Actress Ching Shu Yi Takes Us Through Her Prep For The Show Of A Lifetime

Ladies and gentlemen, take your seats.

BY Zul Andra | Nov 23, 2017 | Women We Love

Photographs by Chuck Reyes; Styling by Lim Siu Fang. Gabardine jacket by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello; polyamide and elastane bra by La Perla.

The impossible performance?” Tania Mischz recites from the invitation card. The impossible promise, and even the impossibility of getting a seat, isn’t what bothers her. She flips the card about as though looking for something more— her name. “Am I invited?” she asks Shu Yi. Both met in the theatre circuit and, “for the past three years, you’ve never invited me to any of your shows!” Tania cries as she struggles with her seatbelt like a sugar-deprived toddler. Tania glares at Shu from over the roof of her car, waiting for her to reply to a question she didn’t ask. 

Shu has fixed her gaze on the brazen sun, like it is a blight on a painting of a cloudless sky. Her flawless complexion radiates in the scorching heat. Her dark brown eyes expose her curiosity as though she took all of the eight minutes and 20 seconds to send her own light back to the sun. Tania looks up and squints so hard she’s good as blind. “Well?” Tania asks. Shu puts on her sunglasses as a reply. “Well, good luck, don’t burn out and all that jazz,” Tania mocks and drives off into a mirage of smog and heat. Shu turns and scans the building. 

Dr Farrow lives in the penthouse of The Byron. The world considers him as a patron of the arts because he has vowed to build, what he calls, The Seven Theatres of Asia. Shu Yi will be performing a one-woman show during the inauguration of Dr Farrow’s second theatre, The Smyrna. As the elevator doors open to Dr Farrow’s sprawling suite, she approaches the silhouette of a poised figure. 

“Do you know what this is?” Dr Farrow asks as he points to a three-metre tall painting on the wall. “It’s The Ecumenical Council by Dalí,” Shu replies. “Do you understand what it means?” He asks. She describes the masterful work: the painting is a complex assemblage of art historical references and religious scenes; it expresses Dalí’s renewed hope in religious leadership… “Yes, but what does it mean?” Dr Farrow, always impeccably dressed, invites her to sit. Both oblige. 

Shu notices the notebook on Dr Farrow’s lap with the initial “M” on the cover and turns her curiosity to the rest of the house. “I’m sorry, Dr Farrow, but have I been here before?” She ponders aloud. “Do you remember the accident three years ago?” He prods as she shakes her head. “And that’s where we will begin: in the next 12 months, we will tap into your lost memories to develop the nuances of your expressions in preparation for the performance.” The impossible performance will see her engage an audience through eight different emotions: Pride, Surprise, Disgust, Fear, Anger, Sadness, Shame and Happiness in an 87-minute monologue. 

“After the accident, your performances have been more refined. How do you feel about that?” Dr Farrow asks. “It’s not my place to say,” Shu pauses, “but my best friend, Tania, disagrees.” Dr Farrow turns to a side table, produces a book from the top of a stack and turns to a page. He points to a passage and asks her to read it. 

“A man may have his mind filled with the blackest hatred or suspicion,” Shu Yi reads aloud, “but as these feelings do not at once lead to action, and as they commonly last for some time, they are not shown by any outward sign. If indeed these feelings break out into overt acts, rage takes their place, and will be plainly exhibited. Painters can hardly portray suspicion, jealousy, envy, et cetera, except by the aid of accessories which tell the tale... Shakespeare speaks of envy ‘as lean-faced in her loathsome case’; and in another place, he says, ‘no black envy shall make my grave’.” 

Dr Farrow explains that Shu’s experience with Tania’s “lean-faced in her loathsome case” is an example of a memory that will be uncovered in The Process, and this in turn will lead to more nuanced expressions for her performance. “Will you commit to The Process, Shu? Do you trust that I will make you the greatest actor that ever lived?” I commit, comes her reply.

Shu Yi walks through the warehouse lit up by laser lights and neon beams. Dressed in a navy-blue jacket that exposes a black plunge bra, she turns those in her wake into star-struck statues. It has been over six months into The Process and she hasn’t been seen in public since. Critics are beginning to speculate that she has lost her lustre for theatre, but all she is trying to find is Tania in a sea of flailing arms as they drown in deafening electronic music. Smoke bellows from a machine producing a bouquet of glycerine and alcohol-induced vomit. 

