Celina Jade: Undaunted By Life's Impermanence
Learning beyond her acting, singing, and social activist career. Now, we're all ears on how she discovered living through death.
BY Wayne Cheong | Feb 23, 2017 | Women We Love
Celina Jade watched her father die on TV.
She was six when it happened. There, on the screen, she witnessed a masked man creep into a room. The interloper was attired in black, save for his scarlet mask that was a smiling maw with sharp teeth and two black crescents for eyes angled downwards at their tips. Hooding the eyes were long eyebrows and a goatee hung stiffly from his chin.
The man silently inched towards a drawn net curtain and pulled it aside to reveal a slumbering Roy Horan cocooned in a golden, silken robe. In one dramatic gesture, a noose was slipped over Horan’s head and pulled taut. Horan woke with a jolt, but his exclamation was snuffed out after a balled-up piece of cloth was stuffed into his mouth.
After the rest of the rope was thrown over a beam, the assailant yanked it. Horan was pulled upwards. Gravity stretched his neck to an almost unnatural length. He flailed about, his eyes reddening and his face turning the colour of a bruised apricot. Before the hanging could do him in, the masked man landed the fatal blow: a knife to the gut. The scene then cut to the blood-speckled net curtain.
This was a scene from Tower of Death aka Game of Death II, which spliced clips of Bruce Lee from the partially completed Game of Death. Banking on the martial artist’s fame, even after his untimely death, the entire movie feels exploitative with a needlessly complicated plot and abrupt cutarounds of Lee and his double. But the politics of how the movie came to be was lost on the young and impressionable Celina Jade. She felt the spectre of death that day when she saw her father being murdered.
“I thought he died,” Jade says, “and then a few hours later, he walked into the room. That traumatised me.”
Now 31, Jade relates this incident with such clarity, as though it happened a week ago. At the time, she was aware that her parents, Christina Hui and Roy Horan, were in the entertainment industry, but that was the extent of her knowledge of what they did. They would talk shop and Jade would zone out. Their world was alien to her.
Jade and her sister grew up under the strict hand of their father. Disciplined to a fault, he woke up each day at three in the morning to meditate. Her parents were successful: Horan, after a career in acting, settled into the life of academia as an adjunct assistant professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s School of Design; Hui worked for the China Film Co-Production Corporation and later as a realtor. Despite their affluence, they did not spoil their kids; during her early years, Jade assumed her family was destitute.
“I was enrolled in this Chinese school [in Hong Kong] and everyone was sporting a Baby-G. I asked him if he could buy me a Baby-G and he said no. He’d buy us books instead.”
Her mum, however, would dress Jade up in ridiculous-looking outfits, outfits that from were high-end brands but didn’t fit Jade’s aesthetic. She remembers being referred to as “Duck” because of the bright yellow Mandarina Duck bag that her mother had purchased her for school.
Initially yearning for sons, Horan made peace with his blessings of daughters. He taught them archery. He’d play-fight with them. Martial arts just became a family thing.” It also saved Jade’s life.
At 14, Jade got off the minibus at Deep Water Bay, Hong Kong. It’s evening and the area that she was in was devoid of people. A scrap of a heel and Jade turned to see another passenger behind her. Under the half-light of the streetlamps, his face was a patchwork of shadows (she’d later recall his pockmarked face). He walked closely behind her. Her pace quickened before he pawed at her. She dodged, whipped out her smartphone and dialled for the police. It was engaged. As the prerecorded voice on the other end urged her to stay on the line, Jade pretended she was speaking to the police. Perhaps, she oversold it, her voice pitchy and garrulous; undeterred, the man made a grab for Jade. This time, she elbowed him in the nose. What sounded like a scream gurgling through water issued from the man before he gambolled off. No one bothered to see what the commotion was all about; no one rushed out of their homes to offer aid. Jade made a beeline for her friend’s place, and later went to the police station to report the crime.
The cops were not helpful. The man was never caught and this incident became an anecdote she’d tell to extoll the virtue of martial arts. Knowing how to defend herself gave her confidence. “Predators get high off the fear of their victims,” she says, “so they don’t expect it when you fight back.” If only she could apply pugilism to combat being ostracised.
