Even if you’re a jiak kantang, only-English-channel-watching Singaporean (like ahem, me), you would have to be living under a rock to have never heard of Li Nanxing, Mark Lee and Christopher Lee.
They are, after all, among three of our little nation’s biggest names in male Chinese-language acting scene.
Li, the legendary King of Gambling in The Unbeatables, is now 52 but looks nothing like it, and has a more than 30-year career of Best Actor and Most Popular Artiste awards (he can’t win any more of them, by the way) under his belt.
Lee, 48, pretty much undisputed as the Singapore Chinese entertainment industry’s biggest funnyman and favourite Ah Beng, is beyond the many achievements and huge success he’s enjoyed in his career, the subject of one of Singapore’s favourite local memes:
And the younger Lee, the hallmark of ageing well, is at age 45 husband to Fann Wong, and the first foreign actor (why yes, he was from Malaysia) to win the All-Time Favourite Artiste award alongside the elder Lee at the 2010 Star Awards.
Now, of course, huge names that they are, the Lees (if you will forgive me for misspelling Li’s surname, they share the same Chinese character 李 as their surname) have led storied personal lives.
Li, for instance, is known to have incurred massive debts from a bad investment in a country club after trusting a dishonest business partner. Bouts of gambling, drinking, heavy smoking and depression plagued him through a good part of a decade, followed by a conversion to Christianity around seven years ago, after which his life took a vast turn for the better.
Christopher was caught in a spate of driving offences between 2006 and 2007, and was even jailed for drunk driving, costing him a major role in a Channel 8 TV series, and nearly costing him his permanent residency status here.
Mark wasn’t caught in any major controversies or trouble, but grew up in great financial difficulty, at one point not being able to afford a 50-cent portion of rice, or even the day’s newspaper.
But all these experiences, they tell us in a recent interview in Mandarin, have contributed to who they are, and the variety of character roles and public personas they play in the entertainment industry.
“ALL Levels fail”
The trio spent about 70 per cent of our chat being rowdy secondary schoolboys — ribbing, interrupting, disturbing and laughing at one another — if their flawless chemistry was anything to go by, one would never have guessed that they had only just concluded their first-ever film project together.
So excited they were by the finished product, in fact, that they all invested in The Fortune Handbook, which they hope will be the first of many.
Ever the veterans and professionals that they are, all three were at the right moments serious and open, and addressed their past with us, albeit not specifically — they didn’t bristle even as the meaning of my poorly-worded question (jiak kantang, remember?) eventually became clear to them. Here’s what Mark had to say, for instance:
“In everyone’s life, we can’t choose our past. You can only decide if you want to go out of the house or not, but you cannot determine what will happen at home or outside…
Many people say forget the misfortunes you might have suffered in the past and look forward, but these bad experiences are probably what brought you the success you enjoy today. So don’t forget them (‘Yes, we must remember,’ adds Li solemnly).”
They were all open about their severe lack of education, for instance — none of them passed their ‘O’ Level exams, with Mark Lee declaring that he was “ALL Levels fail”. “Life is our university,” quips Christopher.
We asked if they would have made any of their life choices any differently. Mark responds:
“If you ask me if I want to choose to start over again, I would say even if I choose not to experience them again, these bad experiences will only happen at a different timing and location. Everyone’s encounters are different.”
He gives the example of a young man who has never been to a pub to drink, or chased skirts, but starts doing that when he is married.
“That would be really bad… but if he has precisely fooled around with all kinds of company when he was younger, he is sure to cherish and appreciate his marriage a whole lot more.”
The significantly more soft-spoken Li, certainly reflecting on his own dramatic past, pipes up at this point:
“We’ve seen so many people and have been through so much, so we are very contented with what we have now and what we have achieved now. Really very contented.”
Striking it out without social media
We go on to discuss their respective beginnings in the entertainment industry, and how their challenges differ from the ones faced by the social media generation of young rising stars.
At the sound of the term “social media”, Li goes quiet — he, after all, has not bitten the bullet, even though Mark and Christopher have Instagram accounts with more than 150,000 followers combined.
That said, for Li and Mark, starting out in the scene wasn’t easy. Li spent his first years roughing it out with directors and crew who would lash out at him in Cantonese, which at the time he still didn’t understand.
“You just read from their body language that they are scolding you for being stupid and that’s how you slowly learnt about it,” he said.
His monthly pay: $960, before CPF deductions.
Mark once said in a Reader’s Digest interview that his first role was literally that of a trash can. His first one and a half years at Comedy Nite (搞笑行动), he told us, paid him a paltry $25 per episode, which translated to an insane $100 per month, despite the success and longevity of the Monday night show.
