Kampung boy Shaun Chen finally makes good in Singapore

Chen at Bondi Beach, Sydney, for the filming of City Beat in 2002. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF SHAUN CHEN
Chen at Bondi Beach, Sydney, for the filming of City Beat in 2002. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF SHAUN CHEN
Chen as a spectacles salesman in his 20s. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF SHAUN CHEN
Chen as a spectacles salesman in his 20s. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF SHAUN CHEN
Shaun Chen celebrating a birthday (above) with his family. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF SHAUN CHEN
Shaun Chen celebrating a birthday (above) with his family. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF SHAUN CHEN
Shaun Chen as a child (above). -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF SHAUN CHEN
Shaun Chen as a child (above). -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF SHAUN CHEN
For the first time, Shaun Chen is among MediaCorp’s Top 10 Most Popular Male Artists. -- ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
For the first time, Shaun Chen is among MediaCorp’s Top 10 Most Popular Male Artists. -- ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Actor Shaun Chen lands his first Best Actor award for playing a ruffian

The year was 2005. Actor Shaun Chen was out of a full-time job when the now-defunct MediaWorks TV station, which he was signed to, merged with MediaCorp. So he returned to an occupation he had in Malaysia when he was in his early 20s.

"I lugged a bag of samples to optical shops and tried to sell spectacles. It was strange as people who had seen me on television wondered why I seemed familiar. Some humoured me with a purchase, but the feeling was terrible," he recalls.

While he continued to act part-time during that period, it crossed his mind to just pack up and return to Malaysia.

Chen, a Singapore permanent resident, says: "But I didn't want to just give up. What would I do? Go back to selling spectacles?"

At that point, there was also former MediaCorp actress Michelle Chia, whom he was dating, to consider.

"So I persisted and gave it another shot. I think you need to believe in yourself and stay determined and, one day, you will reach your goal. I'm not there yet, but I can see a little light now," he adds with a laugh.

From down but not out, he is now on the up and up. Last month, at the Star Awards celebrating local Chinese language television, the 36-year-old won the trophies for Best Actor and Rocket Award, which is given to the most improved actor. Both awards were for the role of good-hearted ruffian Hu Jia in the period drama The Journey: Tumultuous Times. Chen was also among the Top 10 Most Popular Male Artists.

Those were his first wins in an acting career dating back to 2002 at MediaCorp. Little wonder then that he could hardly sleep the night of the wins.

"At 2am, I was still smiling to myself, gazing at the trophies," says Chen, who signed on full-time with MediaCorp in November 2005, after about a year of being out of contract.

Hu Jia was a character that seemed tailor-made for him as he has always wanted to play a character who is both good and evil. "There's a villainous side to him and a righteous side as well. It was a role I could pick up easily as my face has that baddie look."

The role was a layered one with plenty of opportunity for an actor to shine and he relished it. Hu Jia has a love-hate relationship with his adoptive father, Hu Weiren (played by Chen Hanwei), a villain who holds the key to what happened to his birth parents. Because of his gangster background, he does not dare to acknowledge his birth sister. His childhood sweetheart dies because of him.

"I definitely think it was a breakthrough performance for me. But even if you want to have a breakthrough, you need a good script, a strong cast and crew and good production," he says humbly.

His co-star Hanwei, who was named Best Supporting Actor, was so certain his good pal would win Best Actor that he vowed to quit if the accolade eluded Shaun.

Mr Chong Liung Man, 50, who produced the series, says he has never seen Shaun Chen perform that well before. "He has great potential to become a new Ah Ge like Li Nanxing and Christopher Lee," he adds, referring to the Chinese slang in the industry for an A-lister.

Chen has certainly been having a good run of late. His turn as a TV executive in The Dream Makers earned him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor and the series was the second-most watched 9pm drama on Channel 8 for 2013.

He then played the lead in the time- travel drama Blessings (2014), which drew more than one million viewers on average. Tumultuous Times was just behind with ratings of 994,000.

Thoughts of becoming an Ah Ge were far from Chen's mind when he was talent-spotted in 2002. The 1.78m-tall part-time model was also an eyewear distributor in Malaysia then. With no commitments tying him down, he took up a one-year contract offered by MediaCorp after an audition.

He started as a host for the variety show City Beat alongside Sharon Au, Jeff Wang and Fiona Xie, but admits: "I was terrible because my reflexes were not fast enough."

It did not help that he was more fluent in Cantonese and Hakka than Mandarin at that point.

His first drama, True Heroes (2003), was notable for him notching up 50 NGs (no-good takes) in a scene with his on-screen girlfriend played by Phyllis Quek. "We were breaking up and I had to look angry, but instead, I looked like I was about to cry. I was scolded so badly by the director that I wondered if I could actually make it as an actor."

Eventually, he started to make a name for himself as a villain. He played a conniving businessman in Love Concierge (2005), and earned his first Star Awards acting nomination, for Best Supporting Actor, for playing a gangster in C.I.D. (2006).

He says playing a baddie was a good way to stand out for a newcomer.

