“Let me get that girl’s attention,” says Chuando. We are sitting at a tucked-away table in The Coffee Academics café at Scotts Square, and we’re in need of a water refill. He waves his hand hopefully, but the waitress is busy.
“Let’s both try and see who gets her attention first, just to test if it’s true that strangers always notice you,” we suggest. “Of course it’ll be me lah — you're sitting in a blind spot and I'm taller,” he ribs, keeping his hand raised.
Nevertheless, we give it our best shot and wave enthusiastically. A waiter shoots up — to Chuando! — and reverently pours water into his glass. For the record, he is 1.85m-tall. And people, both men and women, are drawn to him like fast food junkies to McDonald’s nasi lemak burger.
It is a proven fact: tapping on the Insights function on his verified Instagram account reveals a statistical pie chart dividing his 452,000 followers equally across both genders. Guys want to be like him, girls want to be with him.
We’re reminded of the song: “Tell me when will you be mine? Tell me Chuando, Chuando, Chuando…” Good news: the bachelor tells us he is currently “single and not dating”. Everyone, please calm down and line up, thanks!
For those who are going, “Chuan-who?” (Is there Wifi under your rock?), let’s back up a little. Chuando Tan (who also goes by the initials ‘CD’) recently made headlines around the world as the viral hawt “50-year-old photographer who looks like a 30-year-old”, thanks to a Chinese news website who discovered his treasure trove of topless Instagram selfies. Shirtless Guy of the Week? More like Of. All. Time.
On the Friday afternoon we met up for coffee with him for this cover story, we scrutinise his… face as he sits across from us. His lightly tanned complexion is smooth, his sleep-deprived eyes framed by charming laugh lines. He looks pretty much like his online self, but more tired. “I was rushing work last night and only slept four hours,” he explains.
He dresses youthfully, in a chambray button-down shirt, Adidas athleisure sweatpants, and those black-rimmed Ray-Bans that he slips on and off when he squints at his iPhone. “For my lao hua yan (Mandarin for presbyopia, or long-sightedness),” he explains. “50 degrees only.”
Aha! Finally — a giveaway sign that he had indeed turned 51 in March this year. Despite his Greek god bod, he’s not immune to the slight grey creeping into his sideburns and stubble.
“I dye my hair every two months. But I haven't dyed it in a month — can you see the white hair now?” he asks, tilting his lush crowning glory towards us to examine.
No sign of balding that, according to God’s laws, should already be present on a quinquagenarian like him. What is this guy on?
Interestingly, meeting CD in the flesh, with his Clark Kent-esque glasses and all, didn't make us feel tempted to ask him to rip off his shirt like Superman and show us those legendary abs. Maybe it's ’cos he gives the impression that he is so much more than a fantasy comic book character.
After all, three decades before this viral media storm knocked on his door and made him China’s new darling, he was already famous — both in front of the camera and behind it. He started out in the ’80s as a top male model who stormed Milan’s runways. In 1993, he released a Mandopop album, and in 2005, he set up local modelling agency Ave Management.
“Some Chinese [netizens] dug out my old interviews as a singer and thought my name was Chen Yufei. That was my stage name. My real name is Chen Chuan Duo,” he tells us, enunciating each Chinese word.
We ask him if he stills sings (karaoke, maybe?) these days and what his repertoire is. “The last time I sang karaoke was like three years ago. I always sing U2’s songs ’cos I love U2, but don’t imagine me singing in perfect key lah. My friends and I just scream and shout,” he laughs.
These days, he’s mostly on the other side of the camera, as one of the most in-demand fashion photographers in the business, with his longtime collaborator Frey Ow, who shot these abs-olutely im-pec-cable pics for 8 DAYS. Together, CD and Frey are a photography team called chuando&frey who has shot stars like Shu Qi, Angelababy, Eddie Peng and Janet Jackson.
Unlike with a regular cover shoot, we weren’t there for Chuando’s shoot — after some discussion and input from us, CD and his team did their own thang, as per their preference. We apologise that we can’t describe to you how he peeled off his shirt, oiled his pecs and smouldered into the camera — you’re just going to have to use your imagination, like we did.
This Hainanese boy from Toa Payoh lives “around the town area” now. But he’s still very down-to-earth. The café we are at serves fancy beverages like pepper agave latte, and we wonder if CD, who had picked this place to meet, would order anything elaborate.
