Chunyu Shanshan is one of the most memorable Ch 8 stars from the ’90s because, well, how many guys do you know are called Chunyu Shanshan? The Chinese actor hasn’t been seen on our TV screens for almost two decades (17 years to be exact) but mention his name to anyone who grew up watching Ch 8 in the ’90s and a wave of familiarity will wash over their faces. The only other Ch 8 star we can think of whose name alone can bring about such a uniquely Singaporean reaction is Mongolian actress Talin Tuoya (remember her?) but that’s another story for another day.
The actor, who moved with his family to Melbourne in 2014 but still spends most of his time working in China, knows that he has left an indelible mark on an entire generation of Singaporeans. “I’m very touched,” he says. “Whenever I come back here, there will always be people who come up to ask me, “Are you Chunyu Shanshan? It makes me feel that the time I spent here was not wasted.”
We’re at Passion Hair Salon where we’re meeting the 51-year-old actor who had flown in specially from Melbourne the day before for this interview and shoot. Living in Australia clearly has rubbed off on Shanshan, who now peppers his conversation with English words, like ‘resume’, ‘overcome’ and ‘relax’. Accompanying him at the shoot is his daughter, Emma, who has been in Singapore the past month attending music classes at Lee Wei Song School of Music. The sweet 20-year-old, who is the oldest of Shanshan’s four kids, all of whom are Singaporean like his wife, is currently on her winter break from Swinburne University where she majors in marketing. Both father and daughter are also headed to the airport after our chat. Emma is flying home to Melbourne and Shanshan, for Hangzhou, where he will be filming a movie for two months.
Shanshan, whose love for the arts started when he was recruited into a regimental ballet troupe in Beijing at age 10, joined the then-Singapore Broadcasting Corporation as an actor in 1992. Before that, the then 24-year-old Qingdao native already had a thriving acting career in China, but the opportunity to move to a brand new city was too hard to resist. He made his local TV debut opposite Chew Chor Meng in period drama The Brave Ones and his name would become synonymous with that genre. He would also go on to star in Ch 8 hits like Heavenly Ghost Catcher (1995), Wild Orchids (1996) and Stepping Out (1999).
But nine years later, unhappy that his career in Singapore was going nowhere, he returned to China to try his luck at the nascent Chinese showbiz industry. But Lady Luck took her time to shine on him. After 17 years of playing “mostly lead roles” in some 30 little-known (well, at least in this part of the world) dramas and movies, he finally hit the jackpot last year, thanks to his role in Wolf Warrior 2. That movie, directed by its star Wu Jing, is not only the highest grossing Chinese movie of all time, it is also the 54th-highest grossing film worldwide and the only Chinese movie to make the list. It’s no surprise that Shanshan’s fortunes and asking price have risen exponentially (five times, if reports are to be believed).
Even with his salt and pepper hair, Shanshan does not look 51. Mid-forties, maybe. He looks good — fit and healthy and still armed with that famously cheeky grin. He also eats like a young man. When we chat, the Singapore citizen tucks into a packet of chicken rice, which he douses with a lot of chili. Emma tells us that when the entire family was back in Singapore for three weeks last month for a holiday, her father had prata every day for breakfast. “I had roti prata this morning too,” he chortles. “It’s good to be back.”
8 DAYS: Thanks for flying in to do this interview. What do you remember most fondly about your SBC days?
CHUNYU SHANSHAN: When I think about that period, I realise it was very tough back then. We would shoot from early in the morning till late into the night. And the weather was so hot. Whenever I come back now, I would think to myself: “How did I survive in this weather?” (Laughs). Especially when we used to film period dramas on Bukit Timah Hill wearing the period headpieces. Once we were filming at this quarry in Mandai and there was a lot of wire work involved, and I almost had heat stroke. I vomited and was really giddy.
Did you go to the hospital?
Nope. I just took a short break, drank some water and went right back to filming. I didn’t really tell anyone but thinking about it now, it was really bad.
