Chua Enlai is more than just a funny guy -- here's his story

21 March 2014 / 2 years 7 months ago

Photo: Desmond Lim

Chua Enlai has made a name for himself with deeply likeable comic performances, and is perhaps most recognisable as an eccentric array of characters on the hit news parody TV show The Noose, whose seventh season premieres on April 1 on Channel 5.

Some of his most popular roles include B.B. See, a deadpan newscaster with a thick British accent, and Thai correspondent Pornsak Sukhumvit, who has a penchant for pole dancing.

The role of Pornsak won Chua his second Best Comedy Performance award at the 18th Asian Television Awards in December last year.

Chua has brought his larger-than-life brand of comedy to the stage as well.

He is a mainstay in theatre company Wild Rice's annual pantomimes, including Aladdin (2004) and Cinderel-lah! (2003, 2010), and was a key part of the group's all-male and critically acclaimed The Importance Of Being Ernest (2009) by Oscar Wilde, which travels to Macau in May.

He also pops up in the ever-popular musicals about national service: restagings of Michael Chiang's Army Daze and an upcoming musical adaptation of Jack Neo's Ah Boys To Men, also next month.

But beneath the easy wisecracks and off-the-cuff jokes is an incredibly hardworking actor who cut his teeth on gritty, serious and disturbingly dark roles when he first broke out on the theatre scene in the early 2000s, reports The Straits Times.

In Toy Factory Productions' provocative Shopping & F***ing (2001), he played a 14-year-old rent boy slaked in the grease of a corrupt, consumerist world. In Bent (2003), he played one of an ensemble of homosexual characters persecuted by the Nazis during World War II.

Both plays won big at the Life! Theatre Awards, and he earned a Best Actor win for Shopping & F***ing at the age of 23.

Both these plays were also directed by Beatrice Chia-Richmond, 39, Chua's longtime friend and artistic collaborator, who raves about his work ethic: "The moment Enlai steps into the rehearsal room, he's 1,000 per cent on."

She adds, of Shopping & F***ing: "I asked the actors to go out on the streets to seedy places, to walk around and 'pimp' themselves out. And he would do it, coming back with stories I knew only an actor who's put himself out there and taken risks would have done."

Actress-director Michelle Chong, 36, his popular compatriot on The Noose, credits him as being "very dependable" and "so talented". She had cast him in her first movie as director, Already Famous (2011), as a Filipino salesman: "When he comes on set, he's very prepared. He designed all these little actions and he knew Filipinos pointed with their mouths and things like that, so he really would do all his research before coming on set."

He moved to New Zealand when he was about seven, after his horse trainer dad got a job there. His mum is a housewife. The only child grew up on a stud farm where horses were bred. Lowering his voice to a muscly baritone, he wryly interjects: "That's why I'm such a stud."

He grins, pleased with the punchline.

Chua spent 12 years in New Zealand. He says he did not find moving there very disruptive: "I think at that age you're a lot more flexible, more open to changes."

Performing was something that came to him naturally. His mother sent him for speech and drama classes and he would perform on stage in school, including a turn as the villainous Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist.

As a Singapore citizen, he always knew that he would have to come back at some point to do national service. In fact, he interrupted an architecture degree at the University of Auckland to return.

He says: "Sometimes you can't quite imagine yourself doing that (architecture) for the rest of your life and you want to do something else. My parents were a bit like, 'Are you mad?' - but it had to be done. It took them a few years to figure it out, but they respected my decision. Not so Korean drama lah."

Back in Singapore, he had no idea what his army mates were saying for several months; neither did they understand his thick New Zealand accent.

He joined the Music and Drama Company, the birthplace of many a Singaporean actor, and scored a part in TheatreWorks' 24-hour festival, Got To Go, in 1998.

It was at this festival that he met Goh Boon Teck, artistic director of Toy Factory, as well as Chia-Richmond. He was roped into Shopping & F***ing, the start of a theatre career marked by edgy roles in challenging productions.

He was part of the abstract Plunge (2001), directed by the late theatre luminary Krishen Jit. It explored socio-political situations in Indonesia during the 1998 Asian economic crisis.

In The Necessary Stage's Fundamentally Happy (2006), which won Production of the Year at the 2007 Life! Theatre Awards, he scored a Best Actor nomination for playing a man who had been molested by his neighbour as a child.

Even at about 15 years into this profession, Chua still seems to be coming to grips with his ability to move audiences - which he does on a regular basis.

He recalls his appearance in Dream Academy's stand-up comedy show, Happy Ever Laughter (2012), where he did a segment involving a hilarious Hokkien spoof of New Zealand's haka chant. He mock-wails: "Stand-up is the most lonely thing. You just feel so insecure because there's only you. Your relationship with 2,000 people all depends on you."

He adds: "Am I comfortable or am I regurgitating the script? I don't know! Because I'm not playing a character or am I playing Enlai as a character? Or what? I don't get it! It's a crisis, sometimes."

This, despite the fact that he had the Esplanade Theatre howling with laughter night after night.

He ponders his chosen profession, almost as if he is reassuring himself that he has done the right thing.

After a pause, he adds: "There's something about it, about trying to prove to myself that I can do this or that I can do this new thing. You know?"

"I'm not very competitive, but sometimes I do things just to - I don't know what it's like, but I just do it to prove to myself that I can do it."

And perhaps the only person left to convince is himself - because he's got the audience thoroughly impressed.

Photos in the gallery show snapshots of the actor, and includes his childhood photos.

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