Tan Kheng Hua On Sneaking Her Daughter Into A Scene Of Kung Fu And The Amazing Craft Services On The Grey’s Anatomy Set - 8days Skip to main content



Tan Kheng Hua On Sneaking Her Daughter Into A Scene Of Kung Fu And The Amazing Craft Services On The Grey’s Anatomy Set

The Singaporean actress, 59, lets us in on her Hollywood adventures, including what to expect in Season 2 of  Kung Fu, now on WarnerTV.

Tan Kheng Hua On Sneaking Her Daughter Into A Scene Of Kung Fu And The Amazing Craft Services On The Grey’s Anatomy Set

Halfway through our Zoom chat, Tan Kheng Hua calls a time-out. Turns out she’s distracted by something off-camera.

“You have to take a moment to look at the sunset,” she coos, pointing her phone to the slowly amber-turning horizon, tranquil, gorgeous and Instagrammable. “I wish all of you were here.”

The Singaporean actress is now enjoying a relaxing stroll at Spanish Banks Beach in Vancouver, where she’s just a few days away from wrapping Season 2 of Kung Fu, The CW’s reboot of the David Carradine-starring 1970s Western series, now airing on WarnerTV.

“Thank you for making my life more miserable now,” this writer replies, half-jokingly. (Seriously, how can you not be grumpy — she’s out in the great outdoors, while I’m stuck indoors, reacting to a 24-inch iMac monitor. Not. The. Same.)

The original Kung Fu — a favourite of Tan’s father’s back in the day — centres on Amerasian Shaolin monk Kwai Chang Caine as he walks the earth, spouts cheem philosophies, and rights wrongs wherever he encounters them.

The new adaptation, helmed by Christina M Kim (Lost), also sets out to right another wrong: the legacy of casting Carradine, a Caucasian, as the Asian hero.

This time, Kung Fu tells the contemporary story of Nicky Shen (Taiwanese-American Olivia Liang), a college dropout who, after spending a few years in a monastery in China, returns home to San Francisco (doubled by Vancouver) where she uses her martial arts skills and Shaolin values to protect her family and community from all kinds of threats, earthly and out-of-this-world.

Tan and Tzi Ma, aka Hollywood’s go-to Asian dad, play Nicky’s restaurateur parents, Mei-Li and Jin, while Jon Prasida and Shannon Dang portray her siblings, Ryan and Althea.

With the exception of the title and the prerequisite wuxia brawls, this Kung Fu, which premiered in the US last April, is an entirely new show. So much so that if you remove all the fights and fantastical elements, it’s a family drama grounded in reality, featuring round characters tackling topical issues. The fact that this version isn’t chained down by its predecessor’s checkered past gives Tan unfettered freedom to explore Mei-Li.

“So I looked at it in the only way that I wanted to look at it, which is with fresh eyes,” she says. “I looked at this role [without any pre-judgement], I loved the character, and I wanted to bring so many things to the character that I was allowed to do so.”

Since making her Hollywood feature debut in Crazy Rich Asians, Tan, 59, has appeared on Magnum P.I., Grey’s Anatomy and most bizarrely, Medical Police, a Naked Gun-esque comedy where she guested as a prison towkay named Baozhai. “It is goofy, the people were very nice, and I had a great time,” she quips. How did she land the part? “I auditioned for it, just like how I audition for everything,” says Tan, who shuttles between Singapore and Los Angeles (where she stays in a one-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica).

Belly laughs: Tan Kheng Hua in a guest-starring role in the Netflix comedy series, Medical Police.

In one year alone, Tan went to nearly 90 auditions. “Your agents will just put you up for the role that they think will suit you, and then if you get approved to audition, you audition. And that’s how you get the role!” she says, with a chuckle. “Nothing to do with anything else. It’s not about attending parties, it’s not about networking, it’s not about anything like that. If they like you, they give you the role, and then you do it, and then they organise everything for you. Then you turn up on set and then you do it.”

She continues, “I just do my best, and I’m good to people, and they’re good to me, and we’re all building the same thing — let’s have a great time, have fun and be good at what we do. It’s simple, isn’t it?”

