Women We Love: Judee Tan
She's adapt at playing characters on stage and screen. But to truly know how Judee Tan really ticks, for this outing, we had Judee Tan play herself.
BY Wayne Cheong | Jun 15, 2016 | Women We Love
Moons ago. Judee Tan, the middle of three children; Tan, who is born with a constitution that can be described as “frail”, lived out an idyllic childhood: quibbling with her siblings; a hellion in the neighbourhood; an in-the-moment-consequences-be-damned sort of existence.
As a child, she is prohibited from consuming sugary drinks, but to children, restrictions are broad strokes. They are lines drawn in sifting sand. She espies a can of Coke in the fridge, never mind that the half-filled can belongs to her elder sister. It would be a mistake to miss out on an opportunity. Tan takes a sip from it, from time to time, careful and with deliberate criminality so as to not cast a spotlight of suspicion on her tiny self.
Then one day, Tan sees her sister take out the drink. Sensing an opening, Tan opts for the path of least resistance: she’ll be upfront with her request. She begs for a sip. Her sister says no. Tan dials up the pleading. Soon, the escalating back-and-forth turns into a game. As her sister escapes to her bedroom, Tan chases her only to be impeded by a closing door... and having her left ring finger caught between the door and the jamb.
What used to be children’s cacophony sharply corners into a banshee’s wail. Her mum comes running to see her daughter’s finger still trapped in the narrow crack. When the door is finally opened, Tan’s finger looks mangled but she makes a full recovery.
Two years later and the scene is now that of her nanny’s house. Tan is eight and she is horsing around with her younger sister and the nanny’s daughter. They cavort outside, along the corridor that’s lined with potted greenery. Tan pedals furiously on a tricycle after her sister pushes her. The force propels her wildly into the plants. She falls, arms splayed. A dull-looking clay pot lands on her hand, the left hand that went through trauma years ago. The sound of the impact brings out the neighbours, who find Tan’s sister and the nanny’s daughter holding back the rest of the planter shelf from collapsing further.
And there is Tan, calmly sitting on the ground looking at her left hand, instinctively, counting off her fingers. Six. She remembers counting up to six digits. She also remembers how vibrant the colour of her blood is. It is a beautiful red, an ominous allure. Like a spider’s web dewed in the morning. And in the ocean of scarlet is a small island of white, the small tip of a bone sticking out from the divide in her ring finger.
Tan remains fascinated by the sight as she bleeds. Maybe it is the blood loss, but she never cries; not then nor when she arrives at the hospital.
Today, Tan’s finger looks normal in passing. That is until you lean in and see the nail plate, not fully formed, and a faded scar trailing diagonally from the tip to the middle phalanx. “What are the odds that this finger will be involved in two accidents at six and eight years old?” Tan asks.
It makes for a hell of a story though, I say.
We are sitting at the Orange Thimble after our original meeting place at Tiong Bahru Bakery swelled with customers and noise. Tan looks like she’s just woken up; her hair is tied into a topknot, held by a black scrunchie. The night before was the final show of The Noose & Kakis... 11 Months of Fresh Air. It’s the stage version of the Channel 5 comedy show with the original cast (with the exception of Michelle Chong) performing topical sketches that alternate with stand-up comedy by the likes of Fakkah Fuzz and Rishi Budhrani.
Not only did Tan act in the production, she also co-wrote and directed it. She describes the experience as “challenging” (she is evasive about the exact reasons why, but from what we can squirrel out of her, it wasn’t the creative elements but the people). “We must have the same integrity when it comes to working with people,” says Tan. “If not, it turns into something self-serving. I mean, it’s possible to still work with people of that mindset, but it’ll take a lot of pushing and cajoling and begging...”
But given the hardship, Tan took it in her stride. She saw it as an opportunity, so she embraced it, the joy and the pain, the whole kit-and-caboodle. Part of the whole experience was her desire to bring more people to the theatre even at the “expense of her life”. “To show them what can happen in a space like a theatre, that’s great,” Tan says. “I believe in my heart that such exposure is good for everyone. The theatre is where a lot of things can happen.”
Tan champions the theatre scene. Since starting in 2006, she has been involved in major productions like W!LD RICE’s Beauty World; Toy Factory’s 881; and Jonathan Lim’s long-running show, Chestnuts.
