Sorry, Kevin Cheng, but your girlfriend looks not a day older than 25. From her cheery “Hi! I’m Grace!” when we meet to her perky Canadian lilt, from the way she chats a mile-a-minute with the make-up artist and hairstylist to the cheeky selfies she takes to document the progress of the biggest hair she’s ever rocked for a photo shoot, the actress is the epitome of youthful energy, girlish vigour oozing from every perfect pore. You see, Grace has joked with us that every time you spot a wrinkle or any signs of ageing in her flawless face, you cackle with delight and tell her that she’s catching up with you. Of course, you don’t look like you’re 47, but nope, Grace is definitely in no way catching up in terms of age. She’s doing her darndest to get her career to match up with yours, though.
We’re sitting here in the 8 DAYS photo studio braiding Grace Chan’s hair. True story. For those who don’t watch Cantonese dramas, Grace Chan is the 25-year-old Hongkong-born, Canada-raised Bambi-eyed beauty who joined the Miss Hongkong pageant in 2013, won it, and like countless winners before her, stumbled onto acting when she was offered a TVB contract. Her rise was meteoric. She landed her first role as a supporting character in 2014’s Overachievers. Promoted heavily by the station, she soon moved on to headline the 2015 drama Captain of Destiny, where she played a time-travelling policewoman who gets mixed up with a bunch of pirates. Thrown into the deep end (literally), her performance was panned, with respected veteran actor Anthony Wong calling her acting “annoying.” Ouch. Those with no interest in Hongkong TV may know her as Hongkong showbiz A-lister Kevin Cheng’s girlfriend of one-and-a-half years. The pair met while shooting Blue Veins, a TVB drama about vampires.
All of the above info you can get when you Google “Grace Chan.” What you won’t find as easily on the Internet is how alarmingly friendly and down-to-earth she is, for someone who’s a star. Unlike many celebs we’ve interviewed, she’s genuinely warm and open. If not for the fact that she’s 100 times more good-looking and famous than you, she makes you feel like you could be BFFs and, like, hang out. She gives us her mobile number without us even asking for it, in case we had further queries. She sends video and voice messages to Kev (Can we call him Kev, since we’re legit besties with his girlfriend?) right in front of us, ’cos celebs hiding their relationships is so 2016.
Grace: Check out my haiiiiirrrrr!!!
Kev (or at least his disembodied voice): Your hair looks like it's gonna explode! But it's niiiiiceeee…
Grace: Of course! It took four hours! Appreciate it! I haven't seen you for so long, I had to do something drastic! (Laughs)
Us: How long haven't you seen Kevin?
Grace: One-and-a-half weeks?
Us: That’s not that bad!
Grace: It's baddd!!! (Cackles) Nah, just kidding — it's okay. (Laughs)
Awww. But yes, back to why we’re braiding Grace Chan’s hair. It’s cos we’re besties! Um, well, it’s actually ’cos as the hair and make-up for this shoot enters its fourth hour (a typical hair and make-up session takes one-and-a-half to two hours), all hands have to get on deck to braid Grace’s mane to achieve the spectacular afro you see in these pages. She doesn’t look like her usual self, and she loves it. She even FaceTimes her twin brother, screaming, “I wanna show you my ’fro!” (Twin bro looks unimpressed, mumbling, “Oh okay. I’m at work.”) She’s so nice that when we wonder if we’re taking up too much of her holiday, she quips, “Don't worry, I've got time. ’Cos of your efforts, I won't wash my hair tonight, okay?” Actually, she doesn’t have time — she leaving on a flight early the next morning, having done not actually many holiday-ish times in her four days in Singapore. She did, however, manage to buy pandan cake, like almost every Hongkong celeb who comes to town.
Grace, the next time you’re in SG, WhatsApp us (you have our number). Let’s hang out, take the MRT together, eat pandan cake and not braid each other’s hair (four hours of hair-braiding is enough, right?) And if Kev wants, he can come with.