Growing up as a multiracial kid in Hong Kong wasn’t the easiest. Jade was the only Eurasian at a Chinese school and found it difficult to make friends. Only when she moved to New Jersey to attend an international school, did she easily fit in, thanks to the cultural diversity of the US but she felt alone all the time. “I mean, who doesn’t?” Jade muses. From her perspective, life is lonely because of its impermanence. In a world where the cycle of birth and death turns ceaselessly, in the end, all you have is yourself.
Jade cites relations with other people as an example. Every relationship that you have is just a reflection of your inner worth. You see your partner talking to someone else at a party and jealousy bubbles in your gut. You look at someone and think she’s arrogant, but you wouldn’t recognise that trait if it didn’t exist within yourself. An interpersonal projection. “In some ways, we are alone,” Jade adds, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t be happy and love ourselves and feel fulfilled. It’s easier to feel empty and fill that void with drugs, money, sex… all the world’s distractions. “I’m still on the journey. I’m still trying to learn from that.”
Born Celina Horan, Jade modelled before embarking on her singing career. She needed a new name as most of Hong Kong models’ names at the time were along the lines of Maggie Q, Lisa S, Amanda S... “Because people couldn’t pronounce their last names,” Jade clarifies. “If people try to pronounce ‘Horan’, it sounds like ‘whore-ran’ or ‘hoe-ran’. It’s the easiest surname to make fun of.”
“Celina H” was proposed but it didn’t sound right. She wanted something that was more than an initial. She wanted a stage name that showcased her ethnicity, a one-syllable long namesake that’s Asian and easy to recall. Sitting at a Hong Kong café, Jade and her dad were drafting out possible last names when Horan suggested a name by sound. “I’m an audio-person. So we’re going through a list of names: ‘Celina Ah.’ Don’t like that. ‘Celina Oh’. Don’t like that. Then we came to ‘Celina Eh’. Oh, I like that. We wrote down a bunch of [monosyllabic] words that sound like “eh”. Celina May, Celina Jay, Celina Kay, then we came to Jade, which was perfect. I was worried for a while. Would this be like a tattoo that I get done, and then two years later, I’m over it?”
The stage name would stick with her even as she reluctantly entered the film industry. She loved film but for the longest time, she avoided it. Movies were her parents’ thing, not hers. She recalls her mum and her bumping into Chow Yun-fat while travelling on the MTR in Hong Kong. Jade says: “He was super charming to her and I was thinking, oh my dad is going to kill you, because my mum would talk about [Chow] for days on end.
“But I was never star struck. I was somewhat removed from it. Instead, I always wanted to be a singer, a songwriter,” she tells us. By 14, she had won several singing competitions that nabbed her a record deal before she signed with her music manager, Paco Wong, at Golden Typhoon (EMI). Later, Wong suggested that she audition for an upcoming film called Legendary Assassin, starring and directed by Wu Jing.
“They were looking for a lead actress who could fight. I read my sides and forgot about it.” A few weeks later, they called to tell her that she had landed the role. Jade was excited but sceptical that she could pull it off due to her inexperience with acting. But after a little convincing from friends to give it a try at least, Jade dove into her role as a policewoman.
“The plan was to trick myself into believing that I was really a policewoman. If I can convince myself that I’m that character, then I’ve succeeded. I started taking acting lessons in LA and read all that I could about acting.” Her filmography would later include The Man With the Iron Fists, Skin Trade and a recurring guest role as Shado in Arrow, adapted from the DC Comics series, Green Arrow.
“I had no comic book experience prior to getting the role of Shado,” Jade admits. “After securing the role, I got a subscription to Green Arrow and read parts with my character in it.”
Currently, Jade is wrapping up Wolf Warrior 2. Set in China and a civil war-torn Africa, she plays a UN doctor who assumes the role of surrogate to a little girl who carries an immunity to a plague. Frank Grillo plays the antagonist and Wu Jing, whom Jade worked with on Legendary Assassin, is tasked with protecting Jade and the child. Jade doesn’t get to kick ass though, which she welcomes readily. “I don’t want to be pigeonholed as the token badass chick,” Jade says. “I want to pick films that I like, play people with substance. I get to play this compassionate doctor who doesn’t believe in violence. I think that’s cool.”
Off the set, Jade is also involved in philanthropic endeavours. She’s still helps with an ashram, sings at small charity events, volunteers at Room to Read and champions environmental causes. “We work with Foodlink [Hong Kong], where every dish that we put out is named after an animal that is going extinct.” Jade pushes her hair behind her ear. “Can you believe that future generations won’t know what a Siberian Tiger is?”