After Kung Fu, Tan will be seen or rather heard in the animated feature The Tiger's Apprentice, which also stars Sandra Oh, Bowen Yang, and Crazy Rich Asians alums Michelle Yeoh and Henry Golding.

Here, Tan speaks about spending time away from her real family with her reel kinfolk, the set with the best craft services, and how she got Shi-An, her 24-year-old daughter she shares with actor Lim Yu Beng (more of that later) to do a cameo in Kung Fu. Sorta, kinda.

8 DAYS: What was your first day on the set of Kung Fu like? The production was interrupted by COVID-19 pandemic after a few weeks of filming. How unnerving was that?

TAN KHENG HUA: First of all, when we got there [in Vancouver], it was one of those corny stories of immediate complicity with everybody in the cast. We just enjoyed ourselves so much. We heard murmurings of this virus, and of course, just like the rest of the world, nobody really knew what it was about or not about. And yes, certainly, we had a few very good filming days, but very quickly we were told, “Okay, this is happening, we’re going to close down, Warner is going to fly you guys out.” We flew out. I went back to LA. And yes, of course, it was surreal. But all I remember about it was a very swift, efficient, very humane, and kind way of dealing with what could possibly be a very panic-stricken time. Because this is no small production — it was huge! Our director of photography came from England! I came from Singapore, and my “son” came from Australia! And in three days, everybody had to be flown out. But it was so calm. And I remember my showrunner, Christina Kim, calling each of us individually in our hotel rooms to tell us blow by blow, “This is what’s going to happen, this is what we’re going to do, we’re going to fly you back, do not worry, and once we fly you back, ...” They kept telling us what was going to happen. I made a decision to go back to Singapore, but they were always in contact with us about what was going to happen. Even until today, it’s a really well-oiled and well-run machine full of what I call a quiet efficiency.

Going into Season 2, how has Mei-Li evolved since episode 1? The thing about a serialised narrative is that you play the same character for 10 episodes and beyond. How do you keep things fresh?

It’s easy. Because I concentrate on my own role, and I look at every single scene that they give me with just my own standards, and I love the way they have developed Mei-Li. I love all the scenes they gave me. I think they probably have decided certain things about why they cast me, what I can do, and what I do that they like. And then they are constantly organically writing in ways that showcase what they think I can do best, which is aligned with my own feelings, you know? I mean, as you know, I’m very much a dramatic actor, and my gosh, they gave me so much meat. You’ve seen it in Season 1. They gave me so much meat, and before we started Season 2, the showrunner said, “Okay, Kheng, from the beginning of Season 1 until the end of Season 1, you handled a lot of heavy stuff. We’re going to lighten you up.” And in Season 2, my gosh, they’ve done a really good job doing that. They’ve given me a lot of humour. I’m the new lady boss in Harmony Dumplings. My rhythms are all different because her family is in a different place — she’s happier, she’s sorted out things with her daughter, secrets are no longer secrets, and we all know what that feels like in real life — now you can breathe better, and so there’s a lot of humour. I also have a new scene partner, a Filipino-American actor, JB Tadena. He’s excellent. A young, handsome guy, and he plays my new sous chef. So most of my scenes are with him. There’s a lot of this lady boss and sous chef kind of thing where “I don’t want to admit I’m learning from you, but yes, I’m learning from you.” (laughs) That sort of stuff. It’s really cute and I love it.

Speaking of heavy stuff, Season 1’s ‘Sanctuary’ episode dealt with the Black Lives Matter movement. On top of that, there was the anti-Asian sentiment happening around the world, that must have been a tough episode to shoot.

It was tough because now that I’ve spent so much time here, racism and inequalities are very real things that we as Singaporeans take for granted, and we live in a very different place. Violence, what you see on the streets, what I see in Chinatown here in Vancouver, people shooting up, people getting high all the time, it’s a completely different world. And I have really learned how to be compassionate, to understand it, to be empathetic, and to also understand that I come from a different world. So I don't profess to know the way they know how it feels like to be black or to be Asian growing up in this part of the world. I don't profess to know. I am humble, respectful and aware that my life experience is completely different.

