“It took four years for my mum to not cry at the thought of me.”
And who can blame her? Chunyu Shan Shan has not spent more than two months in any year with his family in China since he signed up as a ballet apprentice at the age of 10.
This is despite the 26-year-old having left his regimental Beijing-based group which has also taught him gymnastics, folk dance, math and civics, eight years ago.
What has kept him from his parents and younger sister is a hectic acting career: eight movies and two TV dramas in China, and since last year, a two-year contract with SBC.
But there are no regrets, because even as a young boy, he demonstrated his independence by choosing his own destiny.
“I decided to audition for the dance school; it was not my parents’ decision,” he states now. Since his small screen debut as a dashing hero in The Brave Ones shown earlier this year, Shan Shan has established himself as a firm favourite in Singapore. His rising popularity was also helped along by his impressive footwork in a dance item during Star Search ’93.
Currently appearing as a pampered good-for-nothing in The Invincible Warriors, he is now working on another period drama where he plays an uneducated street urchin who goes insane. Three serials, three different characters; but the real life man from Qingdao, Shandong, does not seem so complicated though. He smiles readily and is ever-so-charming, apologising in his impeccable putonghua accent for being late because of the downpour, “My friend borrowed my umbrella and hasn’t returned it,” he says goofily as rainwater drips from his baseball cap.
The white Gerardo T-shirt (now wet and clinging to a not unmuscular torso), track pants and running shoes, however, make him look more like a Sunday jogger than someone who does those impressive gongfu feats on telly or who at 17 won third place in a national Chinese dance competition..
How he could bear to leave dancing so soon after performing so well in that competition?
“I cried very badly when I decided to leave the troupe and pursue acting. But acting is a good way to discover more about myself and because in dance even as you reach your physical peak, you are going downhill.”
Maybe it was the day being as grey as it was, or my line of questioning that brought out a torrent of sad tales from the otherwise smiley actor who looks up ever so often from his two bowls of duck porridge and plate of offal (“I’ve never had this before and usually skip breakfast anyway”) to answer questions.
“It’s ironic that I cried more after I grew up, maybe because I’ve become more sensitive and realise how helpless and fragile human beings really are. In actual terms, however, times were a lot tougher when I was a child.”
Being bullied by the entire troupe was a way of life for him then.
“There were silly practical jokes like putting toothpaste on my feet and face, squeezing me off the communal mattress we shared or taking my blanket while I slept, just because I was the youngest.
“Partly it was because I couldn’t catch up with training. At that age, a difference of a few months among boys was significant in how much you could achieve physically. And the next youngest member was a year older.”
He was certainly pushed too far when he was about 13, by some of the cruel taunting he often received.
“Once, three mates couldn’t restrain me as I grabbed a knife and ran after this guy who needled me one time too many. He was so shocked he ran into a room and locked the door.
After that, I realised how destructive even a small person can be if he lets his emotions go to the extreme, and I kept a strong rein on mine.”
His easy-going ways and iron-cast resolve to never bully anyone or be inconsiderate has made him popular with colleagues whilst his acting skills in his maiden role even secured a watch endorsement in an ad.
“No, I’ve never thought of being a model and I don’t think I have the best feature. When you’re happy and healthy, you’ll look good whatever your features look like.”
Looking at his naturally-long lashes which would send Sakura into despair, one is inclined to believe that Nature did help him just a little bit.
A new record company has approached him to cut an album, a diversification he would like to take, but he wants SBC to decide.
“First, I’m so new and besides, I’m a foreigner.”
One wonders though. His designer-label wallet (Valentino) left casually but visibly on the table, could me a trusting nature (surely no one would just come by and snatch it away) or that materialism in singapore has touched him and he feels the need to equate worth with flashing brand names.
Whatever, having spent almost a year here, he is adapting well, taking in discos (Fire and sometimes Zouk), karaoke and eating places when he has time to spare although he admits to getting lost sometimes.
“Even Singaporeans get lost, which is good because it shows your country is changing and developing. But it doesn’t bother me much since I don’t really venture all over and have never gone sightseeing. After all, I get to see all those places when we’re filming.”
When he first started out, he was afraid of being typecast into period dramas, but now he doesn’t resist them, recognising that there is nothing wrong with having fighting skills and using them.
Has he ever wanted to play legendary fighter and folk hero Wong Fei Hong, a role played successfully by countryman and co-star in a movie in 1988, Jet Li, and now by Chiu Mun Chiok?
“I think whoever plays Wong Fei Hong first is a hero, the second is silly, and the third one to try would look very foolish. Even if Chiu kills himself, he will not be able to erase the image of Li.
“Besides, keeping Wong Fei Hong’s pristine image is a lot harder over 30 episodes on TV, compared with one-and-a-hallf hours on the big screen.
“Anyway, I would hate playing an all-good guy, it’s just not human. We used to think that Mao Zedong was a god and look at where that got us?”