"My strong point is that I can play a villain without being hated." But it is also a fact that getting into the Top 10 Most Popular Male Artists list had eluded him until this year.

"Audiences can get absorbed when they watch a show and so they think you're a bad guy in real life as well. But I think they're more discerning now and they appreciate a good villainous turn," he says.

The line between reel-life and real-life bad boy was blurred when he was painted as a villain for allegedly behaving too intimately with his female co-stars.

It was rumoured that actress Jeanette Aw, his on-screen girlfriend in the sitcom Holland V (2003), slapped him for being touchy-feely. Chen would only say: "It was so long ago, I don't even remember what actually happened."

The two have since accepted that it was a misunderstanding and moved on. As it happens, they played an onscreen couple in Tumultuous Times and reprise their roles in the upcoming The Journey: Our Homeland. In this case, no news of behind-the-scenes drama is good news.

Chen adds: "It's over and it's best not to bring it up, better for everyone to remain friends."

Sensing the turn the conversation is taking towards the personal, he says: "As for my ex-wife, I guess there's no need to mention. I must? Aiyah."

He and Chia got together on MediaWorks drama Power Of Love in 2004 and registered their marriage in 2008. Their celebrity wedding in May 2009 was televised live and Chen cried when he vowed to take care of Chia forever.

MediaCorp's managing executive producer, Mr Chong, recalls that Chen teared when he thanked his family on stage and adds: "He has a soft heart."

Unfortunately, there was no happy ever after for the couple and they divorced in 2011.

As in past interviews, Chen maintains that they parted as good friends. Asked if the fact that she was more popular than him - she chalked up five Top 10 Most Popular Female Artist awards between 2005 and 2011 - was a factor in their split, he says no. It was "personal" and he adds: "If you ask me now, I don't really know why we broke up."

He is happy, though, that she congratulated him via SMS on his recent awards.

"I'm very fortunate that I don't have an enemy in my life. I hope everyone is a friend or a good colleague, and not one more enemy, that's not what I want."

There is something touchingly idealistic about his worldview. Perhaps it has something to do with his idyllic kampung childhood in Jelebu, Negri Sembilan.

His parents, both 74 and retired, ran a provision shop in a village of about 300 families. Chen was the youngest of seven children and remembers a carefree childhood playing marbles, catching fish and getting spiders and cockerels to fight.

At 13, he went to Seremban to study. He picked up badminton and represented the state. The sport gave him a sense of purpose as he aimed for the national team. It also fostered his independence as he lived with team-mates at a hostel, trained hard and took care of himself.

Eventually, he accepted that he could not make the cut: "I was passionate about it, but I didn't have the natural talent."

After getting a diploma in electronic and electrical engineering from a private college, he started work at 20, bouncing from job to job - electrician, car spray- painter, credit card and spectacle salesman - until the fateful day he drove to Singapore in a car packed with luggage, clothing and pillows to audition for MediaCorp and start a new life here.

Outwardly, there is no trace of the kampung boy now. Dressed in a navy suit with a white shirt and a black tie, the dapper Chen exudes a quiet confidence, every inch the urbane sophisticate.

But, apparently, you can take the boy out of the kampung without taking the kampung out of the boy. After his recent wins, he went back to Malaysia and celebrated with his family. "It was two tables of 25 people and we celebrated Mother's Day as well."

Clearly, kinship remains important to him. He says of his future other half: "If she's someone who looks after the family and loves kids, I would love her and give her everything. I want a simple other half. Simplicity is blessedness."

Asked about a Malaysian outside of show business that he is reportedly seeing, he would only say: "It's at the observation stage. Let's give her some space. I don't want her to face too much pressure either."

Right now, the focus is on his career. "I would like more people to watch my works and know who Shaun Chen is."

In five years' time, he hopes to have accomplished more, including establishing a presence overseas. He has filmed two series with Sanlih Entertainment Television in Taiwan - Love, Now (2012 - 2013) and Love Family (2013 - 2014).

He recalls: "It was tough. I was alone in Taiwan and waiting for the call everyday to find out whether I might be filming the next day."

In Taiwan, he was a newcomer and he lived simply in a rental home and took public transport. Even in Singapore, his lifestyle seems quite frugal. He rents the master bedroom of an HDB flat in Tiong Bahru and does not own a car. However, he has bought a condominium unit in Tampines and is considering moving into the apartment when it is ready.

Actor Zhang Yaodong, 37, who started out at MediaCorp around the same time as Chen, says of him: "He can sometimes give the impression that he's too cool, but he's pretty friendly actually. He's a considerate person and a forthright friend. We always enjoy our chats."

Further down the road, Chen talks about setting up his own production company and showcasing made-in-Singapore works to the rest of the world.

Perhaps he will no longer need to fall back on selling eyeware. His optical shop venture did not pan out as he did not have time to keep tabs on it.

He says: "I won't invest in a business now, I'd rather invest in myself. I'm a business myself and I'm a low-cost one.

"Since I couldn't make my name in badminton, maybe I can do so in acting. Not bad so far, but I can do better."

bchan@sph.com.sg