Veteran actress and producer Tan Kheng Hua dishes her thoughts on the evolution of the SQ Girl, what makes a national icon, and being an all-rounder in her media career.
Locals will remember her as Margaret Phua in the Channel 5 sitcom Phua Chu Kang, while international audiences might recognise her as the Empress Dowager in Netflix’s Marco Polo or Kerry Chu in Crazy Rich Asians, but Tan Kheng Hua is way more than what her hit roles can portray. Lately, this multitalented performer-producer is busy helming a theatrical exploration of the ‘Singapore Girl’ identity – which you can catch at The Substation from 26 to 28 October and 2 to 4 November.
We spent some time with her pre-rehearsal, where she dished her thoughts on the SQ Girl and a little more about herself too…
There seems to be a golden era when many dreamed of being a ‘Singapore Girl’ one day. Do you think this is still the case?
When I was growing up, I would hear quite a lot of young women talk about how they aspired to be an SQ stewardess. I hear less and less of this, and personally, I think the service industry on the whole seems to be something that Singaporeans don’t tend to have an ambition for. I hardly ever hear of anybody saying “I aspire to be a really good waiter,” you know? Maybe there has been a change in terms of people wanting more virtuosity in terms of what they do, and maybe people see being an air stewardess very much like being a waitress in the sky.
Do you think the SQ Girl relevant as a national icon today?
I think she still is a national icon, but perhaps it’s because she’s riding on the tailwind of a very strong branding exercise that took place – so strong that it still has so much power today. I do wish for greater detail, elegance, graciousness, eloquence – I think I really miss that.
What’s the most intriguing thing you’ve learnt or discovered while producing She’s A Great Way to Fly?
None of the artists in this show have failed me in terms of their ability to find unique, entertaining, intelligent, and perceptive ways of thinking about the SQ Girl as a national, iconic brand. I think you’ll see a very unusual show and I can’t wait to see it myself.
Tell us about the yoga in a Singapore Girl kebaya…
That is so ridiculous, I love it!
If you were to perform a piece, to step in the shoes of an artist and think up a storyline, whether it’s yoga or a monologue, what would you want to do?
I think it would have made me very satisfied to see myself dolled up in an official SQ air stewardess costume. And I also would like to find out whether I would make the grade – as I am today, as a 55-year-old woman. I would like to actually be an SQ stewardess on a short flight to, let’s say, Bali and experience it myself – to take photographs and write about it later.
I would totally read that, and if you do it we’d love to have an exclusive scoop.
What do you want the world to know about the SQ Girl and She’s A Great Way to Fly?
I’d want the world to know that the SQ Girl, in my opinion, is not representative of all Singaporean women, but that Singaporean women are just as compelling as whatever people think is compelling about the SQ girl brand. I want people to come to She’s A Great Way to Fly with a sense of humour and an open mind and come away from it knowing that they can come up with their own opinions about may be a mainstay national icon. You don’t have to accept what the country tells you is iconic.
You have been amazingly versatile, taking your career from television to Netflix, from the big screen to creating your own productions. What kind of projects do you gravitate towards nowadays?
I love the fact that I am given opportunities to tackle all these different aspects of an industry that I love very much and am very proud of it. All these aspects – from camera acting to stage acting, or from curating to producing – use different muscles in my body and I feel very complete as an artist when I do a melange of all these different things.
When I act too much I feel very self-absorbed… it is necessary for acting but I don’t necessarily want to feel self-absorbed all the time, I don’t think it’s good for me. When I’m producing or curating like this, I get to be much more generous, much more nurturing. I get to offer other people jobs and pay them… I feel that it exercises a more maternal side of me and I love that.
I feel so much more complete that I am able to do all these different things and I am very thankful that I am given the opportunity to do it all the time. And now, because I have got a UK agent and I have also got representation in LA, I hope to be able to add more international work on to my menu.
What is one question that you wish more people would ask you?
Gosh, I don’t know because I guess I’ve never really seen myself as someone people would have obvious questions to ask, you know?
What’s a message that you would love to share with the world?
Somebody special once said to me something which I carry as a mantra, which is ‘be better’.
She’s a Great Way to Fly is running from 26 to 28 Oct and 2 to 4 Nov at The Substation as part of the Singapore Girl, Heritage Deployed programme. Tickets are $25/ $30 (inclusive of the after party at Timbre on 26 Oct and 3 Nov).