Instead, he orders a simple “cappuccino, skinny” even though he says he usually avoids coffee and tea unless he's “on holiday, or feeling very relaxed”. When his cuppa arrives, he utters, “Thank you very much” to the waitstaff, and leaps up to get the bill when we call it a day.
He speaks softly, but when he laughs, it is a booming, ab-sculpting laugh. What makes him sad, he says, is the death of his beloved miniature schnauzer, Rascal, seven years ago. CD turns serious: "He had a cancerous lump in his throat and he couldn't breathe. I loved my dog so much, but I had to make the decision to put him down. It was a very traumatising experience for me. I never got another dog 'cos I couldn't stand having my heart broken again."
This is a man one might expect to go on and on about himself. But he relishes playing interviewer with us too. “Would you say your job is interesting?” he asks curiously. “Do you have pets? You love durians too? How come you never drink your coffee?”
At the end of our kopi sesh, CD asks us where we are heading. Friday night drinks with the squad, we reply. Where is he off to? “The gym,” he says. “I’m just an old man who exercises and takes care of himself.”
8 DAYS: What is the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?
TAN CHUANDO: Drink water. It cleanses your body. I always have a water bottle beside my bed, and throughout the night I just drink from it. I don't care how many times I have to wake up to go to the bathroom.
Legend has it that you don't bathe early in the morning or late at night.
I think I said that in an interview 20 years ago (laughs). When I was a singer, I had very bad sinus problems, and I was seeing a specialist for it. The sinseh told me I couldn’t shower early in the morning or late at night ’cos I’d catch a cold. So that’s the full story lah.
When you look into the mirror, what do you see?
(Guffaws) Somebody who’s so tired, I wondered how I was going to meet you. What would you say about me? Most of the time I’m rushing work till late, so by the time I go to bed, it’s already daytime. If I have nothing much on the next week, I’d try to sleep more to compensate. Anything from six to eight hours, I’d be very happy.
Your bod looks like the product of a Marvel comic artist’s imagination. How much of what we see of you on social media is real?
Wah lau, I don’t know where to put my face when people say that I’m young and whatnot. They are just looking at my Instagram videos and photos, which are not shot using a professional camera. When you use your handphone to take photos, you always look good.
Phone cameras don’t pick up details so your skin looks smooth, and the wide angle lens used makes your face look sharp. But when you’re using an SLR camera, the photo quality is so good that it highlights all your flaws and make you look your real age. I have lines when I smile. Maybe I should consider Botox…
No lah. Aesthetics is my trade, so I’m very sensitive about it. I don’t like the look that plastic surgery gives you. You can tell when somebody has had something done. I’m a guy… it’s okay. Shi li pai! (Mandarin for substance over looks)
Drinking and smoking are common habits in your line. Do you do that?
I picked up smoking when I was a teenager, before National Service. But I didn’t like it. I quit for a while, then I met up with my best friend one day and he passed me a cigarette. When I inhaled, my head started spinning. I felt so nauseous that I said, “Dude, I can’t do this.” I had to go home (laughs). And I never touched a cigarette again.
I don’t drink, and it’s been like that since I was young. I grew to like wine, but I don’t really drink it ’cos alcohol ages your skin. If you’re trying to cleanse your body by eating clean, don’t put the toxins back in by drinking and smoking. The last time I went to a club was over 10 years ago. It’s so rowdy. The energy there is just not for me.
What do you do when you hang out with your friends then?
When I tell people I’m a fashion photographer, they always think my life is such-and-such. But in reality it’s not lah. My friends are not from the fashion scene. They are all very normal, and we lead the same lifestyle.
We go to the gym, watch movies, have a good dinner and hang out. There’s nothing much to do in Singapore when you don’t drink or go out, so watching movies is one of my favourite pastimes. I recently caught Atomic Blonde.
Do your guy friends look like you?
All my friends don’t look their age. Maybe like-minded people hang out together. So you’ve got to hang out with the right crowd (guffaws).
What is your workout routine like?
I try to go to the gym on weekdays so I can rest over the weekend. I do cardio three times a week, and weights. The exercises depend on my body condition on that day. If I’m tired or unwell, I don’t do high reps ’cos I’m just going to strain myself.