When Jade returned to Hong Kong in July 2012, one of her aunts requested that she prepare cream of vegetable soup. Placing boiled vegetables with cream into the blender, it exploded when she switched it on. The strapless dress she wore that day, left her vulnerable to the searing vegetables and cream splattered against her chest. Caterwauling, she ran to the bathroom to wash off with cold water. “When I removed the cream and vegetables, my skin just… sloughed off,” Jade says.
The doctors said she had “everything up to third-degree burns.” Recovery was brutal. She saw plastic surgeons, doctors for secondary and tertiary opinions. She was told, in no uncertain terms, that she would get keloid scars. She didn’t dare tell her manager about her accident for fear that she wouldn’t be able to work anymore.
She was dating Christian Mongendre at the time. Mongendre, who ranan organic vegetarian restaurant in Hong Kong, suggested that she look into “food that heals”. He said that people have staved off cancer or eradicated diabetes just by changing their diet. At the end of her rope, Jade took his advice and stuck to a strict diet devoid of processed food. A month after the incident, the doctors were amazed by her recovery. Jade shows us a series of photos of her injury; ugly red welts adorned her chest like an unholy garland. Then photos of them fading until they are almost indistinguishable pale scars. Ghosts on her skin.
She shot her first scene for Arrow in December of that same year. Someone once suggested that she opt for laser surgery to reduce her scars further but she doesn’t want to. The industry’s penchant for looks hasn’t changed, only Jade has. She sees her status as a public figure as useful in contributing a different narrative of beauty. “Ageing is beautiful,” Jade says.
But growing up means having to face serious issues like her mum’s cancer diagnosis. “When I first heard about her diagnosis in January last year, I told her that I didn’t want her to suffer through chemotherapy for us. I want her to lead a quality life and, if that means a shorter time with us on the planet, it’s okay.”
Christina Hui has battled pancreatic cancer for the past two years. She’s undergone the Whipple Procedure, which involved the removal of her duodenum, and a portion of her bile duct, gallbladder and stomach. She also had part of her colon removed due to colon cancer. Her digestive system makes it difficult for her to be on a full vegetarian diet but it was enough to have kept her alive until now.
“I also think it’s mental,” Jade adds. “My mum is psychologically very strong. This ordeal… it’s actually a blessing.” We press her on that. “My mum’s cancer brought our family closer together and she’s grateful even for the smallest things in life. To see her walk after her surgery, I mean, we take walking for granted. We take our ability to breathe for granted.
“Our family is Buddhist and there’s a saying that you choose your destiny before you’re born. I always think my mum chose such a difficult thing to experience so that we can learn from her suffering. She’s a very giving person who never focuses on herself, only on others. A tough lesson but I’m so grateful because of that.”
While we are hardwired to survive, our evolutionary commands eventually fall prey to entropy. The end will come; it’s only a matter of when.
Jade wasn’t always this calm about dying. In the past, she was fretful of it. Her only experience with death was when she lost her maternal grandmother, but it happened when she was really young, and thus, did not anchor heavily in her memories.
But in 2014, her paternal grandmother was on her deathbed. By the time Jade arrived in Rhode Island, her grandmother fell into a coma. Jade remembers reciting a Buddhist Sanskrit chant with her sister over the pale shell of her grandmother.
That night, she woke to the gentle rousing of her aunt. It’s time. Jade surrounded her grandmother’s bed together with her aunt, uncle and sister. Holding her paper-thin hand, Jade and her sister chanted. Her grandmother’s chest bellowed, and then the final expulsion of breath.
“It was… so beautiful,” Jade says. “It was liberating. Like you’re so limited in your body and, all of a sudden, it bursts into infinity.” Her grandmother might have died but Jade believes she went to “a better place”.
That changed Jade’s perspective of her mum’s situation. “It sucks if I lose my mum, but when I die, I’ll see her. Whether I’ll see her form or if I merge with her as one, it’s just a long holiday.
“Dying is part of life. It doesn’t have to be sad. We’re on the same road and we don’t have to fear the corner.” And when she meets the Final Enemy on that road with open arms, surprise will be etched upon his bony countenance.
Hair and make-up by Sha Shamsi using Tom Ford Beauty and L’Oreal Professional. Make-up artist assisted by Zoel T. Stylist assisted by Tan Guan Lin. Location courtesy of The St Regis Singapore.
First published in Esquire Singapore's February 2017 issue.