Do you have any more stories that are more, um, lighthearted?
There were but, you know, I was more serious in the past.
’Cos I’m not from Singapore and so there would be communication issues. I kept a distance from people ’cos I didn’t really understand what they were trying to say. It was only later on that I started to relax. Also ’cos I had a bridge [to connect me with Singaporeans]… my wife (guffaws).
How did you guys meet?
She joined an acting class organised by SBC and one of her classmates was (former Ch 8 actor) Wu Kai Shen, whom I am very close to. And we would go out as a group very often.
She didn’t become an actress?
Yeah… but it wasn’t her choice. The TV station didn’t offer her a contract (laughs). Her batch of acting class grads were quite unfortunate ’cos the company started to focus on the Star Search contestants instead. If I’m not wrong, the batch of grads that came before my wife’s had all been offered contracts.
Oh dear… What a pity for her.
Not really… she’s quite lucky [being my wife] (Guffaws). She no longer dreams about acting… her only passion now is to manage me (laughs).
Do you remember what it was like when you first got to Singapore?
Of course! I got so fat because the food is so good! For breakfast, I could have wanton mee, mee goreng and two cups of milk tea. In 1992, China hadn’t opened up its economy yet, so it was hard to find Coke there. And that’s why I drank a lot of Coke when I first got here. It’s how I became a fat pig (laughs).
Didn’t the producers tell you to lose weight?
Yeah. But I wasn’t very professional then. I found everything here very eye-opening. So after filming, I would go out and party. I would go to Fire disco — have you been there before? Sparks and Zouk too! I would party till early in the morning, then go to work. Imagine… I didn’t have enough sleep and I was fat (laughs).
Who did you go clubbing with?
My friends who were bad influences (guffaws).
Like other stars?
Yeah, but I won’t say their names ’cos I don’t know if they would want me to mention their hedonistic past (laughs).
It’s been many years since we last saw you on local TV, yet a lot of people still remember you.
I feel very touched. Let me tell you something funny. I have friends in China who would ask me: “Hey, are you popular in Singapore?” And I would joke and say, “Yeah, not bad. When you get to the airport, just say Chunyu Shanshan and someone will take you to your hotel for free!” (Laughs). So some years back, a pal came here for a holiday and when he got back to China, he told me, “Wow, Shanshan, you are really popular there!” Turns out, he had taken three cabs and each time, he would ask the driver if they knew who I was and all of them said yes! He was very impressed! In China, there are too many actors, so it’s very hard for the audience to remember your name (guffaws).
Do your kids know that you’re famous here?
I don’t think so ’cos I don’t think they’ve watched my shows here.
EMMA: [(Emma interjects) When I was studying here, my Chinese teacher asked, “Your dad is Chunyu Shanshan?” Also once, when we had to take a family photo to class, one of the teachers went, “This is your dad?!”]
Oh, why didn’t you tell me?
EMMA: I think I forgot (laughs).
You’ve mentioned that life was very tough when you first moved back to China.
Yes. It was like starting from nothing again. I was 33, 34 at that time, and I had a daughter, so it was very tough.
In China, a lot of actors, even the very popular ones, have probably slept under a bridge or in a train station when they first arrive in Beijing. I was lucky ’cos I could stay with friends who had homes. I also have friends who, after filming, would walk two, three hours home just to save on transport. My friend once slept in a truck ’cos it was too cold to walk home. The next morning, he was caught by a policeman, who ended up giving my friend $200 after hearing his predicament. When I first started, I would cycle or take the bus to the various productions companies to send in my resume and portfolio. Like hundreds of them. Back in the day, it was something you had to do as an actor even though no one ever gets a job through this method. These days all the newbies have managers, who would do that for them. This went on for two, three years. I was at my breaking point then. I thought to myself, “Why don’t I just go back to Mediacorp and tell the bosses that I made a mistake leaving and ask if I could go back.” But I would always stop myself. ’Cos since I had taken this path, I should stick with it.