You spent so much time on the Harmony Dumplings set, did you try to personalise things? In Season 1, there’s a kitchen fridge where the Shens stuck family photos on the door. One of them is you with a baby, a picture I swear I’ve seen before on 8 DAYS. Tell me you used a real snapshot of you and infant Shi-An, who just turned 24.

You’re absolutely right (laughs). If you look closely, and this is a private joke, and my daughter has seen all of Season 1, and I would literally tell her, “Look closely at the fridge!” “Okay, look at this shelf!” And it would be real photographs of me and Shi-An (laughs). They needed photographs of when I looked young, and they needed photographs of when I was carrying a baby. Shi-An has visited me a lot here in Vancouver. You put her together with my two other “daughters”, I’m telling you, they look like sisters! And in fact, Olivia Liang, who by the way, can you put this your article — she just got nominated for Critic’s Choice Super Awards for Best Actress for Kung Fu! But basically, my daughter would look at Olivia and say, “Olivia looks more like your daughter than I do,” and then I would say, “Yea, I think you’re right.” So yes, you’re absolutely right. Thank you for being very observant.

Sneaky cameo: The 'Patience' episode from Season 1 of Kung Fu features a cameo by Tan Kheng Hua's daughter Shi-An (as a baby). That's them in the photo on the right on the fridge door.

Doesn’t making the set more homely make you more homesick?

I don’t want to call it homesickness, because it's not really homesick. I think we all have a longing for home every now and then. Homesickness has a very negative feeling. Longing for home is something that I think human beings just have even when they’re at home. I am at a time in my life where my set or any physical thing around me does not have a bearing on this very profound feeling which you feel sometimes, which is a longing for home. My longing for home resides solely in the relationships I have with my daughter and with my people, my big loves, right? That my daughter has spent so much time with me this year in Vancouver has almost completely eliminated a lot of the longing for home that I felt because she was close to me, and she saw my life here. But this time in my life is exquisite, you know? I am my best self, I want to live, you know?

It sounds like you’re not shooting a drama, but a travelogue.

To a certain extent, a lot of times people think that my entire — the last four and a half years or five years that I’ve spent in North America — is all about my work but please, it is not just about that. It is so much about personal growth, and it's so much about living, and it's so much about experiencing something at this time in my life. I’m 59 bloody years old!

There’s also an episode set in Singapore in Season 1. A coincidence? Or do we have you to thank for including us in the Kung Fu saga?

I don’t know that! Again, you have to go and ask the writers and the showrunners. But I have contributed. There is always a very open dialogue with the showrunners. They are constantly — overtly and covertly — studying us and deciding what they want to use of us, so I wouldn't be surprised. But I also wouldn't be surprised if it was not. I mean, Singapore has become quite a popular country here in North America, you know? People are always talking about Singapore. Crazy Rich Asians has kind of really made a lot of people in North America curious about our little country.

I spoke to Tzi Ma two years ago and he humble-bragged that he’s had many beautiful wives and daughters on-screen over the year. What’s it like playing wife to Hollywood’s go-to Asian dad?

The thing about Tzi is, my gosh, one of those people where no matter how many takes you do, he will just give you 100 percent. He's old-school passionate, a 100 percent actor. We are very much on the same page. He’s a believer, that's how I want to describe it. So he and I are believers. We believe in a kind of romantic passionate love for what we do, which has very little to do with celebrity or fame or any of that. Our joy comes from being in the scene, rolling around in those emotions, and getting all messy. That's our joy. Our joy is not in being famous or whatever. We’re believers and that makes the game so much easier to play with him.

Family business: Tan Kheng Hua with Tzi Ma as her husband in Kung Fu. On the show, they run the Harmony Dumplings famiiy restaurant in San Francisco (Vancouver, actually).

I read in an interview that your TV children call you Mama Kheng and they’ll eat whatever you cook for them. What exactly have you made for them?

