Not limited to playing laughing stocks: Ah Girls Go Army transgender star claps back at 'close-minded' viewers

Kelly Kimberly Cheong plays Amanda Ong (previously known as Amanda Man) in the movie. When the previous name was announced, netizens called out both Jack Neo and Cheong for allowing the character to be named as such as it was perceived as targeting transgender women by positioning them as men pretending to be women.

Alfie Kwa | February 26, 2022, 01:50 PM

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In a not-unimaginable reality, a decline in Singapore's birthrate results in a "serious shortage of manpower in the National Service".

The Singapore government has no choice but to introduce GBMT – Girls Basic Military Training.

This is the plot of Jack Neo's latest movie "Ah Girls Go Army" (AGGA).

Like many of Neo's movies, the main characters in AGGA play up various female stereotypes – vain, gossipy, emotional, hopeless romantic – which is why Kelly Kimberly Cheong's character really stood out to me.

She plays Amanda Ong, a cool, composed, and definitely "bada**" woman, which is not far from what Cheong portrays herself to be online.

The 28-year-old, who is a transgender woman (trans woman), religiously practices martial arts such as Krav Maga, Muay Thai and Judo. And she's not afraid to show off her snazzy moves on social media, dealing sharp blows and flying kicks to punching bags in many of her TikTok videos.

Looking at her social media content, I think it's safe to say that you wouldn't want to pick a fight with her. 

At first, Cheong can seem pretty intimidating. Besides the fact that she could squash me like a bug, she towered over me at 180cm.

But a few seconds into the interview, I realised that she is quite the opposite of what I imagined.

Cheong constantly smiled throughout our conversation and often giggled when answering some of my questions.

And when I stumbled over a question, she — very graciously — said, "Don't worry take your time."

This is her first acting gig

Cheong never aspired to be an actress, and so her decision to audition for AGGA after seeing an open casting call on Facebook was very much an impulsive one.

She was looking for a challenge, something to get her out of her comfort zone, and her approach was simple: Be like Jim Carrey in the 2008 movie "Yes Man" and say "Yes!" to anything that comes her way.

Gif via Tenor.

And so when the opportunity to act in a Jack Neo movie came around, you guessed it, she said "Yes!"

"I was scared half the time... but I'm going to try because what's the worst that could happen?"

"I'm auditioning for the role of a recruit who is strong silent type and is trained in martial arts," read the caption that accompanied her audition clip which was posted on Facebook.

In the clip, Cheong recited a couple of lines and, of course, showed off her sweet martial art moves.

Her audition clip went viral (to date, it has 1,700 likes and almost 500 comments). And within a month, she landed her first acting gig, playing Amanda Ong.

"I was amazed by it all, and they sleep so little... And it's so tiring because of the long hours," Cheong commented about her time on set, which would span over 10 hours a day.

From having to figure out where to go to get her makeup done to scrambling to shoot locations, the rookie actress had little time to find her feet in this new environment.

Cheong learned everything along the way, even how to act. But thankfully, her castmates, who were also starting this journey alongside her, were an invaluable help.

"The whole main cast was very helpful. Some of them have never acted before too, so we'll share information (acting tips) like not looking directly into the camera when acting. And when they learned tips along the way, they'll share it with the rest."

Playing a tomboy

Who is Amanda Ong?

Aside from being a "female tomboy", Cheong describes her character as "swaggy", anti-social, and a woman of few words. She is often found with her arms folded, with a tendency to observe rather than participate.

To top it off, Cheong's character also plays the role of a tough protector. In one scene she protects her friends by singlehandedly carrying the bully away. And of course, she has pretty sick martial arts moves.

Quite a contrast to Cheong's real-life personality which veers towards being more goofy and chatty.

"When you talk to me, I'm quite hyperactive. But, I'm a lot more calm, composed and serious in the movie."

@kellykimberlycheong behind the scenes! @aizaiaisteady #ahgirlsgoarmy #agga #BTS #behindthescenes #ng ♬ Astronaut in The Ocean x Ci Ci Cimoy Cimoy - yrslv

Contrary to what you might believe, playing a tomboy doesn't come that naturally to her. Take for instance, her strut.

Cheong immediately got up from her seat and did a little impromptu walk for me.

"I normally walk with my hips, but with the character, she focused more on her shoulders."

Essentially she had to adopt a more manly gait, dropping her shoulders with every step she took and not moving her hips as much.

"One thing Jack (Neo) said to me: "Be cool""

That was the advice she took as she played her character and hoped the audience thought that as well.

As a trans woman, the role of a tomboy may seem rather complicated for Cheong – a trans woman, who was a male at birth, now playing a biological woman with manly characteristics.

It's a "role reversal" as Cheong put it.

"Personally for me as a trans woman, if I could, I would rather be born a girl."

So given the chance to be a cisgender, biological woman in the movie, she did not take issue with Neo's vision of Amanda.

Controversy about "Amanda Man"

The same can't be said of the public, though.

In November 2021, right after the cast of AGGA was unveiled, people pounced on Cheong's character's original name — "Amanda Man".

Image from Cheong's Instagram account. The image has since been taken down.

Amidst the congratulatory responses were comments calling Neo out for what was deemed to be tasteless humour.

Some questioned the message that Neo was conveying about the transgender community through the name.

Others assumed that Cheong's role was written for humorous effect, given that Neo has a knack for creating slapstick caricatures of his characters.

But Cheong was quick to hit back at those comments:

"They automatically assumed that I would become like a laughing stock because of the name. Then aren't they very closed-minded to think that whenever a transgender person goes on-screen, confirm kena made fun of."

Instead, she claimed that Neo's idea for her character, who is a fighter, was supposedly inspired by Chinese martial artist Ip Man and his portrayal in the Hong Kong films.

"Hence, the previous name (Amanda Man) maybe."

Having muscles and martial arts aren't just male qualities

Image taken by Alfie Kwa.

With her nails neatly trimmed to a sharp point, her cropped top showing off her defined abs, her long eyelash extensions and full eye makeup, and her hair worn in a high ponytail, Cheong is very much — as she described — a "girly girl".

Yet, she is also comfortable portraying herself online as a tough and strong person, either working on martial arts moves or flexing her muscles.

And while the latter is often viewed as a "masculine" characteristic, I sense that Cheong doesn't want to be shoehorned into being "masculine" or "feminine" and it's an attitude that she brings to her role on AGGA as well.

She's comfortable with that "duality" if you will. For instance, when it comes to describing her character, Cheong prefers the term "stoic" to "manly":

"I don’t think Amanda Ong is a manly person," she clarified. "She’s very stoic. I would say that that's a quality both genders can have."

It is also a characterisation that Cheong was comfortable portraying.

"If they asked me to talk in a very deep, voice, constantly flexing my muscles, and puffing my chest then I'll be uncomfortable."

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Quotes were edited for clarity. Top images from Cheong's Instagram.