8 DAYS: Welcome to Singapore! We hear you’re here on a personal holiday. Why did you agree to a shoot when you’re supposed to be resting and relaxing?
GRACE CHAN: I love shooting for magazines and doing covers! When I was little, I always complained that I wasn’t tall enough to be a model [she’s 1.63m], so for me, modelling is something that’s just like above and beyond. During a shoot, you get to look like a lot of different characters — look at this hair and make-up! It doesn’t feel like work. Anyway, I’m kind of a workaholic.
Besides this shoot, you did some other work during your time here.
I’ll be here for four days and I was in Malaysia yesterday for work. I also did another photo shoot and filmed a TVBI series called Chef Minor, a kids’ cooking competition, which features kids from Singapore. I was one of the guest judges. It was really fun and the kids are so smart — there was this girl whose meals all look Michelin Star-quality. I was so ashamed of my cooking skills!
What non-work things did you get up to?
I went to a café in Little India with homemade ondeh-ondeh cakes. It’s my fourth time in Singapore, and every time I come, it’s a new experience.
We hear you took the MRT here.
I take the MTR in Hongkong all the time. There, people do recognise me, and some will take a photo of me, but they would never ask a photo. I think, “What’s the point? You’ll just have a photo of me, which you can find online anyway, but if you have a photo with me, it’s different. Yeah I would take a picture with someone who asked. I feel that’s more polite. You never know what people’s motives are. In Hongkong, we have this culture where if you take [celeb] photos, you can sell them to the media. So I feel very paranoid when people hold their phones like they might be taking my picture.
Did people recognise you when you took the train here?
I saw some girls giggling and pointing, but they didn’t come up to me.
Do they know that you’re famous or do they just think you’re really pretty?
I don’t think I’m very pretty so I think they recognise me. (Laughs)
Despite only joining TVB in 2014, you’ve already taken on many high profile roles. Do you think that has been a boon or a bane for you?
Ahhh… gosh. I feel like there are definitely both sides. It’s a blessing ’cos I feel everyone needs to get started somewhere and I’ve had these opportunities which have rocketed me into different arenas, like hosting and acting. But no one likes to see someone who’s too over-exposed, especially if I’m not exactly prepared for it. I never thought I would be acting. You’re throwing someone who doesn’t know how to act into such a big role — it’s very hard to handle.
There wasn’t much training?
No, it was training on the spot. I guess our society is a little unforgiving, ’cos they feel that since you have the chance to be a star or be in the main role, you should be already at that level. They won’t be understanding about the fact that you’re new or that everyone needs to get started, and through experience, get better. There’s been a lot of criticism, and I’ve been feeling really defeated about my dramas, but I still love what I do.
Do these criticisms make you wonder if you picked the right job?
I always question myself. The reviews for my first three dramas were relatively good. But sometimes, when I think I’ve done enough for a drama, the reaction still isn’t what I had hoped for. You know people say [all this] makes you stronger, but it can get to a point where it’s chipping me away. It’s really hard. I have had moments where I think I’m in the wrong industry, but people around me — like my family and my boyfriend — say if I give up now, I’d never forgive myself. And I would never be able to prove that I can do better.
Then there’s your recent language faux pas when you co-hosted the TVB Anniversary Gala, where you used the wrong idiom to describe the work of TVB artistes. Instead of saying fan bat gu san (disregarding safety to bravely dash ahead), you said fan san seoi gwat (smashed into pieces). We think it’s quite funny, but some people really slammed you for it.
(Laughs) Yeah! I keep telling people I did that on purpose. It’s so funny. That actually didn’t affect me that much — it was just one line and four words, and given that I’ve been raised in a western society, I feel it’s a mistake anyone can make. Even the best of the best MCs and hosts make mistakes. [Maybe it’s] because I am Chen Kailin [Grace’s Chinese name], and I am always under a lot of scrutiny. It doesn’t matter. If I can stand above all of these comments, I find that it can be inspiring to people who maybe are kinda in the same boat. I get a lot of fans commenting that it really inspires them when I stand up to [hateful comments] or when I don’t get affected. I mean, I’ve been able to see the humour in that incident.
