Oon Shu An, actor and unicorn aficionado, returns to talk about what she has been up to and discovers that the way forward isn’t so clear-cut. That life and art can meander into unexpected paths. Thus is the following profile presented as such: hop from paragraphic stepping stone to stepping stone from start to finish or in a numerical fashion. But don’t worry... It'll all make sense in the end.
We are running helter-skelter through the bowels of ION Orchard, Oon Shu An and I hopping from store to store (Mango, Topshop, Uniqlo), passing decrees like Caesar on outfits for her to try on. Time passes and we’re no closer to filling out her shopping list. We split up to cover more ground.
In Aldo, I find the perfect pair of high-heeled shoes needed for the shoot: these dangerous-looking snow-white stilettos. I sent Oon a picture of them, asking if she was fine with it. “AWESOME!” came her reply.
I want to explain to the retail assistant the circumstances leading up to me asking if she could procure a size six of that particular pair. But instead I leave her to pick up the pieces, divining some coherence to shape her own imagination.
I’d forgotten that Oon Shu An had moved. Had I known that, I wouldn’t have scheduled the meet-up to be in the heart of the shopping district and given my luck, I am the tardy one instead of Oon, who texts me asking where I am. A white lie passes my lips as I hastily reply with a “stuck-in-traffic” before scrambling for a cab.
The last we met up was in April last year. Oon was waist-deep in the development of her one-woman show called #UnicornMoment with Checkpoint Theatre, named after her “flashes of clarity and insight that swiftly disappear”. In it, she interviewed people from her past and present, panning for the gold of experiences that shaped her. During that time, Oon was nervous and yet fidgeted with the electric glee of someone on the verge of a discovery.
Seeing her now, she looks different. For one, she’s dressed down: red flannel top, denim shorts and glasses. Her shock of platinum blond hair is in a pony-tail. Her black backpack thickens the brushstrokes to her teenage hipster image.
“I think scientists are fascinating. What they do and how they do the things they do. All occupations are important. I think it’s not very useful to say one particular line of work is better than another. For example, people think that the fashion industry is frivolous but fashion is important. It makes money, creates jobs and supports a lot of people. Fashion is also a form of escapism, where it’s a breeding ground for different trends and designs.
"I remember going through a phase where people didn’t think acting was a real job and I did question myself. It’s like playing masak-masak (Malay for “child’s play”). Instead of weighing the importance of what I do, the faster I come to an understanding that all work is important, the better my time is spent on other things. So, when I’m at home trying to sew together my cupcake and muffin costumes, I’d think to myself, ‘what am I doing?’—and I’ll remember that all art is important.
“The world is expansive; there’s room for everyone. Art is important and we need that.”
#UnicornMoment was an Everest climb of a learning experience. To this day, Oon is unable to divorce herself from its production to ascertain whether she’s satisfied with the outcome. For someone who buries herself deep into a project, it’s prudent that she surrounds herself with people that she can trust. This unbroken circle of peers will not mince their words to tell her when something is working or not. “If it’s shit, they will tell me it’s shit.” Oon says.
I tell Oon she’s the first Singaporean personality to grace our Woman We Love series twice. A glow in her eyes. “I was just thinking about that,” she says, her voice goes up half-a-note, “wah, I’m so touched. Thank you.
”We’ve always wanted to feature Oon in the magazine. Since her appearance in the February 2013 issue, she has appeared in Netflix’s Marco Polo, Rubbers, Normal and staged her one-woman show, #UnicornMoment. She has also left FLY Entertainment, feeling that she was “too protected and I wasn’t taking risks anymore”.
She took the reins and made strides—if not, then in a general forward direction—in her career. How apropos then to have Oon in our “Taking the Lead”-themed issue?
“Eh, but there’s always that fear,” Oon says, “that I’ll reach that peak and then I’ll burn out.”
She cites Joel Tan, a local playwright, who described his first collection of plays as “optimistically titled Volume One”—as an example. “Watch his plays and you immediately recognise the character- no, you know that character. It’s a family member, or someone you grew up with; a friend you know all your life. Seeing that familiarity stirs up something in me.”
As a public face, we have an idea of who Oon Shu An is—though we’re unsure if the parts measured up is the true sum of the person—but she is still in the dark as to how people perceive her. Someone recently asked if she was worried about being typecast as the vamp. Oon has, of recent productions, played a concubine (Marco Polo); a Singa-pore Party Girl (Our Sister Mambo); a Japanese porn-star (Rubbers) and a femme fatale (Chinglish).
“That’s really not my business,” Oon says pointedly,
“To be clear, sexuality is an important part of who we are as a species but I’ve always thought about whether the roles are there to shape the story or are just there for titillation’s sake? I took on my roles because they seem fun, different. Also, my characters may have strong sexual elements to them but it’s all very PG.
