In a career spanning four decades, Hongkong-born Chinese-American character actor Tzi Ma (pronounced ‘Tai-Ma’) has appeared in over 100 movies and TV shows.
Viewers may remember him as Ambassador Han in the Rush Hours movies; Cheng Zhi, the Chinese Consulate’s Head of Security and nemesis of Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer in 24; and a dragon on Once Upon a Time.
If his name still doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps you may have seen him in the Oscar-nominated thriller Arrival where his Chinese general almost declared war on peace-loving aliens, and on the dystopian fantasy The Man in the High Castle, where he plays another military head, General Hidehisa Onoda.
These days, some viewers may also recognise Tzi Ma from his guest role on the cop show Criminal Minds: Beyond Minds, in the controversial ep ‘Cinderella and the Dragon’ ep. In that ep, the FBI’s International Response Team (led by Gary Sinise) is in Singapore to solve the murder of an American flight attendant and mansplain to us the finer workings of the American justice. Tzi Ma plays Inspector Cheong, the local cop assisting the Feds.
The ep was slammed by Netizens — including blogger mrbrown in his famous video rant ‘Kim Huat Watches Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders’ — for its numerous inaccuracies about Singapore — like calling Geylang “an overcrowded slum with a thriving underworld”, Tzi Ma’s Hongkong-accented Singlish, scenes of outdoor food vendors and festive red lanterns, and the cheesy Oriental soundtrack.
Also, thanks to the show, we now have a national proverb, “Where there is a sea, there are pirates.” (Someone has been watching Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End again…) At least, they got one thing right: “Maxwell Road [has] the best chicken rice.”
8 DAYS talked to Tzi Ma twice — the first time just a week before the ep was aired, and the second time, a week after the airing — and asked how he was handling the controversy.
8 DAYS: Did you have to audition to play Inspector Cheong on Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders?
TZI MA: There was no audition process. I was shooting in Vancouver when they offered the role to me. I don’t think there was any reason to hire me as a Singaporean per se; it’s just that the episode takes place in Singapore.
We hear your manager is Singaporean and his father helped you out a bit with research. What else did you do?
One thing good about the Internet is that you’re able to go online and do your research. That’s normal; that’s something we do fairly consistently. But no matter how thorough the research is, it’s hard to replace people who are there and understand the inner mechanisms and machinations of Singapore. I haven’t been to Singapore [since 1984 when I was a guest director at the Singapore Arts Festival], so things probably have changed somewhat through the years.
You’ve probably heard of the negative reactions to how Singapore was depicted on that episode…
I have [friends in Singapore and one of them] sent me a link to many, many responses to the episode. My manager said, “Guess what? That episode has gone viral, but not in a good way.” I have been in this business for over 40 years, and to be caught up in my first meaningful controversy is my good fortune (guffaws). However, I must say, at least personally — I can’t speak for the producers working on that episode — I want to extend my personal apologies to all Singaporeans for the offences that we’ve made to misrepresent this beautiful country. Asian-Americans have been on the receiving end of such misrepresentations many, many times, and we’ve fought it for many, many years, so I can empathise.
What lessons did you learn from this controversy?
I think there’s a silver lining to this and that is, I would be very upset if no one reacted to it. I would be very upset if there was no objection to what was shown. To have such an overwhelming response, I was quite happy. I was really overjoyed that people took action and spoke up. For many, many decades, we have not done that. We as a community — as a global community — have not done that in a meaningful way. So I personally felt that it’s progress. Is it enough? Probably not. Will enough people see this episode to put a dent in Singapore’s reputation? Probably not. However, it doesn’t hurt any less.
Are you now more careful with the scripts that come your way?
I’m always careful. Sometimes it’s difficult to see what’s on the script and what’s ultimately on the screen. From the draft that we read and we said yes
to, we couldn’t really [see how it’d turn out]. I certainly would take some blame for not doing my own due diligence in terms of investigating all the aspects of the show. Unfortunately I was doing another show and I didn’t really have that much time to do it, but I should have. In future, that’s what I would do, particularly with things I don’t know much about. If I don’t have the time to prepare such roles, I would probably not do it. I’ve turned down other roles before; this is not new to me. In that sense, I’d be a little more careful.
You were last here in 1984. You should really come visit us soon…
If I come visit, I may not survive (laughs)…
C’mon, it’ll be a great conversation starter.
If I’m going to visit Singapore in the near future, it should be part of a conversation. I’d welcome some kind of forum. I don’t mind being in the hot seat; I’ve been there before. I would love to sit down and see what we can do and see if we can turn this around, making [shows] for us [Asians] as opposed to leaving others to decide our fate.
On a lighter note, this month, you’ll be reprising the role of Chinese President Lu Chi-Jang on Veep. You’re frequently cast as authority figures. Have you been mistaken for one in real life before?
I was shooting a movie in Utah, and at the airport, there was a group of people — I think they were Mormons — who thought I was [Chinese President] Xi Jinping. It was really bizarre. Why would Xi Jinping be in Utah?! I guess I really look like him sometimes, depending on my haircut. Because they were not sure if I spoke English at all, they came up to the production driver who was picking me up, and asked him if I was a Chinese dignitary visiting Utah (laughs). It was pretty crazy. I sort of overheard them and I said, “No, that’s not the case, but thank you though.”
(Photos: Diana Ragland/main, Disney, HBO)
Veep airs Mon, HBO (StarHub Ch 601), 10.30am/10.30pm; Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders airs Thur, AXN (Singtel TV Ch 304 & StarHub Ch 511), 9.45pm; The Man in the High Castle is streaming on Amazon Prime Video; and Arrival is on iTunes and Google Play and Singtel TV VOD.