Actor Chen Tianwen: Accolades worth the wait

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 23, 2013

With his much-praised understated turn as the patriarch under pressure in the award-winning film Ilo Ilo, veteran television actor Chen Tianwen is once again in the spotlight.

It is the latest twist in a career of ups and downs for someone who professes that he never wanted to be a star. He drifted into acting in the 1980s at the urging of an army mate and became a heart- throb on Channel 8, thanks to his trim athletic physique and manly looks.

But the script for his life story was not to be some smooth-sailing, light-hearted sitcom. His life was turned upside down when a property investment he made some time around 1990 soured and he found himself broke. "I would have only $10 on me and a week to get through. You wonder how you are going to make it and yet, somehow, you do."

Happily, there is another act to the story. At 50, he is enjoying the accolades that have been heaped on Ilo Ilo and his performance in the movie. Directed by Anthony Chen, it won the Camera d'Or award for best first feature film at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in May.

Made for $700,000, it is showing in cinemas and has earned $680,000 at the box office as of Sept 18.

The comments on Chen's performance have run the gamut from "You looked too fat, really like an uncle" to "That's completely different from you in real life" - which he took as a compliment.

While he idolised Bruce Lee and was a fan of 1970s Taiwanese cinema marquee names Chin Han, Chin Hsiang-lin and Lin Feng-chiao, the home-grown actor felt at the beginning of his career that "acting was just fun".

He signed up for then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation's artist drama training class and out of the few thousand applicants, he was among about 20 trainees who made the cut after a nine- month-long training course. They were offered two-year contracts. This was in 1984. The pay was then $820 a month. Chen marvels: "Who knew that the two years would turn into 30 years?"

In those three decades, he has gone from playing heroic leading men to supporting parts and, now, he is enjoying renewed attention for his restrained performance in the film that wowed Cannes.

The cast includes Malaysian actress Yeo Yann Yann as his wife, newcomer Koh Jia Ler as their son and Filipino stage and screen actress Angeli Bayani as their maid. The film is set against the backdrop of the 1997 financial crisis and explores its impact on a Singaporean family. He plays the head of the family trying to hold everything together even after he gets retrenched.

It was his first major movie role after a career carved out on the small screen, and the transition took some adjusting to.

He says: "Sometimes for TV, because the screen is small, your reactions need to be bigger."

For Ilo Ilo, however, "the director would remind me that we were making a film and just a small gesture would get blown up on the big screen".

While director Chen, 29, saw about five to six actors for the part, Chen Tianwen was "one of the first" he thought of when he was casting for the role. "I felt he has a fatherly quality that everyone can connect with," says the film-maker.

To coax the veteran actor to give him what he wanted, the first-time feature director would tell him to keep stripping away the performance: "I wanted less, I wanted something more internalised."

Chen the actor had a rocky start to his career in television drama. Soon after his debut as a quarrelsome fishmonger in Youth (1984), he was cast as a righteous and stubborn hero in the sci-fi action series Man From The Past (1985).

The series did not go down well with viewers. He recalls: "People then couldn't accept the premise that a man frozen in ice 300 years ago could be revived. I was very discouraged."

At first, he wanted to quit, but his "stubborn side" decided to "give myself 10 years to fight".

After that rocky episode, stardom arrived. He often played the swashbuckling hero in period dramas such as Man Of Valour (1986) or a dashing man in uniform in Navy (1990). Thanks to his turn as fighter pilot Wu Hongfa in Airforce (1988), he was named one of the Top 10 most popular actors and actresses of the year. There was no Star Awards trophy then as the awards were first held only in 1994.

A 2nd Dan black belt in taekwon-do probably helped his image as well (he no longer practises) and made him stand out from his peers - he notes that it was not till the late 1990s that Vincent Ng came along with his wushu background.

Even then, fame did not go to Chen's head and he adopted a down-to-earth approach. He says: "If I do only xiaosheng (leading man) roles, I could last only 10 to 15 years, so I told myself I had to make myself over as a character actor, someone who can take on a wide variety of roles and different styles of acting."

In Sword & Honour (1997), he played Ming dynasty eunuch Cheng Ho and popped a cockroach into his mouth in one memorable scene set in a jail. In the long-running sitcom Holland V (2003), he played an honest and hardworking taxi driver.

Step into Chen's five-year-old, four- room HDB flat in Toa Payoh and there is nothing to suggest he has been acting for three decades. He has been living there with his second wife, Bao X.H., 29, who is from China. His first wife was also from China and they did not have children.

He declines to give details about his second wife and their relationship, except to say that they met a year ago and tied the knot in May. "She's good to me and she takes care of the house. I'm pretty lucky," he says.

During the interview, conducted in Mandarin, his wife disappears into the bedroom and does not emerge till the interview is over.