Your Chinese or Cantonese is not perfect, as you grew up in Canada. You can speak the language quite well, but have problems reading it. How do you memorise your scripts?
I did speak Cantonese growing up, but I didn’t read it so much. I have to write pinyin on a lot of my scripts. It’s gotten a lot better, though.
There’s a lot of debate about how you look like you have mixed blood. You are, however, Chinese. On a scale of one to 10, how sick are you of people asking if you are really ethnically Chinese?
Um, 2. I don’t really mind. When people guess my ethnicity, it’s kinda fun. It’s a conversation starter. I’m fine as long as people don’t put it in a degrading way or try to insult other races.
If you were to do some imaginative speculating, why do you think you and your twin brother turned out looking so mixed, and different from the rest of your family?
My whole family looks different! I don’t look like my mum or my dad [who look very Chinese], or my [older] sister. She looks Chinese but she doesn’t look like my parents either. When we go out, it’s like Addams family! (Laughs) We have circus genes!
Also on a scale of 1 to 10, how sick are you of people asking if you’ve had plastic surgery? You’ve fished out old childhood pics that prove you did not.
One. Not a lot of people ask me that.’ Cos If I’ve had plastic surgery, I would be a lot better-looking! (Guffaws)
Let talk about your relationship with Kevin. Many showbiz couples go to great lengths to hide their romance. It’s really refreshing that you guys are so open.
At first, we weren’t going to be upfront. I didn’t think there was a need for artistes to share such personal details. But it came to a point where people found out and there were photos, so we thought it was better to be open about it. But there are still a lot of things we keep private.
Maybe if you give people a bit of what they want, they back off.
At first, our relationship was a hot topic, but now we have a bit more space. I guess it’s true — when you’re open, people do think, “Oh, there’s nothing super scandalous about it.
Which gives you more pressure: Dating someone who is 22 years old than you or dating someone who is such a celebrated actor?
Neither gives me pressure.
You’re so cool.
I feel like when two people are together, it’s about how happy and in love you are in the relationship. It’s not a show for anyone else. I think it helps that he’s very mature and knows how people are, so he’s helped me a lot in dealing with the situation. It’s actually a good thing that he’s a lot older, as he has already experienced all this.
You’ve both said that age is just a number and no impediment to communication. But have you ever, even briefly, felt the age gap? Like maybe with pop culture references, or the songs and movies that you like?
Very rarely. And even if I don’t know stuff, he won’t criticise or judge me for not knowing, and I won’t criticise and judge him. You know how some people are like, “What! You’ve never heard of so-and-so?” and then you feel like you’re so different right? But if you go, “Oh, you don’t know? Why don’t I let you listen to the song?” Yes, we absolutely respect each other’s differences. But sometimes, I make fun of his old music, ’cos he was a singer before he became an actor. I’d be like, “What is this music! And those MVs!” (Laughs)
Kevin seems very doting. What’s the best thing about dating him?
He puts on a very cool exterior. Like everyone says that he doesn’t smile and he’s very inscrutable, and so when he’s very sweet to you, you feel like you’re the most special person in the world. (Smiles) And then he complains about me being too friendly. (Laughs)
What do you do together?
We’re so boring. We sit at his place and watch movies and order takeout ’cos we both don’t cook.
Does he feel the pressure to look young, since he’s dating someone so much younger?
Rarely. He’s always telling me, “I don’t believe in Botox. ’Cos then as an actor I can’t move my face and I can’t make facial expressions.” He’s not into that. Sometimes, when I get a wrinkle or something, he’ll be like, “Yay! You’re catching up!” Or he’d get a pimple and I’ll be like, “Oh look! You’re young again!” (Laughs)
You graduated from Simon Fraser University in Canada with a degree in Communications. Did you ever think of a career in journalism or communications?