I tell my friends: Just get the exercising over and done with in the morning. Run on the treadmill on an empty stomach, and you will burn twice the calories. But you aren’t starving yourself ’cos after that you can go have your breakfast. You are your own pillar. You have to support yourself.
You don’t look your age. But do you have the same kind of health problems that a typical 51-year-old may have?
Other than my lao hua yan and grey hair, I’m pretty okay. Touch wood! I’ve had to wear glasses early partly ’cos I stare at the computer for long hours at work. I also have joint problems, but that’s from working out incorrectly during my teens.
Some people look young for a long time and suddenly, boom! Age hits them out of nowhere. Are you afraid of that happening to you?
No, everyone ages eventually and we all have our fair share of youth. At this age, I’m already old! I’m just an old man who exercises and takes care of himself.
Do younger people call you uncle?
Only on social media. And my friends’ kids call me Uncle Chuando. But I don’t mind. It’s a very natural thing.
You were ‘discovered’ by a Chinese news website who published your Instagram photos and kickstarted this viral craze. Did that open doors for you in China?
There have been offers for TV appearances, but honestly, I’m not really ready to go on TV. I’ve been behind the camera for so many years now, so I don’t know how I’m going to adjust to being in front of it again. You’re putting yourself out there for people to judge. They can see through everything, you know?
I’m very private. Whether to put myself in the public eye or not is not an easy decision to make at my age. I’m not young anymore. I’ve already spent so much time working, so for the time I’m left with, I want it to be really meaningful — time for myself and my friends. But it’s sheer luck that this door opened for me (laughs). I cannot complain about it.
You are already in the public eye now.
Yes, but I have not really put myself out there. That would be going back to singing, or becoming an actor. I was approached to appear on a version of that popular reality singing show I Am A Singer. But I don’t have any interest in going back to singing unless there is a very unique opportunity thrown my way. If I happen to know a very good agent, I think I’ll go for it.
But photography will always be my passion. It’s a profession that lasts no matter how old you are. I’m always excited whenever I get a new project. So as long as I can do it, I’ll continue doing it.
And now you are an ambassador alongside stars like Naomi Campbell, Gigi Leung and JJ Lin for Chinese charity Spread the Hope, which benefits visually-impaired children in China.
They engaged me to create awareness on Instagram about their charity campaign. They are raising funds by selling this plush elephant. It’s a soft toy you can hug and use to spread love. 100 per cent of the proceeds will go towards their foundation. I appreciate that I can do good deeds and inspire my Instagram followers to do good.
Do you consider yourself a social media influencer?
It’s a new word, but I guess I am. I just want to share photos with my friends. My selfies are always silly and happy. That’s just me lah.
How many DMs do you have in your Instagram inbox now?
I receive a few hundred DMs on average daily, especially if I’ve posted something that day. Maybe don’t write that — it makes me sound very hao lian (Hokkien for showoff)! I try to reply to as many as messages as possible, especially those touching ones from people approaching 50 who say they are starting to eat healthily and exercise too.
But I do get people asking me for things like sex videos and pictures of my fingers and feet. I don’t reply to any of those. Some of my followers also alerted me to people who impersonate me online and use my photos on Tinder to ask girls for their nude photos.
There is nothing I can do to stop this. Eventually all this [attention] will die off lah. Nothing stays forever. I’m being realistic (laughs).
Are you currently single, attached or it’s complicated?
Single and not dating. To be honest, dating is not on my mind at this age. Is that strange? I’m focussing on my career. As for whether I’ll meet the right person, I’ll let that happen naturally. I don’t use any dating apps.
My ideal partner can be any age or race or look older than me. As long as I can communicate and have fun with them, why not? I think that’s most important.
Throwback time: In 1994, you did an 8 DAYS shoot with your dad Mr Tan Tee Chie, an artist and art lecturer at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.
(Looks pensive) That was so long ago. My father passed away six years ago and my mum passed on even earlier; when I was around 31.
Your dad’s passing must have been very hard since the both of you were so close.
His death is still very hard on me. I still have recurring dreams of him. I looked up to him a lot. He did right by everything to be a good father, husband and teacher. I don’t see anything bad in him at all.
I attended his classes a few times when I was studying graphic design at NAFA, and all his students loved him. He was kind, always has been. He didn’t really tell me how I should live my life, but I learnt from the way he lives his life.
For the full deets on Chuando’s hardcore eating habits, click here.