The last time 8 DAYS spoke to veteran Chinese-American character actor Tzi Ma was two years ago.

Back then, we chatted about his appearance on Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders. In the Singapore-set episode ‘Cinderella and the Dragon’, Tzi Ma plays a local cop helping the FBI’s International Response Team to look into an American flight attendant’s murder.

The episode, which was filmed entirely in California, sparked an uproar over its inaccurate depiction of Singapore. Seriously, when did we have a national proverb “Where there is a sea, there are pirates.” Which version of the Wikipedia did the producers look that up?  

In the interview, an embarrassed Tzi Ma said, “I want to extend my personal apologies to all Singaporeans for the offences that we’ve made to misrepresent this beautiful country.” He should visit us, we suggested. Tzi Ma was last here in — what?! — 1984 as a guest director at the Singapore Festival of Arts.

“If I come visit, I may not survive,” he laughed. 

Flash forward to 2019: Tzi Ma did drop in for a visit and he survived to tell the tale. He arrived here in January with little fanfare; we only found out about it via the Instagram account of playwright and erstwhile editorial director of Mediacorp Publishing Michael Chiang.

Remember that Singapore Festival of Arts in 1984? It was the Hongkong-born actor/director who gave Chiang his first big break in theatre. “He’s the one I have to thank (blame? haha) for starting me on my playwriting journey,” Chiang wrote on his Instagram.

“I was with all my friends in Singapore — I was completely safe,” Tzi Ma, 57, tells us recently over the phone from LA.

He was here for about five days after attending a private event in Penang. Singapore in 2019 is really different from the Singapore he knew 35 years ago. “Oh my God, it’s a different country, dude!” he quips. “I think the only place I still recognised is the Raffles Hotel.”

There’s another thing that hasn’t changed much. “The food is still good,” Tzi Ma enthuses. “If you take me to any hawker centre, I’ll be happy. I think I have to figure how to lose weight first before I visit Singapore again.”

When this writer jokes that the Criminal Minds controversy has introduced him to a whole new generation of fans who hasn’t heard of him before, he doesn’t sound amused. “Really, is that my legacy in Singapore?” he says sternly. “I don’t think you should perpetuate that scenario.”

Absolutely, sir. Let’s put this episode behind us.

2019, or what's left of it, has been great to Tzi Ma. First, he stars alongside Awkwafina in The Farewell , now showing in cinemas, the affecting dramedy about a family keeping a secret about the matriarch.

He’s also on the Netflix supernatural martial arts drama Wu Assassins, where he plays Iko Uwais’s neighbour. And next year he has Disney’s historical epic Mulan to look out for. Now, what shall we talk about first?

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