There was a time, after being involved with two theatre productions, when Tan was hit with a crisis of interest. She witnessed something that she “felt wasn’t right”. It takes a little prodding to get her to elaborate on what she means by that. Tan can be a little oblique when it comes to certain points.
“The meaning of the work,” Tan finally says. “Not the meaning of the creativity of the work, but the meaning of why we do something like the arts. At that time, I viewed it from a limited perspective because I was new to the scene. Once they did something that I thought was wrong, whatever else they did, no matter how right it was, I saw it as wrong as well.”
"I believe in my heart that such exposure is good for everyone. The theatre is where a lot of things can happen."
Tan needed to take a step back, gain some perspective and jump from the figurative to the literal. In 2008, she flew to Los Angeles. Being the kiasu sort, Tan wanted her vacation to be productive. She entered the World Championship of Performing Arts (WCOPA) competition that was held in the city. She won four golds and two silvers in all six categories that she participated in.
For the month that she spent in LA, Tan shared a room with a woman who “went mad just trying to make it [in the acting industry]”.
“And some of my other friends who have been there for 20 years, they’re still working as masseuses,” Tan says. “They’ve given up. You can be homeless one day and the next you’re famous; you get spotted walking down Venice Beach, or your record makes millions. I’ve seen this guy sleeping on a bench and the next morning selling his CDs. Now that’s the definition of a struggling artist.
“Some Singaporean artists should just bloody go to work instead of complaining about stuff.”
Tan has no love for the superficiality of her industry. While other actors are in it for the fame, she is in it purely for the love of acting. Hollywood is filled with symbols and, to Tan, sometimes the dream that one is in pursuit of might belong to someone else.
“Inevitably, you’ll meet people like that,” Tan says. “They’re not chasing their dreams, but rather an illusion.” She pauses. “I don’t mean that in a bad way. I just feel… what’s the word?”
Tan makes a face. “Naïve is close. You’re much stronger than you think you are.”
She’s principled in a way that might make her come across as arrogant or cocky. No gods, no masters. Tan feels wary about blindly following a cause. “Why do you worship?” she continues. “It’s dangerous because you give away your power.”
She does lay her life down for the theatre though. She can sing hosannas to the process of her trade. It’s a joy, she’ll sing. It is the process that she will fall prostate to. “I feel that we need more people who are for the theatre,” Tan says. “Not those who are only in it...” She trails off.
For the fame? I offer.
“What fame? This is Singapore,” Tan retorts. “How steep is that hill, wah lau?” She thinks for a bit, before continuing, “Fame is one thing, but we need more people who are doing it for the work. But I feel that kind of discipline is not there because where they train doesn’t emphasise that.” Tan feels that it’s already difficult, especially when you’re working in an industry where black and white as absolutes can become grey.
Tan places a hand on the table and says, “In my industry, to get something done from point A to point Z”—her other hand falls on the opposite end—“You move along”—she traces a line with a finger—“E... F... G... and then you meet with something that will pull you away from your original intent. It may seem like an attractive thing, but that might compromise your integrity. I can’t do that.
“I may make a mistake that goes against my own values, but my decision is that whatever I do must be done with integrity. It must be honest. It must be of service. If not, I won’t want to do it.”
Tan further illustrates her point with a driving analogy: you’re driving a car and the roads may be winding and different, yet you’re still in charge of the steering. Tan has experienced her share of underhanded dealings, but she looks at the bigger picture, the forest for the trees.
By the time you read this, Meenah and Cheenah will have run its course. Siti Khalijah and Tan came up with the idea back when they performed together in Happily Ever Laughter. “Siti was ‘Pheno-minah’, a Malay lady dressed in a tudung and I played TCM [Teochew Moi] and we shared the same dressing room. Being one of the youngest kids in the group of performers, we bonded. We were in costume and we stared in the mirror and [changes the lyrics to the National Day song, “One People, One Nation, One Singapore”] we sang, ‘One minah, one cheenah, one Singapore.’” Tan titters. Selina Tan overheard the singing and thought the two women had something that could be staged. Alfian Sa’at came in as a writer and Dream Academy staged Meenah and Cheenah, where Tan and Khalijah performed as a myriad of characters. There’s a synergy between the two. Tan likens it to “similar wavelengths”. “I always wanted to work with her,” she says. “She does it for the work. We do this because we love the work, more than the result.”