What about your family?
They were still in Singapore. It was tough because I had a family to support and my wife wasn’t working. If I didn’t get any acting jobs, I would have no income. Lucky for me, my parents-in-law helped me out during that period. But as a man, I wasn’t going to depend on them.
Now almost every star is headed to China because the money is good.
Yes, things are always good when you are looking at it from the outside. But because there are so many benefits that come with being in showbiz now, do you know how many people want to be in it? It’s so competitive that when there’s an opportunity, everyone goes for it. You only see the guy who is making money. But you don’t see the 100 people who are not making money. And the hard work the guy had to put in.
Is it true that your asking price per movie has risen five-fold since Wolf Warrior 2?
Well, I think it’s better to be more reserved when you are talking about such things so I can only say that my asking price has increased. And that there is a lot more room for growth. If I continue improving, a 10, 20 or even 30-fold increase is nothing.
So what’s next for you?
For me, Wolf Warrior 2 was the culmination of 17 years of work in China. ’Cos of that movie, more people know me and I can plan my work better now. In the past, there were some projects that I didn’t particularly like, but I did them to survive… for the money. I hope in the future, I [can pick projects] to fulfil my dreams. But that will be tough. So I’d have to find a balance.
A lot of former Ch 8 actors have returned to star in dramas. Would you consider doing the same?
A lot of people have asked me but I can’t say too much. I think it depends on sincerity and also if there’s anything suitable for me. Singapore is my second home. My whole family is Singaporean. It’s a place I have a lot of feeling for. I mean I came here when I was 24, at the prime of my life.
You were in the first batch of Chinese actors to come to Singapore. What do you think is the biggest difference between you and the current batch of Chinese actors like Zhang Zhenhuan and Ian Fang?
I wouldn’t know ’cos I don’t know them. But I think they must have adapted to life very easily here. In the ’90s, China was still opening up and I was from a very conservative place so it was harder for me to adapt. For me, it was about coming here to make a living. I think for them, coming to Singapore must have been like going from Beijing to Shanghai. And the standard of living in China is very good now so I don’t think they would feel inferior. Back then, it was common for Chinese people to feel inferior here ’cos we did come from a poorer place to such a flourishing city. That has definitely changed. I don’t think they feel like that anymore.
Out of curiosity, why did you and your family move to Melbourne?
It was about timing. My kids were studying in an international school in Beijing and ’cos of the education system there, you won’t be able to get into a university if you’re from an international school. So my daughter Emma had to go overseas to further her studies and so we picked Melbourne.
Why not Singapore?
Honestly ’cos they hadn’t studied in Singapore for a while so I knew it would be tough for them to catch up if they come back here. There’s too much stress in the schools here.
International schools are very expensive.
Yeah, that’s why it’s been tough for the past few years (laughs). But no choice. It’s their education and so that became my motivation to earn more money.
Did you expect to have four kids?
(Laughs) No. I did think I would have three, which is a lot already. I think it’s ’cos my surname is very rare, so I felt a responsibility to carry on my family name (laughs).
You told us that you only spend about three months out of a year in Melbourne, while the rest of the year is spent working in China. It must be tough to be away from your family so much.
Of course. Which is why whenever I’m back home, I spend all my time with my family.
How is a typical day in Melbourne like?
Very relaxed. I feel that we are slowly becoming more and more Australian. So in the morning, after the kids go to school we would do our laundry. Then we would go for lunch and relax until the kids to come home around four plus. Then we would go for dinner and after that we would just go back to our rooms. That’s my life when I’m not working (laughs).
I noticed that whenever you speak to Emma in Mandarin, she replies in English.
Yeah my whole family speaks English. When they were living in Beijing, I even employed a Chinese tutor for them but their Mandarin is still not good (laughs). You know sometimes, when my third and fourth kid speak to me, I don’t even understand what they are talking about ’cos of their Australian accents (laughs).