Photo: The Straits Times
The Straits Times
Monday, Apr 13, 2015
Veteran actor Zhu Houren has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Star Awards later this month for In The Name Of Love but he is not exactly pumped up about it.
"I want to be nominated for shows that I like and I was hoping that it would be for my work in Three Wishes. If you're nominated for something you're not quite satisfied with, then even if you win, you'll feel embarrassed," he says.
In the drama In The Name Of Love, he flexes his acting chops as a man dealing with his wife's (played by Hong Huifang) dementia.
In the fantasy family drama Three Wishes, he plays an optimistic father and loving husband and he feels that he really got under the skin of the character.
This is not an ego thing, though, where Zhu, 60, is only partial to shows where he gets to shine in. "If a script is not good, even if I perform well, it won't be something to treasure."
For its successful combination of elements of fantasy with a family drama, he had even called the script for Three Wishes the one he was most satisfied with in all his years of acting in a previous interview with My Paper.
The actor has no qualms about speaking his mind and previously took issue with his nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the 19th Asian Television Awards for the show Served H.O.T. (2014). His beef?
"It was once again an old man with dementia so I was very resistant at first," says Zhu, who had won the Star Award for Best Supporting Actor in 2010 for Reunion Dinner playing, well, an old man with dementia.
In fact, characters with dementia appeared in Reunion Dinner, In The Name Of Love and Three Wishes, though it was his on-screen wife who suffered from the disease in the latter two productions.
He wonders aloud if there is anyone at the television station looking at the big picture to prevent "unusual character types" such as mental patients, tomboys or cripples from taking over the screen.
"Too much of the same thing and audiences would grumble."
Zhu can sometimes say things which, as fellow MediaCorp actress Xiang Yun puts it, "can make you break out in a cold sweat for him".
But the seasoned actor with 30 years in the local TV industry knows when to keep his mouth shut. He mentions a show in which his performance had garnered much praise but says: "I really hated the show because there were too many things that didn't make sense about it."
While he is honest enough to call out a show for not being good enough, he declines to name the show so as "not to offend people".
Xiang Yun, 53, says that she used to be intimidated by him because of his straight-talking nature. But she notes: "He bears no ill will and he's not out to tear others down. He just wants to say what's in his heart."
They first worked together on the sitcom Give Me A Break (1996) as bickering business rivals and they currently play a couple on the still-being-filmed Super Senior.
She says: "At first, I didn't dare to chat with him but as I got to know him better, I found that he's actually easy to get along with. He's very good at telling jokes and can also make fun of himself."
Indeed, he comes across as friendly, open and accommodating during the chat at his home.
He lives with his wife, two sons, mother-in-law and two helpers in a condominium in the east. It is an apartment filled with family photographs and framed Christian homilies and decorated with a few floral centrepieces. There is nothing to suggest that this is the home of an entertainer.
"This is my home, not MediaCorp, why would I have pictures of other artists? So no, not a single photo."
That is not to say that he takes acting lightly. It is because he takes his craft seriously that he feels compelled to speak up when things are not right.
He joined the television company, then called Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, in 1985 and over the course of three decades, he has played a variety of roles.
At the annual Star Awards for local Chinese television, he has been nominated four times for Best Supporting Actor and once for Best Actor before he finally won for his work on Reunion Dinner in 2010.
Some of his best-known series include gambling drama The Unbeatables I (1996) and nostalgia drama Wok Of Life (1999).
Thanks to his on-screen charisma and perhaps mustachioed and bearded look, online reference sites such as Wikipedia (in Chinese) and Baidu note that he has been dubbed Singapore's Sean Connery.
But while Connery got to live it up as suave secret agent James Bond, Zhu's roles have been much less glamorous. One is hard put to think of a role in which he was not a father or grandfather.
"I was 35 when I started playing characters in their 50s and 60s. In my 30s, I was already playing Zoe Tay's father in The Unbeatables," says Zhu, just 13 years older than Tay.
While he was not resistant to prematurely ageing on screen, he admits that he used to be hung up on the size of his role and whether he would have the chance to shine.
But he recalls what MediaCorp producer Jiang Long used to say: "Not every drink can be a rich cup of coffee. When you get tea, you have to find a way of brewing it so that it has its own light fragrance."
It was his late father who influenced Zhu in his choice of profession. In the 1970s, his father was involved in movie distribution and brought in titles from Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Zhu recalls visiting the set of 1977 Cantonese movie The Chase. The Hong Kong movie was filmed in Singapore and starred the likes of Deborah Lee, Lo Hoi Pang and Michael Chan Wai Man. Seeing the workings of a production set and watching stars at work left an impression on him.
