Feel stuck in life as you get older? It might be your ego, says Tan Kheng Hua
The Singaporean actress who’s making a new life in Hollywood at the age of 57 knows how you feel – and she’s got advice on how to age according to your rules.
Tan Kheng Hua – the actress who stole a scene in Crazy Rich Asians from Michelle Yeoh with just a wordless stare that would shrink the largest of testicles – was sitting on my sofa, looking fabulous in her T-shirt and jeans, snacking on murukku. And it occurred to me, quite simply: I want what she’s having.
Not the murukku, mind you (I had another tub squirrelled away for eating my emotions), but the way she’s growing older… and feeling happy about it.
“At 40, in terms of my career, I felt jaded, old… I remember, I just felt like, oh gosh, I really needed to change,” said Kheng, in an unfiltered conversation for our CNA Lifestyle podcast series House Party For 2. “I just felt… stuck.”
It’s a sentiment many of us who are no longer in our 20s (or 30s) can relate to. It’s a growing realisation that you’re so far from where you wanted to find yourself; that perhaps you’re starting to simply “exist” instead of “live” like you once did when your joints didn’t ache as much.
This, however, is Kheng at age 57: “I just have never felt more free, more independent, more at peace, more myself. I feel myself finally on a path where I think this is really how I want to grow old and eventually die,” she said. “I feel so much lighter.”
I first met Kheng back in 1997. She was already a respected name in theatre, had recently come off starring in Singapore’s first English-language drama series Masters Of The Sea, and had just started what would be 11 years on the sitcom Phua Chu Kang. I was acting in my very first play, and Kheng was very kind to me when other theatre folk were less than warm. At the reception, she marched right up to me where I was stationed at the buffet table (my history of emotional eating goes back a long way) and told me straight up that I had done a good job. Her encouragement meant a great deal to 19-year-old me.
It was also a wonderful counterbalance to my mother telling me she would never watch another theatre show ever, now that she’d been psychologically scarred from watching her teenage son play a gay, drug-addled, stripper / porn star with mommy issues who wears a sequined thong and dies of an overdose. I told her it was art. Mum said it was a good thing she didn’t bring grandma.
I think there is a big difference between ‘how do I want to live?’ and ‘how do I want to die?’
I’d bump into Kheng over the years and we’ve stayed friendly. But the woman on my couch had a different energy than what I remember. She really did feel lighter. Even as we talked about dying.
“I think there is a big difference between ‘how do I want to live?’ and ‘how do I want to die?’” said Kheng. “About 10 years ago, I was going through some pretty difficult times in my life… And that was actually when I came about this concept that has helped me a lot then and now: Rather than thinking about how I want to live, I started thinking about how I want to die – and then work backwards from that.”
It might sound dark, but the woman’s got a point.
“The first thing I did was really visualise who were the people I wanted around me when I die. And, immediately, you will then answer all your questions about who are the important people in your life today – the people who you should actually consider deeper and in a more profound way,” she said.
“And then, suddenly, your world becomes very clear. Because from maybe 30 people or 300 things that you think you need today because this is how you want to live, it is whittled down to a very comfy bed and maybe about three people… It just gives you some perspective.”
Kheng has been doing a lot of thinking – or practising a “review on life”, as she calls it – since she upped and moved to Hollywood to explore new terrain. She’s been working, having scored roles on Grey’s Anatomy and Netflix’s Medical Police, as well a series regular spot in the Kung Fu reboot pilot from US TV network The CW. But she hasn’t been on her own like this since her university days, said Kheng. And that’s forcing her to “man up” and “just sort it out”.
Here’s what she’s learnt from those “review on life” sessions.
If you want to feel excited about what you do, you need to surround yourself with like-minded people, to be “immersed in talent”. It’s the vibe you’re looking for. “Once you find the right people that you vibe with, you just suddenly feel like waking up, and working hard, and doing something. And the day just suddenly becomes enjoyable.”
Next, it’s about tackling your ego. “Honestly, ego is the enemy,” said Kheng. “Don’t get me wrong – for anyone who wants to be good at what they do, ego is necessary. But ego is still the enemy in that it can make your life centred around something which may not necessarily propel you towards where you really want to go.”
Maybe it’s important to be curious rather than to be defensive and keep going for something that you may be past your use-by-date for, you know?
For example, offered Kheng, if her ego had made her turn down jobs just because they weren’t big roles, she would have missed out on Crazy Rich Asians, the UK miniseries Chimerica and HBO Asia’s The Garden Of Evening Mists.
“In the last five years, I’ve played more supporting characters than I’ve played lead. In fact, perhaps, in my entire career, I have played more supporting characters than I have leads. I want as much recognition as anybody else, okay? I won’t lie about that” she said. “But these projects were great to be on. My daily life had a quality. My daily acting life had a quality that I loved and that I want every single day of my life.”
“So the ego can be your friend and it’s very, very necessary,” said Kheng, “and the ego can be the enemy – and it is up to you and your character to discern which ego you want.”
READ: House Party For 2: The totally true story of how Chua Enlai left a friend to die in the open sea
And that brings us to accepting the ugly truth. “Maybe it’s important to be curious rather than to be defensive and keep going for something that you may be past your use-by-date for, you know?” she said. “Because when you try too hard in anything – whether it’s fashion or losing weight or acting – it never looks good. And it doesn’t feel good.”
“A real curiosity brings about a sense of humility. And those qualities bring about a sense of peace.”
It’s important to grow old gracefully, said Kheng, just as long as you play by your own rules. "'Graceful' is not just Audrey Hepburn, you know? It’s not just Grace Kelly. 'Graceful' is about some sort of truth and honesty. And if honesty to you is cussing every sentence that comes out of your mouth, then you know what? Go for it."
Now that is advice I can go for. Sorry, mum.
Listen to the full House Party For 2 podcast to find out how Kheng auditions against thousands of actors per role, and what she makes of people thinking Crazy Rich Asians wasn’t "Singaporean enough".
New episodes of House Party For 2 are published every Sunday at cna.asia/podcasts. This podcast was recorded in mid-December, 2019. Both House Party For 2 host and guest are now hibernating safely in their respective homes.