“Ah, well, except for Rubbers where I had to simulate oral sex with Alaric’s [co-star Alaric Tay]... thing.
”Even when talking about something as risqué as a blowjob, Oon’s go-to word for penis is “thing”.
She does want to find out what other people thought of #UnicornMoment though. The purpose of art is to have it affect other people. Oon reveals that after the show whenever someone comes up to talk to her, it won’t be about the play, they will always talk about their own experiences. If the show touched one person, that is enough for Oon. “We are always looking at other people’s stories as such that sometimes we don’t examine our own.” Oon says. “Depending on the opinions of others isn’t the way. They can’t be an authority on your story.”
But what if it’s a criticism?
“Everybody’s two-cents is valid. The rigour and discipline to strive for quality is necessary, but we should also take into account the intention behind the work and recognise it as part if a larger conversation. I remember during the run of #UnicornMoment, a woman in her 50s approached me and said she heard about the show on radio and she came down to see what it was about because she never had the courage to go into her past.”
OON SHU AN: [For the last #UnicornMoment] I interviewed my mom and later went through the transcript, picking out the parts that were interesting. Rearranged certain questions, cleaned up some of her phrasing and used that.
ESQ: It sounds like editing.
OSA: Sort of. You’re taking different stories from different people and joining them to form a larger story.
ESQ: does the other party have any say in the final product?
OSA: Well, I always try to be respectful about it. When I interviewed my subjects, I let them know that I’m using part of the interview in #UnicornMoment and if they are okay with me using some of the soundbites and footage.
ESQ: But do you show them the final piece?
OSA: I didn’t show them the final script.
ESQ: Why not?
OSA: There was an issue that wasn’t resolved so I had to rewrite it so many times because as much as I was upset, I had to be fair to the party who couldn’t be there to represent her side of the story.
ESQ: Who is she?
OSA: She was the best friend whom I was upset with. I wanted to contact her to apologise for how I had behaved in that interview. It wasn’t fair to ask her to be open with me and yet not listen to what she was saying. By then she had stopped talking to me. I tried to contact her a few times to talk it out.
ESQ: There’s still time to square things with her. I mean, you’re not just contacting her for #UnicornMoment, right?
OSA: I don’t know. I feel like I’ve made peace with it.
ESQ: Have you?
OSA: Well, not really.
From an e-maIl reply from Huzir Sulaiman, co-founder of Checkpoint Theatre: “Shu An is a writer and performer who has amazing natural talent allied to a great work ethic and a real connection with the concerns of young people. We invited her to become an Associate Artist of Checkpoint Theatre because we saw that she has the potential to be one of the most unique and important artistic voices of her generation, and we’ve been proud to commission and develop some of her best work. She has amazing stage presence, the camera loves her, and she truly gets the Internet.”
“I remember,” Oon says, “the process [devised method] took a little over one and a half or two months. By the end of it, there were bits and bobs that we jigsawed together, but we had no idea what the end picture would be. When it forms more of the skeleton of the story, we flesh it out: how does this happen or what leads to that?"
So... how do we start?
We chew on that for a moment.
“We could talk it out. Conversations, I feel, are essential to the devising process. Eh, we should order something first.”
The motion is carried.
We talk about unfortunate acnes that have blossomed on our faces: hers is a muted dot, mine is an angry bump. “You know when I was younger I didn’t have this kind of problem,” Oon says. I tell her that I think it’s ridiculous that I sometimes still get them as an adult.
“Usually, it springs up when I’m close to my period,” she says. A beat. “Is yours coming soon as well?”
I could only offer some bromide along the lines of “just keep swimming” but the projects she’s taking on, the savvy she has shown on her social media feed are indicators of a healthy relevance in this fickle Internet age.
But here’s the thing about her: if she’s ever asked if her success is due to hard work, Oon would disagree. The fact that she is supported by her family and friends or that she is Chinese, born and bred in Singapore—not elsewhere where her race will work against her—isn’t something that she asks for. Yes, she puts in the hours and effort into her craft but the real reason is that she deals with it as best as she can with the hand she’s given. Knowing is the first step in problem solving.
But sometimes, that fear lingers. It sits on her shoulders like some dread parrot.
With a growing 61,000 followers on Instagram and a presence on clicknetwork.tv’s Tried and Tested, it’s hard to imagine Oon was initially reluctant to jump on the social media bandwagon. The question on where it crosses the line from being revelatory to being self-indulgent haunted her. It has come to a stage that she doesn’t want to post images of herself on Instagram all the time, but in a world where companies consider follower count as a factor in the hiring process, Oon needed to go with the flow.
