A beloved personality in Singapore’s entertainment scene, actress and host OON SHU AN reveals herself as a profoundly deep thinker as she speaks her mind about allyship in art. She opens up to Nafeesa Saini about her versatile acting career and finding satisfaction in theatre.
It’s a sleepy Monday morning when Oon Shu An walks into the studio for our cover shoot, surprising us with her brand new hairdo. In place of her long locks is a short, shaggy cut. The effect is transformative. Today, her hair is artfully mussed. She gazes into the camera through gaps in its textured layers. She looks like a rock star. A glamorous, Chanel-clad one.
In a body-hugging dress with strategic cut-outs, Shu An moves fluidly between poses. Like all good actors, her body is her instrument of expression. A vision of sultriness, she twirls her hands as she gazes at the camera, aligned in movement and breath. She’s alluring and enigmatic.
But when the camera stops clicking, she breaks character and dramatically belts out the Adele ballad playing on the speakers. This is Shu An at her most natural self – the Shu An I met just days ago, and the one I grew up watching.
If you’re a millennial woman in Singapore, you might remember her as the host of Tried and Tested, the popular series by Clicknetwork. The web show covered beauty and lifestyle reviews, and was launched at a time when YouTubers were at their prime. With her perky onscreen personality and relatable charm, Shu An quickly endeared herself to viewers, many of whom make up her loyal fanbase.
In person, she is as effervescent and affable. She peppers her texts with star emojis. She thanks every single person at our photoshoot. She insists on sharing her lunch with me when I forget my own order.
During our first meeting, we get on like a house on fire. Our conversations go off on tangents, zigzagging through comfortable silences (when we ponder difficult questions) and squeals (as we gush over HBO’s hit series The Last of Us). She asks about my favourite shows, my work and the highlights of my year – going well beyond trivial small talk. Shu An appears to be an expert conversationalist, but deep down, she is an introvert.
TAKING THE STAGE
Theatre has long been an outlet for Shu An, ever since her parents sent her for speech and drama classes. “I was very quiet so I liked being able to express myself in some way,” she says. Later, she would join the drama club in secondary school and junior college. “I’ve always enjoyed being other people. It was an avenue for me to be creative. I’m terrible at learning from books, but I’m great at learning through conversations, movement and my body.”
With a shrug, Shu An says that not excelling in junior college was a divine intervention as it led her to her bachelor’s degree in acting at Lasalle College of the Arts. She describes her time there as a period of accelerated growth. “I learnt how to learn. I found joy in exploring ideas and the tools to do so. At Lasalle, you’re exposed to different ways of thinking, and avenues to better your craft.”
Shu An didn’t set out to be a full-time actor. “I wanted to study psychology, but I would have been terrible,” she opines. Asked how her parents – the ones who had introduced her to theatre – reacted to her chosen career, she says they were supportive despite initial misgivings. “They never wanted me to be an actor, but they always come and watch my shows. They didn’t want me to go to Lasalle, but when I got in with a half-scholarship, my dad was the one who drove me to pay my school fees.”
THE VETERAN THESPIAN
At 36, Shu An has come a long way and she has an incredible range to show for it. Her repertoire spans films, plays and TV shows. On screen, one of her biggest roles to date is of Jing Fei, a Song Dynasty courtesan on Netflix’s historical epic drama Marco Polo. She’s also a familiar face on local TV productions, such as Mata Mata and Code of Law. Recently, she starred in Alvin Lee’s Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, which won top honours at China’s Golden Rooster Award and was crowned Best Short Film at the 33rd Singapore International Film Festival.
While Shu An has long had TV viewers under her spell, theatre puts her in front of a different audience. The actress received several nominations for the Best Actress award, including one for her role in Singapore Repertory Theatre’s Lungs at last year’s Life! Theatre Awards.
It’s where she feels most at home. “I grew up in the theatre. It’s the medium I know the most.” She feels a strong sense of satisfaction through rehearsals. “I like discussing things. To be able to have access to someone’s thoughts in that way is exciting,” she enthuses.
She explains that rehearsals, leading up to the first few days of the show, offer one type of satisfaction. A different sense of accomplishment is achieved for the rest of the show, as actors go deeper into the characters while remaining faithful to the direction.
