Cross Talk with Adrian Pang and Lim Kay Tong

The two 'LKYs' face off

Acting veterans Lim Kay Tong (left) and Adrian Pang were co-stars in the television show, Parental Guidance (2007-2008).
Acting veterans Lim Kay Tong (left) and Adrian Pang were co-stars in the television show, Parental Guidance (2007-2008). ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
Adrian Pang (above left) and Lim Kay Tong are two of the most recognisable actors working in Singapore today in film, television and on stage.
Adrian Pang (left) and Lim Kay Tong are two of the most recognisable actors working in Singapore today in film, television and on stage.PHOTO: VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM

In the first instalment of Cross Talk, a fortnightly series in which two major figures in the arts have a chat with Life, actors Adrian Pang and Lim Kay Tong, who both played Lee Kuan Yew recently, talk about their lives and careers

Singapore's finest leading actors could not be more different.

Lim Kay Tong, 61, dressed in a plain cotton shirt and khakis, exudes a sort of supernatural calm. He glides across the Marina Bay Sands hotel lobby as squawking tourists trip over their luggage in his wake.

Adrian Pang, 49, strides into the rooftop restaurant Sky On 57 about 10 minutes later, a bundle of irrepressible energy, with chic, masculine rings glinting on just about every finger.

But they plunge straight into excited conversation the moment they see each other, gabbing on everything from the non-existent sibling rivalry between Pang's two teenage sons to babysitting Lim's sassy toddler granddaughter. I have to remind them to save some of the good stuff for our conversation over morning coffee.

They are two of the most recognisable actors working in Singapore today across all the genres of film, television and stage, and have worked together on screen before.

Lim is perhaps best known as the family patriarch in the long-running TV series Growing Up (1996-2001) and a frustrated taxi driver in the film Perth (2004).

Pang is a fixture on the Singapore stage and a three-time Best Actor winner at the annual Life Theatre Awards, with memorable parts in TV series such as The Pupil (2010) and Portrait Of Home (2004-2005).

As timing would have it, both recently played the part of the late former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew - Lim in the film 1965 and Pang in the stage production The LKY Musical.

The two actors spent an hour discussing everything from their little pre-show rituals to why they do what they do. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Adrian Pang: Was acting the only thing you had ever wanted to do?

Lim Kay Tong: Actually not - it was by coincidence. If it hadn't been for national service, I would never have been an actor.

Because of NS, I came back and I was at a loose end. I was doing military training, I was playing rugby in the army, but I needed some other outlet and that's how I stumbled into theatre.

I looked at some ads for auditions, saw something and I turned up and got a part, and just like that, that's how it happened.

Pang: As a distraction, almost?

Lim: Almost - except I found that I really liked it.

Pang: But prior to that, you'd had no inkling...

Lim: I thought I was more interested in writing at the time. I had been in bit roles in school plays, but just for the fun of it, rather than thinking of committing myself to it.

Life: Adrian, how about you?

Pang: Myself - almost kind of motivated by the same reasons of needing some kind of distraction, but that was during my turbulent adolescent years as a 15-year-old.

I look at my 15- and 16-year-old now and I'm going, when's it going to happen, when are they going to wake up and turn into monsters?

Because I did. I woke up one day when I was 15 and I turned into this ogre.

I auditioned for a school production of Oliver and I was hooked. You get this chance to prance about on stage, you get to meet girls - what more can you want? (chuckles)

Life: When did the both of you know this was what you needed to do - from a distraction, it became a craft?

Lim: I got involved in three or four plays before I ROD-ed and I said, this is what I'm going to do. Behind my dad's back, I applied to do drama and English at a university in the United Kingdom. Whereas he was hoping I'd do law. By then, I had already made up my mind - this was how I was going to pursue it.

Life: Adrian, you did law as well.

Pang: I did.

Lim: You did law! He was better than me...

Pang: I don't know about that! It seems that if you want to be an actor in Singapore, you've got to train in law first. That's the rite of passage.

Lim: A lot of theatre people were actually lawyers, you know.

Pang: So they'll ask me, "What do you do?" "I'm an actor." "Oh, so you have a law degree!" Yes.