I cook all sorts of shit. I really feed them shit and they’ll just wallop it up. I think, first of all, I love that they call me Mama Kheng and it’s something that a lot of young actors in Singapore call me as well. It is definitely something that comforts me. I love to have people to take care of and they’re always coming to my apartment, and hanging out. I also miss having people just come over and that’s what they do for me, and we chat and know each other well. I have cooked gado-gado for them. I have made a lot of herbal soups. I’ve made different types of fried rice. I’ve made huge amounts of curries, and I’ve also made a lot of pasta. So it’s not just all Asian food. We’ve also just gotten together to order food and just hang around and talk. They love to play games and we’ll just sit around and play stupid games. That’s basically what I do here.

Time for that talk: Olivia Liang in a scene with Tan Kheng Hua in the Season 2 premiere, 'The Year of the Tiger Part 1'. Tan says she spent Chinese New Year with the Kung Fu cast coming over to her house in Vancouver. "We had our own silly little lo-lei," she says, with a laugh.

Since we’re on food, here’s a nice segue to ask: Which sets that you’d worked on have the best catering or craft services?

Food is very important when you're on set, and there's like two divisions. One of them is called crafty. Crafty is a Canadian slang for craft services and crafty is basically all the snacks that you can think of — peanuts, chips, chocolate bars, energy bars, yogurt, hot sandwiches, cold sandwiches, whatever. And then there’s catering that does your big meals — your chicken pasta, lasagna, all that sort of stuff. I basically live on crafty because I’m such a snacker. I don’t eat much, so I basically just get the beautiful sandwiches, nuts, chips, fruit, vegetable cups, and hard-boiled eggs from crafty. I just get a whole load and munch on those the whole day. That’s it! That’s food (laughs).

And the award for the set with the best food goes to…?

I would say that Grey’s Anatomy had an amazing craft service and I think that's because they’ve been in the same set for such a long time. Every single brand of milk, orange juice, soda, and cereal you can think of... you can walk inside there and it’d really look like 7-11. Our [Kung Fu] crafty is smaller, but very boutique. The lady, Jean, who runs it has her own special touches and oh my goodness, her sandwiches are amazing. I never used to like pastrami until I ate her pastrami sandwiches. But I’ve never touched catering, except for their oatmeal (laughs).

This is actually a follow-up question to the interviews you did last year with Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. It’s a sensitive question but what’s the situation between you and him?

I would say the situation is great. How about that (laughs)? By all means, you’re free to also go and call Yubs. He just came to visit me here not too long ago at all! So the answer to your question is that the situation is great.

So I’ll just leave it at that?

Sure, absolutely!

I don't want to speculate on anything but based on the interviews I’ve read it seems that Yu Beng is not in the picture.

I think whatever you need that has already been published is official, and other than that situation is great.

Are you guys still together?

(laughs) Like I said, whatever has been published, and I’m sure you can do your homework. It’s all great and it’s all good. There’s nothing really much else to say.

The Vogue interview mentioned how your agent and manager have you up for Asian women roles between the ages 45 and 65, a booming market in Hollywood. That said, I hope that your team sounds you out for And Just Like That…should HBO decide to move forward with another season. I can totally see you in that show.

I would love to be in it, sure I would! I feel that the definition of a 59-year-old woman’s experience in this part of the world is something that I’m completely enjoying. I do wish for that category of women's stories as portrayed in Singaporean media to be as broad, nuanced and as profound as it is here. There’s so many stories told about women my age which I would love to see back home. So hey, make that happen now, journalists! That would be great! Encourage all the storytellers back home. Storytellers don’t have to be just film or television. It can be in music, art, fashion, anything! To extend their definition of what it means to be a woman at all ages, because oh my gosh, I am such an example of you, don’t stop living, your heart remains as young as it was! Your body may be moving into a different phase but you don't stop living, you know?

Kung Fu Season 2 airs Thur, Warner TV (Singtel TV Ch 306, StarHub Ch 515), 9.50pm. The Tiger's Apprentice opens in cinemas on Jan 19, 2023.

Photos: TPG News/Click Photos, WarnerTV




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