Asked which medium of acting she connects with the most, Shu An says it’s about the people she works with. “Acting is about examining what it means to be human and how we understand the world. That depends on the people we’re working with, what kind of conversations we have and how we navigate conflict. But with things like timelines and budget, sometimes we just get on with our work and move on.”
Shu An proposes “conscious working” as a solution. “Some think this sounds wacky, but how do we create safe environments for us to do the vulnerable work that requires us to examine ourselves and life?”
Her most memorable role so far, she reveals, is Lungs. The 2021 production followed a couple as they chose whether to bring a child into a world plagued by social inequality, political instability and environmental issues. “I enjoyed the writing, and the way my character’s brain was all over the place while she was reflecting on life and deciding whether to have kids.”
She also mentions Wild Rice’s Tartuffe. “It was a take on a 400-year-old play. It changed the storylines and the tenor of other things, but stayed true to the spirit of Molière. My role was so fun to play and I did it all in a giant pink dress.”
One of Shu An’s most well-known works is #UnicornMoment, her one-woman show that she wrote and acted in. Produced by Checkpoint Theatre, the live theatre production was a series of flashes of clarity and insight that quickly disappears – or, as she calls them, “unicorn moments”.
The play was inspired by conversations she had with viewers in Tried and Tested’s comments section. Shu An had intended to film advice videos in a unicorn suit to dial down the serious tone. Checkpoint Theatre then expressed interest for the concept.
She explains, “You can’t see unicorns so you can’t prove they don’t exist. The unicorn represented the thing about you that is special and makes you worthy. Even if no one else can see it, they cannot prove that you are not worthy.”
At its core, #UnicornMoment was about human connection and finding self- acceptance. For that, Shu An dived into her past by interviewing people who had shaped her. Those experiences were turned into life lessons. “Our society offers very clear markers of success. We’re taught specialness and worth if we achieve certain things. I was interested in what it means for us to love and validate ourselves on our own.”
KEEPING THE FAITH
For Shu An, social change is intrinsically part of her work and who she is. Scroll through her Instagram page and you’ll note that she openly speaks up for minority communities and pushes for systemic change.
Shu An waxes lyrical about her former lecturer, Cultural Medallion recipient and founder of socially engaged theatre company Drama Box, Kok Heng Leun. “Last year, I was very lucky to get the opportunity to assist Heng Leun in the Theatre of the Oppressed workshops. You can tell how much heart he has for the work and for getting people to understand what oppression is and how to work around it. Watching him work, I realised this takes time.”
For Shu An, allyship has several layers. “It is about functioning from a place of solidarity. It’s changing the way that we view equality and equity, and the systems that we live in. That’s the duty of art,” she adds.
It’s also about learning. “The biggest thing is educating myself, because I’m always going to have blind spots. I’m not always going to understand things I haven’t lived or experienced, such that I won’t understand the impact of a narrative. The question is how we can create a system that allows us to better understand. We need education on what sexism, racism, homophobia, classism and ableism are. If we don’t have that, it affects the stories we tell and the way that we position certain groups of people in those stories.”
In situations like these, Shu An asserts the importance of maintaining hope: “It’s easy to give up. Sometimes I get angry, but it’s also about finding grace – for yourself to make mistakes and for understanding that we all grow up in flawed systems. We can accept that we make mistakes, but also be accountable and thrive.”
I ask Shu An to describe herself as an artist. “I’m a perfectionist, but I’m trying to ease off it. There’s joy to be found in the imperfect, or in not striving to achieve everything. As an artist, I’m trying to figure out all this stuff we talked about.”
At the moment, Shu An is juggling hosting gigs, and Wild Rice’s Hotel that opens on Jun 8. She also has a mysterious personal project she can’t disclose yet. I probe her about her dream role. “It’s the one that you’re perfectly cast for. Where everything just fits. Where people want to discuss things, and are aligned.”
Top image: Comète 1932 white gold ring with diamonds and Comète Lune white gold ring with diamonds, both Chanel
Tweed jacket with ostrich feathers, Chanel
Fashion Direction JOHNNY KHOO
Photography JOEL LOW
Fashion Styling SHARON TULASIDAS
Hair CALVIN GAN/HAIRLOOM
Make-Up CLARENCE LEE, using CHANEL BEAUTY
Photography Assistance EDDIE TEO