The flat is furnished simply. There is no showbiz memorabilia on display. There are a few photos of him and his wife, souvenirs and knick-knacks, an altar and a small fountain with running water and a crystal ball. A relief sculpture of the three gods Fu (good fortune), Lu (prosperity) and Shou (longevity) dominates one wall.

He says that 80 per cent of the furnishings, from the kitchen cabinets to the doors to the toilets, are from his family's business.

He grew up in an attap house in Paya Lebar that was located right by the factory, Shanghai Kor Tong Furniture, owned by his family. He helped his father at the factory after finishing his O levels at Serangoon Garden Technical.

He says he toyed with the idea of joining the family business after completing national service. Instead, he drifted into acting. He jokes: "Who would have thought that someone who didn't have a head for studying would end up having to memorise scripts?"

His elder brother by two years took over the family trade when his father died five years ago. He has three younger sisters, one of whom helps out with the business. His mother is 75.

Ask him to name his three most important television series and he picks shows in which he was not the main lead.

In Silk & Romance (1994), shot in Singapore and China, he played a married man working in Suzhou. The lead was played by Bernard Tan but Chen says his role left a deep impression on viewers.

He also picks the period martial arts series The Great Conspiracy (1993), in which he played a rich playboy - a key role even if the male leads were Li Nanxing and Xie Shaoguang - and which he describes as a classic of Singapore television.

Both series introduced him to new audiences in China.

On his willingness to film in China, he says: "This was good exposure. Singapore has a population of only three million and many artists are satisfied with this level of support, but China has a population of 1.4 billion, so why limit myself?"

Lastly, he mentions The Royal Monk (1997), where he played the comedic supporting role of monk Tie Tong in the light-hearted period action series about a young monk. It is one of his best-received roles and he earned a Star Awards nomination for Best Supporting Actor and also made it to the list of Top 10 Most Popular Male Artistes.

When you ask him where he keeps his sole Star Awards trophy, his eyes widen and his jaw drops. He looks mildly panicked when he says: "Yes, yes, it should be in the storeroom. Or maybe it's propping up a cabinet somewhere."

He disappears into the bedroom to search for it and soon emerges with the trophy. "Heng ah," he exclaims using the Hokkien word for lucky, "it was there."

After that high point, he started doing less high-profile supporting roles in the early noughties. In the last five years, he says he has been averaging one series a year.

There were various reasons for his change in fortune. With his focus on filming with the then Television Corporation of Singapore in China beginning in the mid-1990s, his output dropped. A younger crop of male actors came up then as well, from Ng to Qi Yuwu to Tay Ping Hui.

Chen does not appear to be bitter about the drying up of television roles. Enduring cold spells in showbiz is probably nothing compared to the financial storm he had to weather in the 1990s.

He invested in a $420,000 apartment at Novena Ville around 1990. The idea was to generate rent to feed the bank- loan payments. But a string of problematic tenants turned the potential nest egg into an albatross around his neck. He became mired in a court case over the sale of the apartment around 1992 and lost more than $120,000 when the sale finally went through.

In the midst of that court case, the stock market crashed, around 1995, and he lost about $200,000.

He was living at his parents' house at the time and borrowed $40,000 from his brother to help clear his debts. It took him six years to repay his brother.

He saved money by eating at home. At his most desperate, it was a case of "na zhe ge dong, bu na ge dong" - using one hole to patch up another. He would go to a goldsmith shop to buy gold, pay for it with his credit card and then pawn it off to get cash to keep up with interest payments. "The credit-card bill would come 20 days later, and only then would I think about how to settle that," he adds.

In all, it took him more than 12 years to be completely debt-free.

To him now, money is important but not critical. "I'm not very rich but I have everything. I have this home, life is comfortable, I have my health. The most important thing is to live happily.

"You need some money to stand by in case of whatever, but it's not important in the sense that I've already been through the toughest times. This is life."

Three years ago, he started an events planning company, Emperor Entertainment Productions, with fellow actor YeShipin, who was in the same actors' training batch as him.

After Ilo Ilo, Chen's next movie role is in box-office champion Jack Neo's Chinese New Year movie The Lion Men. He plays a lion dance troupe coach and sports a moustache for the role.

He previously had a cameo role as a recruit's father in Neo's hit drama Ah Boys To Men 2 (2013).

His love of acting is still there, but it is tempered with that ever-present sense of pragmatism.

He says: "I have the passion, but I also take it as a job. If I get a role, that means I get to work. If I get a better role, then it's a better chance for me to show what I can do."

He adds: "You can't be an emperor and have a good script coming your way every day. Even American film-maker Steven Spielberg comes out with a good movie only once every few years."

It might have taken a while before he had the chance to show what he is capable of as an actor with Ilo Ilo, but he does not begrudge the wait.

He notes: "If this had come by 10 or 20 years earlier, maybe I wouldn't have been mature enough."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 23, 2013

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