By now, the whole town knows that Xie Shaoguang quit showbiz last month. That he’s tending full-time his three-year-old animal welfare centre, Animal Paradise, in Pekan Nana, Johor. That he’s going into organic farming. That he’s eschewed the glitter of showbiz for the pared down pleasures of the simple life.
Our loss, not his. Shaoguang is the closest we have to an Edward Norton or a Kevin Spacey. Arguably the most versatile actor in the MediaCorp stable, he has limped, stuttered and even explored his feminine side in his 16-year career, immortalising characters like the cripple in Golden Pillow, the coma patient in Stand By Me and the lovelorn sissy in Holland V.
Plus, 18 Star Awards trophies in 16 years is nothing to be sniffed at. Consider this: he’s been voted among the most popular artistes on Caldecott every year from 1995 — a feat he shares with just four others: Zoe Tay, Fann Wong, Chew Chor Meng and Li Nanxing.
He’s been crowned Best Actor five times and Best Supporting Actor twice, and in one year, 1996, he managed the unique feat of winning both. The only wonder is that Shaoguang wasn’t awarded the Special Achievement Award any sooner than 2003.
So, been there, done that.
As for “retirement plans”, not for him the Million Dollar Round Table which almost every actor-turned-insurance agent seems to make with effortless aplomb. Not for him, either, the half measure of working behind-the-scenes as a stylist or some such. He asks incredulously: “Do you think people will come to me for style advice? I’m Xie Shaoguang leh. Not even near Christopher Lee!”
His choice of style icon is dubious but his intention to get down and dirty is sincere, unlike Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, whose stint on The Simple Life was just a temporary hiatus from their privileged lifestyles. Shaoguang has no hair salon, acting school nor a ready-for-rent condo tucked away, earning passive income. Soon, he won’t have a car as well — he’s gonna sell his grey Hyundai. What the 44-year-old has is a farm stretching six football fields, nearly 500 animals (!), and eight staff. Oh, “and peace of mind,” he adds.
If he had a business card now, it would read “Xie Shaoguang. Nobody.”
Seems like Mr X just wants a life less extraordinary.
It’s 2pm and we are at the zoo, simply because the zoo is what he'll miss most about Singapore.
“It’s all very well planned, so it looks natural, no cages. Singapore does greenery very well,” notes Shaoguang. “It’s green where my farm is, but it’s different. The same species of trees in Malaysia don’t look as neat, as lush, as well-kept as the ones in Singapore.”
The man has just arrived in his casual best — a red T-shirt and blue capris. No sunglasses. No cap to cover his famous mug. No sign that he’s a Celeb. Yes, Xie Shaoguang the Farmer has axed Xie Shaoguang the Actor for now.
At the Children’s World Animal Land, we try to coax a mother-and-son pair of Falabella horses to pose for some pictures. Suddenly, a deep “Phwoooah…” thunders out of nowhere and we jump out of our skin. It’s Shaoguang, leaning eagerly over the pen and whoa-ing away at the two-month-old foal. He obviously speaks horse, because it comes forward to sniff cautiously at his fingers. “Ouch. Ouch. Ouch,” he gently chides the nervous foal as it nuzzles a bit too hard. “You looking for milk?” he asks the same skittish creature later, when the infernal thing refuses to pose nice. Shaoguang laughs, often. At that point, he has uttered more words to the horses than to us.
When we’re done with the pygmy horses, we move on to two sheep circling two dour-looking bales of hay. Ever the professional, Shaoguang obligingly perches on top of one — bale of hay, that is — and starts to speak sheep. “Maaaaaaaah... maaaaaaaah... maaaaaaaah,” he calls out patiently, dangling a pail of treats, never mind the damp rot seeping into his pants.
He channels sheep so well that even the goats start to follow him around. Or maybe it’s because the keeper has forgotten to take back the pail of treats. It’s a hilarious sight, watching Shaoguang flashing his pearlies for the camera while livestock randomly defecate around him. When a goat goes so far as to relieve its bladder, Shaoguang laughs and jokingly wags a warning finger at the kid: “Eh, don’t pee on me ah.”
Over Ben & Jerry’s milkshakes, he tells us that before he started his farm, he would visit the zoo whenever he needed to be near animals and that he would love to be, of all animals, a cat. “People always go to the zoo to see tigers and lions. They are majestic but I don’t like them. They’re carnivorous,” pronounces the vegetarian. “I wanted to be a dog because it’s supposed to be Man’s best friend. But I’ve realised that they don’t care about personal hygiene. Not like cats, which are very clean, very neat, very independent. Cats don’t care about you, but when they want attention, also can get. I want to be a cat.”
In fact, Shaoguang’s farm started out as a home for stray cats and dogs. Now, it’s a regular Old MacDonald’s, with more than 400 cats and dogs, six goats, five cows, four peacocks, three pigs, three ostriches, two horses, deer, turkeys, lizards etc. “It’s a mini zoo,” he announces. Like a zoo, most of the animals are adopted or sponsored by corporations and individuals. “I’m a kampong kid at heart. I like the ulu (Malay for pared down) lifestyle. I like feeling a bit sua ku (Hokkien for country bumpkin) when I come back to sophisticated, cosmopolitan Singapore,” Shaoguang asserts. In fact, he’s been pretty much based on his farm for the past two months. For the next few years, local sightings of the man will be rare — once or twice a month. But he has no plans to give up his red passport, thank you very much. “I’ve never thought there was a divide between Singapore and Malaysia. I visit my grandparents in Malaysia often. I move here and there all the time. To me, it’s the same place.”
In front of the polar bear aquarium, Shaoguang, without taking his eyes off the bears’ graceful swimming, shares a random thought. “Human beings are the funniest creatures in the world. So clumsy, yet think we’re so clever!” He laughs. Later, while admiring a pair of tigresses staring ominously at us, he philosophises, “Happiness isn’t always about doing more things that make you happy. Sometimes, you end up being more stressed. If you look at the things that make you unhappy and do less of them, you’ll still end up being happy — and doing less.” Er… okay. We feel that we’ve bonded enough to ask him what he will live on now that he’s forgoing his monthly paycheck. “I’m planning to set up a restaurant,” he announces, easily rattling off such details as the projected overheads, number of staff, quality control plans. He’s clearly given a lot of thought to this. It’s going to be a vegetarian restaurant, of course, and he will be chef. Already, he’s “creating some interesting, challenging dishes”. He hasn’t come up with a restaurant name “but it won’t have Xie, or Shao or Guang in it”.
At this point, we’ve become quite lost in this lush foliage. While we apply our non-existent map-reading skills to the topography, he wheedles a ride off a passing tram carrying a load of giggly teenagers. We cram into a seat meant for one and we ask him one last question, possibly the most crucial one — why?!
“Time’s up. People want me to say that it’s been such a loss or such a gain, but it’s not that. They also want to know what my future will be but my future is unpredictable. The only thing predictable is that I will grow fat, ha ha!”
5 things you never knew about Shaoguang:
1. He has an insurance agent’s licence, which he only took up to stop former actors-turned-insurance agents from pestering him with plans — and to prove that it wasn’t that difficult to get a licence. He’s never used it.
2. He has an EZ Link card and it’s the original issue. “I’m probably the only MediaCorp artiste who still has an EZ Link card.”
3. For the longest time, his ambition was to be a pastry chef.
4. He’s never seen Ah Meng, much less have breakfast with her.
5. The one thing he’s most glad about leaving behind is “putting on make-up!”