I really actually wanted to do publishing or journalism or PR, but [this showbiz career] kinda all came with the pageant. I thought I’d try it out and see how it goes. And joining the pageant was something I wanted to do since I was a little girl. I did think hard when I was offered the TVB contract, ’cos it would mean moving back to Hongkong permanently and giving up my life and all my friends in Vancouver. But I’m only in my early twenties. As much time as this would take, it would still be worthwhile and I can still do anything else if this doesn’t work out.
You sound so chill.
(Laughs) My friends found this pair of socks that says “I don’t care.” And they were like, “This is so you!”, and I’m like, “I don’t say that,” and they’re like, “Yeah, you do!” and I’m like, “Whatever, I don’t care!” (Guffaws)
But you do care, right?
Hmm… yes I do, about some things. It’s good to at times care about what others say, if they have constructive criticisms. But it’s important to be able to differentiate between those who want to help you and those who have no purpose other than to hurt you. I used to read about people in showbiz who had depression and anxiety, and I thought, “Wow, could it really be that bad?” But now, I understand.
Have you felt depressed or sad?
I try to be very conscious of how I am feeling, and I try to tell people how I’m feeling. I don’t want to be all bottled up. If I talk about it, I have release. I annoy a lot of people who have to listen to my problems. (Laughs)
Why do all Hongkong pageant queens become actresses? Is joining a beauty pageant a sure way into showbiz?
I didn’t know it was an automatic way in till I got there, honestly. I do find a lot of people join to get into showbiz, but not for me. I really just joined the pageant to fulfil a childhood dream. It’s a good stepping stone to get people to know you, I guess.
How about the misconception that beauty queens are mostly vacuous clotheshorses?
No way. I’ve been in two pageants — after Miss Hongkong, I also did Miss Chinese International [which she won, in 2014], and now pageantry is something that is close to my heart. In a pageant, you have the public eye on you, the press trying to dig up every detail about your life, and you have to be body-confident and be able to speak well. There’s a lot that people don’t see — they just think the girl has to be pretty. I don’t like that it’s so misleading. Throw anybody into it and they would have a difficult time. What I want to do is change the way people perceive pageantry.
Beauty queens are known for their poise and their ability to answer difficult questions on the spot. So let’s play a word association game. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when we throw out these words? The first word is “age.”
Experience. I think with age comes experiences, stories and depth. That’s why I’m not scared of getting older. I’m gonna be so much more comfortable and self-assured.
Ahhhh… I’m conflicted. They are all not that bad — this is their job. A lot of people say that without the paparazzi, you can’t make a star. In a way you can’t do without them, but at the same time, I don’t love them. They are sometimes so mean.
Mutual respect, I guess. I wouldn’t mind if people do it and it makes them more confident, but I wouldn’t necessarily do it. But, yeah, respect.
Ultimate respect! (Laughs) Joining a pageant is a good for learning life lessons.
What’s that? Oh, it means there’s a big age gap between two partners, like fu loy ching (father-daughter romance)? I feel like it really doesn’t matter.
Unexpectedly interesting. In the past, celebs were so hard to get to. They were more mysterious — people back then were stars. But now, anyone can be a celebrity. Would I like to have been a celeb in the old days with that mystique? Probably not, ’cos one of the things I like about being in showbiz is getting to know fans and getting involved and personal.
Yummy! And it’s so peaceful here. I guess I don’t have to worry so much about paparazzi. And I really like pandan cake. I bought six rolls from Bengawan Solo to bring back — I think that’s considered very little!
Lastly, what’s on your to-do list for 2017?
I’m starting a new drama, so I’m hoping to do well in that. I’m hoping to take a vacation — a real vacation! Maybe with my parents — that would be very good. Do Kevin and I plan to take our relationship to the next level in 2017? Yes, we’re going to have five babies by the end of next year. (Guffaws) You’re putting that on the cover? Okay! (Laughs)