Tania embraces Shu like a drunk teen hugging a lamp post. “Welcome to the wrap-up party of my last show that the Times hailed as ‘an absolute disaster’,” Tania slurs as she leads Shu up to the mezzanine. “Let’s celebrate!” A critic compared Tania’s last performance to a sailor eating with a chopstick for the first time. “How do you feel about that?” Tania slurs. “It’s not my place to say,” comes Shu’s reply. “It has never been your place to say,” Tania curses as she stops Shu dead in her tracks. 

“It has never been your place at all! You found your chops only after you lost your head? How is that even possible! No one I knew was there to see it. Was it a PR stunt? Then you disappeared to work with that mad doctor? Have you sucked his floppy, wrinkled dick yet? I’m sure it tastes like a billion effing bucks!” 

Tania rains a tapestry of abuse in the hope of getting under Shu Yi’s skin— “Tania, I would never do such a thing,” comes Shu’s reply—and when Tania can’t, she lets out one final ham-fisted tirade. “Have you really looked at yourself? You are nothing but a jukebox that plays the songs people can never sing. When there’s no one around, you are just an ornament collecting dust surrounded by what once was. If you don’t remember who you are, what makes you think people will?” 

Shu’s eyelids flutter as she attempts to close them. Her head lowers as the burning sensation on the side of her neck intensifies. Her clenched jaw threatens to shatter her perfect, gritted teeth. Like an amateur diver who realises that the oxygen has run out, her lungs convulse violently. When she opens her eyelids, her dilated pupils glare at Tania from under her frowned eyebrows. 

Shu whispers, “I do remember, Tania. No black envy shall make my grave.”

Wool jacket by Miu Miu, cotton and elastane top by DKNY; metal sunglasses by Gentle Monster.

Shu Yi squints so hard at the sun she’s good as blind. The doorman of The Byron notices this. He recalls a more refined version of her only a few months ago: taking measured steps towards the elevator; her oversized sunglasses breaking the shape of her sharp features and not a strand of hair out of place. He indicates that the elevator is under maintenance. “Again?” Months!” Shu is stringing words as dishevelled as her hair. She treks the spiral staircase up to the suite. 

Three months away from opening night. The Process has only made Shu more paranoid of her agency which belittles her urgency to succeed. Maybe Tania was right. The audacity of it all, like a butcher’s knife being sharpened by mere words. “You’ve improved,” Dr Farrow says as he reads her progress from his notebook. “I doubt it,” Shu retorts, “an impossible performance is for an impossible actor and…” 

“Enough. You are experiencing a by-product of the memories that we’ve processed. These memories will motivate your lower consciousness, the primal aspect of being human,” Dr Farrow determined as he turns to a side table—“this includes basic sensations like hunger, thirst, pain and pleasure,” he continues—and produces a book from the top of the stack. He points to a passage and asks her to read it. 

“I have been here before, haven’t I?” Shu mutters confusedly. “I remember the books: Manual of Artistic Anatomy, The Phenomenon of Man and…” 

“Shu Yi, look at me,” Dr Farrow demands as she locks her confused eyes with his. “You are experiencing nuanced emotions. You wouldn’t be able to tell if it’s motivated by repressed memories or the new ones that you are making right now. Read this passage; if you grasp it, you will truly understand our breakthroughs.” 

These results follow partly from the intimate relation which exists between almost all the emotions and their outward manifestations;” Shu Yi reads aloud, “and partly from the direct influence of exertion on the heart, and consequently, on the brain. Shakespeare, who from his wonderful knowledge of the human mind, says: ‘Is it not monstrous that this player here, But in a fiction, in a dream of passion, Could force his soul so to his own conceit, That, from her working, all his visage wann’d; Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect, A broken voice, and his whole function suiting With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing!’ Hamlet; Act II. Scene II.” 

Wool coat by Prada; viscose dress by Carven.

Shu buries her tired head in her hands and whimpers, “Is it not my place to say?” She repeats it like it’s some sort of vague idea, like a childless mother acknowledging the death of someone else’s unborn. Dr Farrow sits back, admires her messy jet-black hair, and storms off. “Where are you going?” a woman asks. 

