobby Tonelli Learnt From Dating Asian Women?
It's all about silent communication, baby.
Bobby Tonelli is on a roll. Since hanging up his mic as a 987FM DJ two years ago, he’s been busy with hosting and acting gigs. Last year, he hit the hosting jackpot when he scored the gig to helm History Channel’s Celebrity Car Wars, a reality show where celebs compete to be fast and furious (Bobby will be returning as a host on season 2 of the show, which will begin filming in April). He also reunited with former The Little Nyonya cast-mate Dai Xiangyu (formerly known as Dai Yangtian) in the 2016 Brandon Routh-starring Chinese action flick Lost in the Pacific. (“It was funny ’cos Xiangyu had to speak English in the movie. Having done Chinese dramas, I understood what he was going through. So, I was rehearsing with him in our dressing rooms and on set ’cos I know it’s hard and scary for him. But in the end, he got dubbed.”) His latest gig: Ch 5’s expat-themed show Steady Lah! where foreigners take on local centric-challenges, from cooking chicken rice to honing their green fingers (’cos, you know, clean and green city).
The 41-year-old actor-host’s love life has also been equally smooth-sailing: He has been dating his Indonesian businesswoman girlfriend for four years now and even calls her “The One” (“I wouldn’t be with her if she wasn’t.”) But, it might take a while before the actor puts a ring on it.
8 DAYS: Steady Lah! is a show about expats living in Singapore. As the host and an expat yourself, what did you learn from the show?
BOBBY TONELLI: I think I’m the first ang moh out of LA and in Singapore to make nasi briyani. Each week, two expats from different countries face off in different challenges. In one ep, [co-host] Rozz [Lee] took one expat to learn to make chicken rice at Tian Tian Chicken Rice, while I helped out the other to make nasi briyani at a stall in Geylang. I did more of the heavy lifting ’cos she’s a [petite] girl. We used this massive, heavy stirrer [to make the dish] ’cos we had to feed a hundred people at the mosque that day. We also learnt to perform CPR. Playing a tour guide was interesting. I used to live in the East Coast area near Katong, so I knew a bit about the Peranakan culture. When I did [2008 Ch 8 drama] The Little Nyonya, I also learnt a bit about the culture too. So, it was interesting to learn more about its history from a professional tour guide.
Partners in crime: Bobby with Steady Lah! co-host Rosalyn Lee. “She and I play off each other,” says Bobby. “So if I’m the blur ang moh, she’d correct me. And sometimes, I’m the go-getter, like when we did dragon boating and I got more involved. Rozz doesn’t exercise that way.”
Have you ever been treated differently ’cos you’re a foreigner?
Sometimes, when I accidentally bump into someone in a crowd, and even though I apologise to them, they would still snap at me, “Where you looking at? Chao ang moh!” But I’m not a confrontational person. I could be, but no matter who’s right or wrong, I’d probably still be seen as the one in the wrong [’cos I’m a foreigner]. So I try not to be confrontational in such situations, especially these days when people can take videos and post them online. I remember a few years ago, a model who looked like me was on a train and he hung his wet umbrella on the railing. The water dripped onto an auntie and someone took a picture of the model, posted it online, and said he was me. Reporters from the Chinese papers rang me and I told them it wasn’t me. But they kept running the story as if I were him. It’s funny ’cos the model was from my old modelling agency, so I knew him and he did sort of look like me. But I’d never do something like that (sighs).
You’ve been based here for 10 years now. On a scale of one to 10, how Singaporean are you?
Some of my friends would say I’m about six or seven. My good friend Andie Chen said that I’m more Singaporean than a lot of locals ’cos of my demeanor, outlook on life and traditional [Asian] values. I’m very reserved. Being in Asia for so long, I’ve toned down a lot. When I return to America, I’m like a fish out of water. I get a cultural shock ’cos I’m not used to talking that loudly and so much; I’m quieter and more reserved.
To what lengths did you go to blend in with the local culture?
Learning Mandarin. On the 2012 Ch 8 drama Double Bonus, I appeared in nine episodes where I spoke Mandarin. I had done other shows where I spoke a little Mandarin, but for that show, my lines were all in Mandarin. I was at my lao shi’s — bless her heart — house every night for two hours for a couple of months studying Mandarin. And I loved it. I’d never trade that experience for anything else in the world. On the show, I had a scene with Zoe Tay. We had to cross a bridge, talking and laughing. I was going through four paragraphs in my mind, and it was going good — my lines were coming out, I think the sound guy understood half of what I said. Then suddenly, I flubbed up a word, and the director shouted, “Cut!” I was cursing left and right. We had to redo the scene all over again. I should’ve gotten a medal that says “NG [No Good] King”.
Party for two: Bobby with his Indonesian girlfriend, Tata Cahyani, who dabbles in jewellery distribution and real estate. The couple is also working on a new biz venture together. “It’s a portal to help people find art in a user-friendly way,” says Bobby. “It’s about building the art community in Singapore.”
Tell us more about your Indonesian girlfriend. You’ve been together for four years now.
A mutual friend set us up. I had just gotten over a pretty bad break-up [with Joanne Peh whom I dated for four years] not too long before that. It was a crazy time in my life. You know, when you break up with somebody, it really brings you down for months and months. But all the media hype [surrounding our spilt] helped me go through all these [post break-up] emotions at a very fast pace, and that was why I was open to meeting someone else so soon after. We met in May 2013 and hung out a few times. Then, we started going on dates and it just grew from there.
You’ll be 42 this October. Any plans to settle down soon?
We talk about it a lot but we’ll see. Of course, it has to be sooner than later ’cos our biological clocks are ticking.
So what’s stopping you?
I guess it’s just timing. In this industry, we have our ups and downs — and this is where the traditional part of me comes into play — I always believe that if you’re going to get married, you need to be financially stable. So I’ve been working hard to build that stability. I come from a time where the man is the breadwinner. So that’s the kind of husband I want to be.
What has dating Asian women taught you?
(Laughs) How long is your recorder’s battery life? One thing I’ve learnt is the Asian way of communication and showing emotion. Communication is always hard, especially when you are from different cultures. We Americans talk about everything. But with Asians, there’s a lot of silent communication. So, it’s learning to observe what the other party might be feeling but not saying. I’m still learning that ’cos if I have a problem, I’d say it out. I’m very open and blunt. Even though I’ve been here for 10 years, a good portion of my life was spent in America where we’re very direct. So it’s a work in progress.
Steady Lah! premieres Mar 28, Ch 5, 8pm.
Photos: KELVIN CHIA
Stylist: SHARON B TAN
Styling assistant: JESSIE KOH
Sweater, shirt, jeans & shoes: MICHAEL KOR
Photography assistant: STEVEN IMANUEL
Grooming: CRYSTAL ER using SCHWARZKOPF AND MAC COSMETICS