“But do I really need to play the game?” Oon asks, “Do I need to take that route where it takes away so much of my time to do the things that I wanted to do.” Although, she’s caught between generations, where she didn’t grow up with social media, Oon understands the younger generation’s relationship with social media as the new normal. They took it as easily as the intake of air.
She’s getting a clearer sense of what she wants to do with her life. I tell her that this was a similar sentiment she shared with me when we last met. “Well,” Oon says, “It was clear when I was working on #UnicornMoment but I still feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.”
She is the Fool making her way through the great mysteries of life in the Major Arcana. “Why am I here in life? What am I doing? The more I ask, the more I can make peace with the reasons of my being.
“Whether it leads to success or to a more stable life, I don’t know. I guess, we’ll cross the bridge when we come to it.”
If #UnicornMoment was a deep sea dive into her history, her next show, a sequel to #UnicornMoment, titled rather to the point, #UnicornMoment2: The YOUTUBE Walk, will be a focus on the outside world, a make-believe fantasy landscape. At the time of the interview, Oon is once more collaborating with other professional artists from a myriad of disciplines to create a visual odyssey that resembles channel surfing on YouTube. The show will be part of 24 text-based performance events stretched over 12 hours from the setting sun of Friday, November 6, to the rising morn on Saturday, November 7. Called, What I Love About You is Your Attitude Problem, Oon’s and other commissioned work is part of the Singapore Writers Festival lineup.
One idea that Oon is working on is a video interview with a cupcake and a muffin. “The actors will be in a cupcake and muffin costume. Well, naturally, they will be DIY... but I want to examine the characters’ viewpoints that have a common vision-”
Stop. You sold me. You had me at “cupcake and muffin” costume.
And besides, Oon is realistic about her chances of working in Hollywood. Some feel her potential is caged in by her locality but Oon counters if she were to go to the States, she’ll be telling stories that are not hers. What are the chances for her to play a Singaporean-Chinese? She can play the American-Chinese or the Chinese immigrant, but how much of that resonates with her. She wants something different.
On her work with Checkpoint Theatre, Oon views these local plays as a way to see the lives of the people around her unfold on stage. There’s something that happens and she can’t explain it except, “Fuck, my life makes sense,” Oon emphasised.
That’s how she sees her job. It’s a calling she’s well-suited for. She wants to tell stories of the heartland, tales from Temasek. Excited for the current stage that Singapore is in, even if the reclaiming of our identity is a long snaking journey, Oon wants to be present for every heavy step.
Empty plates litter our table. We’ve talked near to two hours and I’m ruing the moment when I start transcribing the piece. Oon has to leave to shop for jeans, a top and high heel shoes for tomorrow’s shoot. “I’m playing a dominatrix (no doubt, another role Oon isn’t bothered about). It’s a “Bad Blood” parody of the GE (General Elections),” she explains. “Do you need to head back to the office? Or do you wanna come shopping with me?
”It doesn’t take me long for another white lie to pass from my lips before we leave for shopping.
Oon Shu An hates moving. The stress niggles her when it comes to packing up her life, wrapping and storing each furniture and gimcrack like a sacred relic for the migration east to her new flat. Moving house was also an unprecedented first for her having lived most of her life with her family, who still resides in the south-east area of the island.
If Oon rankles at the thought of shifting from one place to another in Singapore, how does she feel in crossing oceans to a land foreign to ours? “I don’t the packing and travelling... ugh... but when I get to my destination, I’m fine.” That’s not to say Oon will reject projects overseas. She has, more than once, gushed about her stint, albeit brief, on Marco Polo. But as an artist, Oon wants to create work here. That’s why she wants to be base in Singapore, her home.
Even nearIng the end of the lunchtime period, the crowd in ION Orchard maintains its swell. Out of hunger, Oon and I hop into a Japanese restaurant in the basement for a meal. Lat-er, Oon has rehearsals for Chinglish and before that, she needs to shop for a few clothing items for a music video shoot with the self-bestowed Prince and Princess of Singapore’s YouTube scene, Hirzi Zulkiflie and Munah Bagharib. I assure Oon that the interview will take a mere hour.
Before meeting, we agreed to apply the devised method to the construction of this article. If you’re unclear of what a devised method is, it’s a system when a creative team (writers, actors, production crew) develops a show collaboratively (and usually improvisatory) from scratch. Like composing jazz in the dark or trapeezing without a safety net. The 2012 work City Night Songs staged by Checkpoint Theatre and the National University of Singapore Stage is one such example. Oon was involved in the process and had only the title (courtesy of director Huzir Sulaiman) to nurture into a mighty oak.
We, too, will proceed with a devised interview. A collaborative affair that will foster into... some kind of patchwork Prometheus.
Concept by Wayne Cheong and Oon Shu An. First published in Esquire Singapore's November 2015 issue.