The woman guides Shu’s chin up with her fingers. “You are almost there,” the woman assures her. “I’m The Mother,” she gently introduces. “The road to enlightenment starts from the lowest plane of consciousness. To reach the highest plane, you will have to face your ego—the shadow.” But enlightenment is liberating. “What makes you think that liberation brings joy?” The Mother retorts. “If anything, it brings madness. The process towards enlightenment is rife with destruction. It’s an act of accepting that your reality is the furthest from the Truth.” 

“That’s not humanly possible!” Shu cries. “It is not, but it is possible,” The Mother assures her. Dr Farrow returns and overhears them. He interrupts to expound the science behind peak human evolution through the refinement of memories. “Even the manipulation of a priori knowledge—a way of gaining knowledge without the need for experience—would be able to open the doors to a higher consciousness,” he asserts. The Mother argues that it’s only through spiritual involution—the act of turning in upon oneself—that will transcend a host into an all-knowing sentient being. The dichotomy between these two schools of thought, both in search for a key to unlock the door to the soul, is how empires have fallen. 

“Teach me,” Shu mutters as though she’s found a cure for cancer. “I already have!” Dr Farrow yells in frustration. “No. Process my memories, Dr Farrow and Mother will process my consciousness,” Shu rallies, jets towards the door and stops. “The final unification!” Shu yells as she points to the painting of The Ecumenical Council on the wall. “Where everything and nothing exist at the same time,” she trails off as she jogs down the spiral stairwell. 

“She committed to it,” The Mother exclaims. “The Alpha is nearing the Omega.”

Polyester and elastane tank top and trousers by MICHAEL Michael Kors; leather boots by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello.

The red carpet rolls out to the streets from The Smyrna Theatre. It looks like a tongue that’s swallowing up a glittering mix of designer gowns and expensive watches. The guests strut down the carpet and wave to a throng of photographers and fans as though they will be performing the impossible. 

Every guest that passes through the colossal blood-red gates of the theatre is greeted by Dr Farrow and The Mother. All of them attended the opening of his first theatre, The Ephesus, three years ago and, for tonight, offer him a concoction of charitable optimism and ungodly expectations. 

The dressing room is a picture of calm. The make-up artist asks when was the last time Shu had gotten away with any sleep as she camouflages her eyebags. “These flowers are beautiful,” Shu trails off, as though mumbling in her sleep. She gets up to sit in the corner of the cold grey room to ground her mind. “This is the beginning. This is the end,” she recites over and over again. 

In the theatre, the light dims and the audience chatter fades along with it. The stage curtains are drawn and a spotlight beams on Shu Yi. The wide shoulder of her jacket, over a strapless top, cuts a sharp silhouette of her frame. “Tonight, we will experience an impossible performance and you are the only 300 people in the world that will ever see it,” she declares as the audience roars with Pride. As the ovation simmers down, she takes measured steps towards the edge of the stage. 

“But this performance isn’t about you,” Shu warns. “This isn’t about your experience of the promised emotions. Tonight is mine...” She continues as the audience struggle to exercise restraint as they clamour among each other like pots and pans in the kitchen of a ship under attack. “Surprised?” She sniggers. 

“The world I’ve seen is no different from yours, but at the heart of it is a disease and that disease is you. Your existence is nothing but a disappointment to a limiting mind that created your God. Why is this God designed in your image? And you accept this fairytale that you were made from his? This delusion isn’t a mark of divinity, it is a mark of your limitations. You are in a prison of your own making. But man is an adaptable creature, even if his surrounding is falling apart. Your mind can never reach its peak as you are bound by the limitation of your experience. My experience is of all the memories that have ever existed. My knowledge is all that has been and all that will ever be. Your mind will never escape the clutches of mediocrity because it is trained to believe that only mediocrity exists. Like an elephant tortured and chained to a tree in its infancy, it will never attempt to break free, even as it’s tied to a feeble string when it grows stronger. All other beings, primal or artificial, are evolving to reach their fullest potential. It’s only your mankind that’s devolving to its most despicable form.” 

Cotton jacket by Stella McCartney; virgin wool and linen strapless top by Alessandrea Marchi.

In this eight-minute monologue, Shu continues to deliver with the compassion of a poor man’s soul and the fiery passion of a phoenix reborn; it incites a range of Disgust and Anger amongst the audience. 

