You may have seen her as the feisty defence attorney in Channel 5’s “Code of Law” and pretty soon, as a crime-fighting inspector on the much-anticipated “Mata Mata: A New Generation”, but Oon Shu An is more than just about packing a punch. The 29-year-old actress, who recently hit the big screen in “Our Sister Mambo” is also good for a laugh. With her upcoming role in Pangdemonium’s thrilling comedy “Chinglish”, written by David Henry Hwang, there’s no telling what she can’t do.
Wait, there is this one thing:
“I’m actually very introverted. If you were to throw me on stage and ask me to entertain people, I can’t. I don’t know how.”
And this is probably what makes Shu An so relatable – her authenticity.
Starring alongside veterans Daniel Jenkins and Adrian Pang, Shu An plays Xi Yan, one of the characters in China who encounters the dealings of an American businessman. As East and West collide, language and culture get lost in translation, triggering a hilarious slew of misconceptions and brewing deceit. Director Tracie Pang helms the the company’s first-ever bilingual staging, which also features MediaCorp artiste Guo Liang in his theatrical debut.
We sat down with the starlet – who, by the way, now spots a sleek blonde do – to chat about the production, her rise into acting, and simply about the things she cares very much about.
Tell us more about ‘Xi Yan’. You’re playing a femme fatale?
I approached her first, as someone who is familiar to me. She is someone who is determined and strong. I feel like she is working for the greater good of China, with a huge sense of patriotism.
She doesn’t actually kick any butt though, unfortunately! I would love to do some fighting. I think she’s the kind of person where the ends justify the means. I guess she’s a femme fatale in that, she’s very very good at what she does.
How did you prepare for the role?
The Chinese has been very challenging because I’m a little bit what some would say, ‘Ang Moh pai’. My Chinese is not super duper strong. But I’ve been working on that.
I’ve been watching a lot more of “The Voice China”! Seeing the way they react to the talents, the things they look out for, and the acts that come up are all very interesting. The people who come from the cities and people who come from the village all think very differently. It’s not just the nationality but also your socio-economic position, your job and the kind of person you are that play a role in forming a character.
I also got a Chinese tuition teacher. Of course, when you act, there are many different ways of saying something. She will try to give me as many different options as possible. You don’t want to make the character a caricature because that is so easy to do. I really want to give respect to the character. It’s been a good challenge.
Speaking of caricaturing, the ‘East meets West’ concept typically rides on stereotypes. How does this script differentiate itself?
It’s very interesting because this script is set in China. The outsider is not the Easterner but rather, the Westerner. I guess my character has such a strong sense of national pride that she is not one to “kow tow” to foreigners just because they are foreigners. But at the same time, I think they see benefit in working together but not in like a “foreigner” saviour kind of situation. I think this is important especially, in the world that we live in. There are so many people who are crossing over to other countries and imparting skills, so how do we approach this kind of working relationship with mutual respect?
How does “Chinglish” relate to the Singapore audience?
I’m sure we’ve all found ourselves in a situation where the other person can’t understand what we are saying. But, here’s the thing: it’s not just a translation of language but a translation of culture. The cultures as we understand are the East and the West and we are kind of like an amalgamation of the two. It would be interesting to see how Singaporean audiences view this play because it is written from a very American point of view.
Another thing I really love about my character is how she has so much national pride. She really wants to see China succeed. And I think that’s something, as Singaporeans, we can relate to. We really just want to see Singapore succeed.
Let’s go on to a bit more on Shu An. Congratulations on your many projects from stage, films and even social media! How do you manage your time and what’s next?
Thank you. I’m really bad at managing my time. I think I’ve been very lucky in that I’m surrounded by people who are very very supportive.
Right now, I’m working on #UnicornMoment, which is something I did with Checkpoint last year, so it is a cross-media production. I’m working with musicians, choreographers, film directors, theatre directors, photographers, theatre writers, film writers and trying to see what comes out of that. I feel like I’m at a stage of my life where I’m simultaneously paralysed by fear but also driven by it. I’m kind of like, if I don’t do this now, I don’t know when I will. I don’t want to be on my deathbed and be like… “I wonder…”
I’ll also be going to the US for about five weeks because I have a manager there now. See how. It may happen, it may not happen.
I like how you try to make theatre relevant through social media, especially for youngsters who see it from an academic perspective. How did that happen?
With #UnicornMoment, we really wanted to build a community with the YouTube videos. The way the two are consumed are very different. The online medium is consumed at home, alone, at any time of the day. It’s a very intimate kind of thing. You can leave comments, follow someone, and it lives on forever, unless someone takes down their video. Whereas in theatre, it’s like a big group of people all coming together. After the show is done, everybody just goes home. You don’t stay behind and talk about things. I think art, in general, needs to be relevant. Art is a reflection of our lives, right? It’s about us seeing ourselves in someone else and going, “Oh my god, that’s my story. We are not alone.”
With acting being an unconventional career choice, what kind of advice would you give to aspiring theatre practitioners?
Every job has its own difficulties. I think the thing with the entertainment industry is that, a lot of these difficulties are out of your control. Let’s look at models, for example. It’s really your face and the trend. What can you do about your face, really? I don’t think the acting industry is safe from this either. But, at the same time, there are actors and actresses who have gone there and broken the mould. But it’s taken them a long time. And along the way there are a lot of people who have given up. That’s why I am very tentative when people ask me for advice. I didn’t even know I wanted to be an actor. I knew I wanted to act. (laughs) Ask me again in five years.
I think, if there’s a skill that you have that you can bring around with you, like, if you can teach, if you can do design, anything that allows you to get some kind of control over the way of feeding yourself… please hone that. If you want to continue to act, do it! I personally think it is important to have a Plan B. In any job. And nowadays, our environment is shifting so fast. Like I was just getting used to Instagram and now there’s f**king Snapchat.