When she went to Victoria Junior College, her classmates remarked that she was rather “Ah Lian”. “They had never met real Ah Lians before,” Tan says, unable to stifle a grin. “They had no idea what they were talking about. I find it so interesting that they would think that way. In my [primary] school [Ahmad Ibrahim Primary School], there were Ah Bengs and Ah Lians, not the worst kinds, but they were there. In Yishun, it’s the top school. To the [Ah Bengs and Ah Lians] I’m normal but...” Tan lets out a resigned sigh. “I came from a working class background, but I wasn’t from a more jiak lat [Hokkien for terrible] class. As a kid, I didn’t have to think about getting on from day to day, but when you grow up in that sort of environment, you don’t ask for a lot of things because you don’t even think about it. That, and your personality is like that lah. My environment could have made me pensive, but one could also say that my personality was as such to begin with. Maybe, it’s a mixture of both.”
Even when she was added to the cast of The Noose in its fourth season, Tan’s tenure on the programme seemed...
“Detached?” Tan offers. “That’s not wrong.”
Perhaps it’s the way that she behaves. During our interview, she stops midway to ask if it feels like she’s talking in circles. “You might need to bring me back to the topic at hand,” Tan says. “Don’t be shy about telling me that.” It’s more like she talks in spirals: she’ll pore over the question, and slowly but surely, the point she’s trying to make comes into sharp focus.
That sort of obsessiveness goes hand-in-hand with being cogitative. In class, she was the student in the corner of the room, staring out into space, her mind a-wandering about the woes of the world and family. You’d think those sorts of heavy topics might take a toll on the psyche of a child, but according to Tan, when you’re a kid, there are no repercussions. She managed to formulate a nonchalant attitude to the slings and arrows of life: if it happens, fine. Water off a duck’s back and whatnot. But sometimes, within her, the dark worry festers. “Only when you get into the real world, everything you do has consequences,” she notes. “Growing older, I find that there are more things that I want to do.”
Like improving yourself?
“Improving as a human being,” Tan replies. “That’s essential, but being a better person is subjective. I believe in being cruel to be kind. It’s hard to do, but I’ve had to do it. Say, you’re in a relationship where you don’t have feelings for the other party anymore. What do you do? You must break up with that person. Breakups are often messy and painful yet you have to do it. You don’t want to string the other person along. He or she doesn’t deserve your lack of love. They deserve more. Rip off the bandage.” Another analogy. Tan is full of them.
Her father—that’s whom she gets her comedic genes from. He’s a rogue, a joker. “He’s damn strange one. Bloody eccentric. My dad was a gambler, but we’re on very good terms. I love my dad. I’m a daddy’s girl, but he didn’t take care of the family very well. My mum had to pick up the slack, as it were.”
When I first arrive, Tan is starting on a book: The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. I assume it’s meant to be a form of self-help for her; instead, it’s actually something of an engrossment.
“I’ve always been interested in the human mind, what stories to tell. I think knowing that I like all these things led me to theatre. The human mind, psyche, humanity, lah.”
"Improving as a human being, that's essential, but being a better person is subjective. I believe in bring cruel to be kind. It's hard to do, but I've had to do it."
One more story. An epilogue to the one earlier. Tan shows me her unnamed finger; in the light, a pale line can be seen on the high noon to the setting of her sun finger. “You know how a normal finger crooks? This is mine.” The rest of the digits curl up except for the ring finger, which only bends at the proximal interphalangeal joint. “My bloody father,” Tan continues, “such a responsible father. The doctor told him that I needed physio for six months and he didn’t [relay the message].”
She only found out years later when someone told her that she could have regained mobility in her finger had she gone for physio. Tan confronted her father, who simply replied that he had forgotten. While others might see this as horrific negligence, she views it as “damn cock lah”. It’s these sorts of moments that Tan finds funny.
She is a shopping list of accidents: a mishap at the playground left her with a scar on her brow; she was cut by the lock of a box that she exited during a show; a set panel fell on her; she was caught up in a car accident. “I was a passenger sleeping in the back, and then I was woken up by a screeching sound. I saw a tree approaching me and I blacked out,” Tan says. She survived with a slipped disc and lacerations.
Despite her many close shaves, a fortune teller once told her that she will live a long life. “I don’t even believe in that sort of thing,” Tan says. “I find it humorous. While I believe in divinity, it can only take you so far. You have to do the rest.”
From: Esquire Singapore's June 2016 issue.