Christopher had a slightly easier time, after emerging first-runner-up at the 1995 Star Search (although he was a factory worker, salesman and part-time model before his lucky break). His starting pay, having joined almost a decade later than Li, was $2,500.
Despite all this, the trio admit that social media has greatly complicated the fame game — also a possible reason we don’t regard the rising stars of today in the way we did the likes of them and Zoe Tay, Moses Lim and Fann Wong, for instance.
Christopher was the first to point this out:
“Despite not having social media in the past, once you got really famous, people will remember you forever. Social media gives you many ways become known, but you also can be forgotten easily. Today they might know you, but tomorrow they won’t.”
Mark adds on:
“If there was social media in the past, there would have been no Mark Lee. Precisely because there was no social media or Cable TV, every Monday, the audience has to stick to Comedy Nite, and that’s how Hui Ge (Henry Thia) and I became well-known.
If today Hui Ge and I debut on social media, there won’t be an ‘us’ even after 5 years. That’s where the difference lies. Social media’s like: this is so funny, but what’s the name of this dude?”
Christopher chimes in:
“Just like fashion, it keeps changing. If you stop catching up with it, you will lose out or be kicked out. So no matter how well received your social media is… of course social media is still the in-thing and a necessary channel now which I feel it needs to be managed well, but the focus should still be on your work (films and TV shows) which can garner a much greater response and impact as compared to social media.”
So, what’s causing the crisis of local productions today?
Globalisation, technology, cable TV, social media — whatever you want to blame, our local productions are suffering terribly, a fact we really couldn’t help but raise, and the three Lees acknowledge this.
This comment sears open a raw wound for Li, who shares that his friends have complained about low quality local films while comparing them to films coming out of Hong Kong and China.
The lack of work and also local support in Singapore’s tiny dot market has over the years sent Li and Christopher abroad for most of their acting jobs too — Mark even said in a previous interview he is experimenting with an initial telemovie in China to determine his suitability for an overseas market.
Christopher sums it up thus:
“This (the decline of local TV and mainstream film) is not a situation any of us wanted. Firstly, the local market is small. Secondly, everything is quite costly here. Although the absolute production cost is low, relative to others, the production cost is still slightly higher than overseas so to survive is really quite challenging.
I hope Singaporean viewers can prioritise local productions… it will be much easier to survive with this kind of support. With this, then we can have enough financial support to produce something even better.”
The Lees are all eager to nurture future Li Nanxings, Mark Lees and Christopher Lees — not so much people who are like them, but who can gain their level of fame, achievement and esteem.
“Everybody has a chance but not everyone gets the chance. We also unexpectedly and slowly stood out, fell and get back again, so I also hope to nurture a new generation of stars in Singapore.”
“As long as he is passionate in this career… Being passionate is the most important. If you don’t have that, you better not enter this industry. But I hope if they really succeed, they are not the next Li Nanxing, Mark Lee, or Christopher Lee, but themselves.”
The art of not being a diva
Discussing the future of Singapore’s TV and film industry has the three good-natured Lees reminiscing their old days of discovering what to do with their newfound fame, and how to spend their newfound social and financial capital.
Mark issues a stern warning to youngsters dreaming of fame and riches in the entertainment scene:
“I think besides passion, you must not put your own personal interests ahead of all else starting out. Many newcomers will think about how much they will earn if they become famous, but first of all, you have to ask yourself where your value is and be clear about it. Who determines your value?
You’re not going to get a pay raise after acting well in one show in this industry. It really depends on your market value, what can you gain for the company and yourself — then you can start talking about your personal benefits or interests.”
The three talked about managing their mutual star power and the balance of it in each scene they appeared together in The Fortune Handbook — the importance of being aware of who the lead is in the scene, and the other two taking supporting roles accordingly, for instance.
Interestingly, they also said they faced significant pressure as industry veterans to get things done quickly and professionally, even as Li, trying out a comedic role for the first time, confessed he spent a lot of his time stifling his laughter at the sight of funnymen Mark and Christopher.
“We are all very serious and attentive with work, but when we are filming, it really depends on whether we can suppress our laughter, right, because when they (Mark and Christopher) were being funny, it is really hilarious.”
Sharing “everything except (their) wives and children” aside, the friendship, fun and collaboration of the Lees is something even this jiak kantang Singaporean looks forward to witnessing in their next collaboration — but first it’s off to the cinema to catch a few more locally-produced films.
“The Fortune Handbook” is still showing on limited screens through next week.
Top photo by Goh Wei Choon.