Lim: (laughs)

Life: What was the reception to Asian performers in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s? Was finding roles difficult?

Pang: I started working professionally in the UK in 1992. Totally fearless and naive as well. Just flinging myself at the mercy of the industry.

Inevitably as an Asian face, that's the first impression that casting directors, directors and producers see. I was always trying to get auditions for parts that were not necessarily written for an Asian actor, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. But really for me, it was - I just want to work, I just want to work.

Lim: For me, the inkling I got was at university when I auditioned for plays. The first play I auditioned for, I was part of an ensemble, but I got dropped to being in the reserve. So that set up some things in my mind - maybe I'm not blending in because of the way I look.

I was aware that it was going to be tough. You're going to be looking for any kind of job. At that time, I was signed to an agency called The Oriental Casting Agency.

Pang: Oh my god. Yes, that's what they called themselves.

Lim: They're famous. But they get you work.

Life: Kay Tong, you were involved in the founding of TheatreWorks, and Adrian, you and your wife Tracie created Pangdemonium. What's been your experience of creating a theatre company?

Lim: It was very stressful. We argued very long about what form it would take. Initially, we decided on a private limited company. And then Ong Keng Sen took over the reins. He changed it to a company limited by guarantee, which is like a charity.

We handed it over early on to Keng Sen. We had to think very fast if we wanted longevity, to pick someone who is truly committed, and we were lucky. Fate took its course after that.

Pang: To be honest, once I decided on this path as an actor, that's all I wanted to do. The whole notion of running my own theatre company was way too mature and grown up for me to even contemplate.

But as fate contrives to push you in certain directions, why I came back to Singapore in the first place was partly motivated by family.

I'd been working in the UK as an actor for about nine years and I got a phone call from Singapore from a TV station that was starting up at the time - MediaWorks - and it asked if I was interested to come back.

The motivating factor was how best can I carry on doing what I'm doing and still look after the family in a more secure way. So we moved back here, I committed myself to the "working for a factory" thing...

Lim: (laughs) It showed on your face, when you...

Pang: (laughs) You could tell! It chipped away at my sense of self. And Tracie, being the much more far- sighted of the two of us, started planting little seeds: "Wouldn't it be great for us to be able to do the work that we want to do? Because I mean, look at you. You're not happy."

Lim: Whenever I did a scene with this guy - we did a sitcom together - I'd go back to my wife Sylvia and say, this guy is not happy at all. He sort of goes through it, but you can see he's not enjoying it.

Pang: It's amazing, we've actually worked together on screen on several occasions - that blows my mind! I worked with Lim Kay Tong! That was Parental Guidance.

Lim: He was the star in it and I played his father-in-law in a couple of episodes, I think.

Pang: It was such a hoot.

Lim: But I understand. You had a family, I understood the circumstances. And I hate to say it, but I felt sorry for you at the time (laughs).

Pang: (laughs) I'm glad I wasn't the only one feeling sorry for myself.

Lim: I felt good for him when he started Pangdemonium because he's doing what he wants to do.

During the years I was doing film abroad and all that, it was also because we were sending our son to school in the UK. I had to earn some real money rather than doing "serious" stuff in Singapore. If you have a family, it directs you in a certain way in terms of what you choose.

Pang: Right now, five years down the line, we're still able to keep on doing it. It's hard as hell. But at the end of the day, I'm able to feel a little bit more self-worth and say to my two sons, you know what? I'm doing my damnedest. I love my job.

Life: Are there memorable roles you enjoyed performing? Or roles that were very difficult to inhabit?

Pang: Once I'm done with a project or role, I walk away from it and look ahead. It's never with any kind of sentimentality or reminiscing.

Lim: I'm sort of a different personality in that I do look back. Possibly the most significant one was in another language - it was an Indonesian film called The Photograph (2007).

It's a gentle, affecting, sad tale of a karaoke lounge hostess who rents a room from this ageing photographer, who has had generations of people running this photo studio, but it appears as if he doesn't have anybody to hand this over to. And she asks to work for him because she can't afford to pay the rent and a sort of friendship develops between them. A very simple story, shot beautifully in the classic cinematic way.

