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From Phua Chu Beng To Hollywood — Pierre Png On Filming 'Crazy Rich Asians'

By Guan Tan

Sun
Sweater and trousers from Ermenegildo Zegna
Tung Pham
 

"I will tell you before day one. I went in for an audition. They said, "You just play whatever way you want," 44-year-old Singaporean actor Pierre Png recalls his first encounter with the production team of 'Crazy Rich Asians,' a novel-turned-movie penned by Kevin Kwan, the Singaporean-American author. The book was published in 2013, and the movie premiered on American shores a few days back on the 17th August, where it topped the U.S. box office. It opens in Singapore tomorrow evening, 21st August at Capitol Theatre.

"Anyway I want?" Png asked the team at his audition. 

"Yeah, however you interpret the character," the team replied.

"I just did my thing and they said, "Yeah, sure. Let's turn it one notch down." The direction was so clear — I like what you are doing, just one notch down," Png recounts.

The clear and decisive audition came as a breath of fresh air for Png, who found the experience starkly different from the local entertainment landscape, where he has been active since the late '90s. "The difference here in Singapore is, [directors will say,] "Wow, like that ah? Anything more?," he mimics in a heavy Singaporean accent. "I think we have to learn how to talk. I say "we" as in most directors here in Singapore — the bedside manners or pretty much the approach. But then again, different strokes for different folks," he muses in hindsight, in view of the two decades he's spent as an actor in Singapore. 

In fact, Png never dreamt of being an actor. He stumbled into the acting industry by coincidence. He describes his life as a series of fortuitous accidents. "I was this average kampong boy going to school, hating school, not being able to get the results that I wanted no matter how much effort I put in," he laughs as he recalls. Soon after, he found himself serving a mandatory two and a half years of military service. "Coming to the end of the two and a half years, my friend actually suggested that we audition for a movie. I said, "Yeah, why not?" Png found himself selected for the role. Yet, the harsh reality of the actual film production hit the young and untrained Png. "I knew that I was lacking — of proper training. So after I did the movie, I got in touch with some people, I attended a very basic acting workshop." 

Soon after, doors opened for Png when in 1998, Singapore's only television station called for a country-wide talent search, and he won, securing himself a contract. "I took part in the competition and I came up top. I signed on with the TV station — ever since." 

Tung PhamShirt and trousers from Hermès.
Shirt and trousers from Hermès.

Png made a name for himself when he joined the cast of a local English situational-comedy titled 'Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd', fondly known as 'PCK' amongst locals, where he acted as a supporting actor named Phua Chu Beng. "I played the character of Chu Beng, the younger brother of the lead actor, played by Gurmit Singh. So Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd was pretty much a story about two brothers who were very different and had to work together hand-in-hand to run a business. I played the architect, and my brother, the contractor was a real ah beng. A real ah beng would be somebody who was very uncouth, and very unrefined," Png fondly recalls. "PCK was a sit-com that had a track record of ten or 11 years, we did about nine or ten seasons. It was rated the top-most watched sit-com back then." 

The sit-com was aired on terrestrial television, and it struck a chord with the locals for its accurate portrayal of the cultural dichotomy faced by an urbanising Singapore — the uncouth lead actor represented an olden, relatively less literate Singaporean juxtaposed against an educated, fluently Westernised younger brother, played by Png. 

When the sit-com eventually wrapped up in 2007, the largely English-speaking Png made his way to the Mandarin arm of terrestrial television. "What came next for me was Channel 8, the mandarin side of the station," Png continues. "I got a lot of negative response when I first started out on Channel 8 because I wasn't very proficient in the language. But I am a very stubborn person and I was not going to go down without a fight." From 2008 till date, he has starred in a numerous Mandarin local television dramas. The naysayers weaned off. "It turned out for the better."

Png carries a certain determination in his demeanour — he sits upright, his body tensed. When he speaks, Png stares fixedly into your eyes. He admits he is a strong-headed and stubborn person. Yet, there is a wildly optimistic side of him. And this positivity opened some doors for him, in particular, a fast track to Hollywood. 

After he left the 'Crazy Rich Asians' audition, Png waited for news. The team soon got back to him, "You are playing this role," Png mimics their conversation. "You've got less than a month to get into shape. But I am going to give you a personal trainer and I'm going to give you your supplements. And I'm going to give you your protein shakes. You make sure you get into shape." Wow, this is Hollywood for you!"

When the time came for the actual filming, Png flew out of Singapore to meet the production crew. "Even before I fly in, a car comes in, picks me up from my place and sends me to the airport. From the airport, a car comes in," Png unknowingly found himself explaining how the Hollywood experience was different from the usual he's been accustomed to in Singapore. "I mean, most of the time, you have to make all these arrangements yourself. I think no small role in Hollywood is a small role... We are talking about two different cultures and we are talking about two different environments."

Singaporean actor Pierre Png, who plays Michael Teo in 'Crazy Rich Asians' on the impacts of the film on Singapore's local television industry.

 

To the actor Png, the fresh experience of filming a Hollywood production meant a lot to him. "I will definitely, never ever forget this experience," he asserts. "I think 'Crazy Rich Asians' was and is the platform, the ship that every Singaporean, every talented and creative person that I've met in the last 20 years, is waiting for."

It seems like the media spotlight has lit up a path for the local entertainment industry to grow. "Television in Singapore is still at its infant stage, there is room for improvement. We have so many people to look at and model ourselves," Png muses. 

Yet, to the Singaporean in Png, he is sorely aware that the film 'Crazy Rich Asians' has been ladened and weighed with numerous expectations from the nation. Afterall, this may be the first Hollywood production that properly portrays the country, and not merely a cursory mention, like Chow Yun-Fat did when he announced, "Welcome to Singapore!" in the 2007 instalment of 'Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End'. 

"Everything was in passing. 'Agent 47' was like, "Okay, the used Changi airport." And the next thing, they were somewhere else," says Png. He ditches his actor persona, and gave his verdict of the film as a Singaporean, "Representation of Singaporeans in 'Crazy Rich Asians'? I say it's there." 

Tung PhamShirt, vest, and trousers from Ermenegildo Zegna.
Shirt, vest, and trousers from Ermenegildo Zegna.

"Like how we are unable to describe a lot of things and we just use sounds? Like, "Wa, just now I saw an accident and bang!" Wa, you know the thing langga, you know?" All these different words and all these different phrases and languages come in just one sentence. You will see all that in 'Crazy Rich Asians'," Png laughs. 

Yet, beyond all the discourses that 'Crazy Rich Asians' has shouldered — diversity, representation, the portrayal of Singapore and the identity of Singaporeans — Png promptly remind us all that this is a film that first and foremost, serves to entertain the crowds in the cinema. "It's a romantic comedy that is situated in Singapore. It's not about Singaporeans. It's about crazy rich Asians — who are Singaporeans. The story revolves around a family from Singapore," he concludes. "Watching it, you walk out feeling good." This way, the film has served its purpose.

Since its inception, the film has been shrouded by numerous debates by the press. Yet, Png has a piece of advice for the bulk of us who are about to nab our tickets for the movie, "Go in — leave everything outside the cinema. Go in, and watch it for what it is, and see what it does to you."

 

Interview by Patrick Chew
Photographs by Tung Pham
Produced by Michelle Kok
Styling by Oh Jing Ni
Hair by Sylin Yer/ Shunji Matsuo
Grooming by Lolent Lee using Shiseido
Photographer Assisted by Hari Tris
Wardrobe by Ermenegildo Zegna and Hermès
Location by Six Senses Duxton