The third of eight children says he was considered a "bad student". He completed his O levels at Chung Cheng High School but he was more interested in basketball than hitting the books. And there was no pressure from his parents to continue his studies, either.
He enrolled in an actors' training class after national service in 1976. But at that point, not much was happening on the local drama scene and he headed out to Hong Kong to break into its established television and film industry.
He did part-time jobs behind the camera, such as being the assistant to the assistant of the cameraman, and bit parts and gained a film education in the process.
This was when the New Wave movement was beginning to take off in Hong Kong with Tsui Hark's The Butterfly Murders (1979) and Ann Hui's The Secret (1979) shaking up the establishment with gritty films about contemporary society.
Zhu had an epiphany: "So a director need not be someone chomping on a cigar, someone old, yelling 'Cut' from his chair."
Once, he overheard Tsui saying: "In order to make a story that moves someone, basically, it has to be true.
"You can add technique and other bells and whistles, but the foundation has to be something that someone has experienced."
What eventually led Zhu back to Singapore from a peripatetic life in Hong Kong and Taiwan was love, sprinkled with a healthy dose of pragmatism.
He was planning to marry his then Indonesian-Chinese girlfriend Vera Hanitijo and was advised it would be easier for her to apply for Singapore permanent residency if he was employed by a big company.
So he signed a one-year contract with the TV station in December 1985 and got hitched the same month.
"The PR application was approved four months later," he says, laughing delightedly at the punchline.
He was her first boyfriend and she was his first girlfriend, he adds sweetly. They met when he was 20 and she was 15. At that time, he was living in a terrace house in Paya Lebar and their paths crossed when she came for a holiday and stayed with her aunt nearby.
Ms Hanitijo, who was a model, says with a laugh: "We started out as friends, got along well and dated for a long time. It was a very chaste relationship, not like young people nowadays."
Her parents thought he was a "good boy" and she was close to his family.
She stopped working after their second son came along. Jonathan, 25, is doing media studies at Nanyang Technological University and Joel, 20, studied music at Singapore Polytechnic and is about to enlist for national service.
The elder son is more interested in being behind the camera while the younger son loves the glitz and glamour of show business, says Ms Hanitijo.
"I've never attended the Star Awards but No. 2 loves going with his father."
What started out as a one-year contract has turned into a lifelong career. But Zhu still has a passion for behind- the-scenes work. He left the station in 2000 and tried his hand at directing straight-to-video films.
He set up production company G&J Creation in 2004 with TV producer and director Gerald Lee. Zhu goes by Jack Choo Hou Ren on the website for G&J.
The production company's bread- and-butter work was children's shows and it sustained the company for a good seven to eight years.
Their titles included Yamashita's Treasure, about children on a treasure hunt, and Genki Kids, whose protagonists possess supernatural powers.
The G&J partnership ended amicably in 2013 though Zhu continues to use the name on an ad-hoc basis. For example, he produced the basketball movie Meeting The Giant under that banner last year.
Taking to heart Tsui's words all those years ago, several scenes in the movie were based on his personal encounters with a group of student players from China back in 2003.
The movie script was shaped by writerhost Danny Yeo.
The ambitious plan was to break into the China market with the title but things did not work out as planned. He would only say that the box office for the $1.2-million movie in both Singapore and China was "not ideal".
Ask him what his dream is now and he replies without hesitation that it is to continue making movies. His passion also comes through when he talks at length about the local industry or shares his ideas for possible projects.
Not even heart surgery - a quintuple bypass in June 2006 - has diminished his fervour.
His family has a history of heart disease and his father, a younger brother and an older sister have died from it. He recounts his own operation with the relish of a storyteller spinning a yarn, even laughing about it now.
At one point, he heard someone whispering his name urgently and he was worried that the anaesthesia had worn off and he was still in the middle of surgery.
It turned out the procedure had gone smoothly, "but maybe the heavens knew I was an actor and the best act was to follow".
Happily, he has a clean bill of health now and he marked his 60th birthday in January. There was no big celebration, though, because "people live so long nowadays".
So life goes on and so does acting.
He says: "Unless the day comes when my reactions or ability to grasp something has slowed, then maybe it could be time to retire. But if my health allows it, I'll continue to act. I think this acting career of mine is for life."
The Star Awards is held on April 19 and 26.
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