Pang: And you spoke Bahasa?

Lim: Yeah. That was one project I was glad to have done. Adrian, you still have no sentiment about...

Pang: Gosh, I almost have to go back and look at my bio and my CV and go, "Oh yeah, I did that ah?"

Lim: (laughs) He's much more pragmatic about it. I think also because you're busier. So you're moving all the time.

Pang: Maybe it goes back to the early days as an actor when you're always looking for that next job, always worrying, afraid and hungry. Maybe I don't want to let that go. Maybe I always want to feel restless. Always looking ahead, rather than back.

Lim: (laughs)

Pang: I feel fortunate to have been given the chance to play certain roles such as Hamlet and some incredible pieces of writing that I'm blessed to have been able to tackle. You learn something about yourself, humanity, compassion and other lives.

Lim: I think also that we have something of these characters in us. Somehow, you find something of yourself that can connect you to the character you're playing, no matter how awful or flawed that person is.

Life: You both recently played a very big character - Lee Kuan Yew. What were the challenges of playing the part and why did you say yes?

Pang and Lim: (in unison, laughing) Why did we say yes?

Lim: For me, in the end, you've got to think the unthinkable in our job. And I suppose for many Singaporeans, it's unthinkable. But once I said yes, then I approached it like any other job. You've got to find out about your character and that's it. You just knuckle down and try to do the best you can.

Pang: He's absolutely right. The offer came with so much baggage. Essentially, it's a job offer. Is it an attractive proposition? Am I up to the job? And the answer to some of these questions is "no".

No, I don't feel I'm the person for the job. And then you try to kind of psych yourself up - maybe that's the reason to take it. Because it's scary as hell. And I'm just relieved, I guess? To have survived.

Lim: That it's over? (They both laugh)

Life: Apart from your preparation and research, what do you do to get into the zone before you go on stage?

Pang: I have, over the years, subconsciously developed a little ritual. I've got a slight OCD thing of having to touch everything that I know I'm going to handle, even the chair I'm going to sit on.

I will go and rearrange it the way I need it to be. And I say a little mantra to myself to keep everybody safe, and that whatever we're trying to do over the next 21/2 hours touches someone out there.

Lim: Mine is more a state of being before a show. It's always been the quest for total relaxation. I learnt this in TheatreWorks. We used to have a taiji guy who would come in and take us through a short routine and that has stuck with me because it grounds you mentally and physically.

Life: Is there anything you'd want to see in the Singapore arts industry?

Pang: It's an exciting time. There are all these 20something upstarts entering into the fray and they're hardworking, hungry and just throwing themselves out there. A lot of them are creating their own work, forming their own theatre companies - that's wonderful. That's what it's about. It's already about the next generation.

Lim: I'm always encouraged when I work with younger actors. They bring a sense of professionalism, drive, integrity - everything, the whole package. Because actors my age, the majority never had the training, technique, dedication and ability to not only be actors, but also be producers and directors, to make films, to generate their own projects.

They have the ability, the infrastructure, to take them to far more advanced levels than I would ever dream of or have achieved.

Pang: Absolutely. I look at them and go, "You guys don't know how lucky you are", all that kind of old man talk. I wish the environment at the time I was starting out was as full of promise as it is now.

And going back to Mr LKY, I think he famously once said that - I'm paraphrasing - poetry is a luxury we can't afford. I daresay we've got to a point now where things have changed enough, where, yes, it is a luxury, but it's become a necessary component of our identity as a people.

Lim: It's not perfect, but we're taking steps closer to the arts being part of our lives.

Pang: I'm fortunate and blessed to be able to do what I do. It's personally fulfilling and rewarding and it's also very frustrating and a process of self-flagellation. But at the end of the day, I can't imagine doing anything else with my life.

Lim: It's a privilege, what we do.

•Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan

Go to str.sg/Z6w8 for a video of the interview with Adrian Pang and Lim Kay Tong.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 06, 2015, with the headline 'Cross Talk with Adrian Pang and Lim Kay Tong 'LKY' vs 'LKY''. Print Edition | Subscribe