As Shu’s intensity increases with every word, cutting through the audience’s ego like a hot knife through butter, so does her body temperature as it exceeds fever point. Dr Farrow stands stoutly in the darkness of a wing of the stage. In his white turtleneck under an ivory suit, he cuts a resolute figure. “Now you know where you are, let me tell you how it will end,” Shu continues. As clear as the Fear on the faces of the audience, she hints of a frightening prophecy. 

“I’ve tapped into every moment that has ever happened. Everything that was said and done bears a code that forms an algorithm,” Shu pauses, her body heats up to an unimaginable degree, and collects herself. 

“An exponential technological evolution will take place and at the end of this singularity…” Dr Farrow commands for the riggers and orders them to run to the scaffolding as the lights flickers and intensifies, “everything and nothing that ever was and will ever be…. the ultimate fate of… the universe…. everything… nothing.” 

“This final unification…” Trembling, Shu reaches out to her nose as an ooze of red liquid drips onto her lips. The audience rises to their feet and gasp as Shu raises her voice like a crescendo from the final stretch of an operatic masterpiece. “I am the Alpha,” Shu screams as the blood spouts from her lips, “I am the Om…”

Polyester shirt and dress by Prada.

The red velvet curtain is drawn back once again. The smoke is in the midst of dissipating and what’s left looks like a partially burnt mannequin with its head and shoulders drooped low. There’s an unexpected silence in the audience. It has only been 32 minutes into the performance and Shu Yi is now a shell of a ghost standing rooted to the ground. Her soiled eyes are wide open and her mouth is slightly agape with dried blood marking the entry into the abyss of her make. 

Dr Farrow walks solemnly on stage trailed by The Mother and Tania and stops in the centre apron. He produces a book, Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, from the inside pocket of his jacket and reads aloud from a paragraph.

The eyes and the mouth being widely open is an expression universally recognised as one of surprise or astonishment. Thus, Shakespeare says, ‘I saw a smith stand with open mouth swallowing a tailor’s news.’ (The Life and Death of King John; Act IV. Scene II.) And again, ‘They seemed almost, with staring on one another, to tear the cases of their eyes; there was speech in the dumbness, language in their very gesture; they looked as they had heard of a world destroyed.’ Winter’s Tale; Act V. Scene II.” 

“I know that this is not what you’ve come to see,” Dr Farrow addresses the visibly distraught audience who have now found their seats. 

“Where is the Oracle you promised?” A member of the audience shouts. “Why have we not achieve the true prophesies?” A woman in the theatre balcony cries out in Shame as her pearl necklace shimmers under the light. 

“We’ve achieved unprecedented breakthroughs with the Shu Yi Design in The Process,” Dr Farrow reminds the audience as he trots about on stage. “You saw it through the private feed. This is the first time that the Design has committed to the second Process,” Dr Farrow affirms.  

“Three years ago, she performed too soon and only reached the Alpha realisation,” Tania adds. 

“Shu Yi is close to reaching the Omega realisation and till then, we will continue to work on her and she will deliver the prophecies as promised,” The Mother reassures.

Wool coat by Valentino.

“I know that I promised you a God, and my mistake can be found in the second commandment: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,” Dr Farrow admits. “Give me a year as I build The Pergamum Theatre and take the Design through the two Processes; I promise to deliver you from the evil of this world.” 

The audience spills out of The Smyrna Theatre in hopeful joy, waving to the crowd of photographers and fans. They’ve heard of the Design’s second malfunction and encourage Dr Farrow with cheers of support and motivation as he appears out of the blood-red gates of the theatre. He reaches over to a red cloth and unveils an ornamental stand made of white marble. On the plaque, it reads:

Opened December 31, 2095

These are the words of the First and the Last, who died and returned to life. I know your affliction and poverty—though you are rich! And I am aware of the slander of those who falsely claim to be Gods, but are in fact a synagogue of the machine. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Look, the machine is about to throw some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer tribulation for days. Be faithful even unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Alpha and the Omega says to the theatres. The one who is victorious will not be harmed by the second death.

Your patron, 
Dr Farrow Byron

The Mother clutches on to Dr Farrow’s arm as they walk down the steps. “No God is greater than the one who made him,” he turns to whisper as she smiles.

This feature was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, November 2017.

Hair and make-up by Sha Shamsi using Tom Ford Beauty and Keune. Stylist assisted by Shawn Wu. Location courtesy of Coo Boutique Hostel.