Who’s the boss? Christo­pher Lee

Esquire (Singapore) - - Style -

The tale of two broth­ers and how their kam­pung child­hoods ground their lives as lead­ing men, on both sides of the Cause­way and beyond.

We meet Christo­pher and Fred­er­ick Lee in Sin­ga­pore just a few days af­ter the lat­est in­stal­ment of the po­lit­i­cal saga cen­tred on the late Lee Kuan Yew’s house had played out in a Par­lia­ment ses­sion that left the is­land nation agog. Loung­ing in a cor­ner of the pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dio, the broth­ers seem re­laxed, not par­tic­u­larly chatty per­haps, but pretty at ease with each other. Were they close as kids? The two men give the ques­tion due con­sid­er­a­tion, look­ing at each other and con­fer­ring, briefly, be­fore con­clud­ing that no, they weren’t re­ally that close. “We were not like friends,” Chris says mat­ter-of-factly. He is five years older than Fred and both pre­ferred hang­ing out with their peers when they were grow­ing up. The age gap also made Chris— the sec­ond child and the el­dest boy of four sib­lings—prone to lec­tur­ing the younger ones. Fred is the youngest of the Lee quar­tet, ram­bunc­tious when he was a boy, con­sci­en­tious as an adult, and to date, the only one among them who is not mar­ried.

Did they of­ten quar­rel when they were chil­dren? “Well, that’s very nat­u­ral. I be­lieve all sib­lings quar­rel some­times,” Chris coun­ters. There’s a beat, be­fore he lands the punch­line. “Even the Lee fam­ily in Sin­ga­pore quar­rels.” Ev­ery­one laughs, be­cause he is good at this—get­ting the room on his side by lean­ing into his gre­gar­i­ous charm, which is start­ing to get a lit­tle griz­zled around the edges now that he’s 46, but still very pal­pa­ble. It’s the force of this nat­u­ral charisma that won him sec­ond place in Sin­ga­pore’s 1995 Star Search and cat­a­pulted him into lead­ing man sta­tus straight out of the gate, and it has kept him a house­hold name in the city-state for over two decades even though the bulk of his work now airs in over­seas mar­kets.

Fred got his start in the busi­ness through Star Search as well—a Malaysian edi­tion that he won in 2003. He seems qui­eter, more thought­ful; his an­swers are cour­te­ous and con­cise, but never flip. It is clearly im­por­tant to him to com­mu­ni­cate with sin­cer­ity. He’s also con­tent to take a back­seat as the con­ver­sa­tion swirls and ed­dies around him, only dip­ping in as needed. There’s still a lot of the lit­tle brother in him, an al­most def­er­en­tial air in the way he in­ter­acts with Chris. But you also get the sense that he’s ob­serv­ing ev­ery­thing around him, that still wa­ters run deep, that one fine day you’ll be watch­ing him act and some­thing he saw here in the stu­dio to­day— per­haps a ges­ture, or a way of be­ing around other peo­ple—will reap­pear, fil­tered through a char­ac­ter.

So, to a by­s­tander, the con­trast be­tween the broth­ers emerges eas­ily. One is the life of the party, the other at­tuned to the perks of be­ing a wallflower. But per­haps that dif­fer­ence is only clear when we see them to­gether. Af­ter all, hav­ing a sib­ling is a funny thing—it gives you con­text, whether you want it or not. Th­ese two have mostly pre­ferred to be con­sid­ered in­di­vid­u­ally rather than col­lec­tively. Fred worked in Sin­ga­pore for a few months af­ter win­ning Star Search, but soon de­cided that the mar­ket there was too small for two ac­tors who looked so sim­i­lar. “I had already started work­ing in pro­duc­tions in Malaysia be­fore coming to Sin­ga­pore, and I felt there were not many op­por­tu­ni­ties there. So, I de­cided to re­turn to Malaysia, where there are more TV sta­tions and a big­ger au­di­ence,” he says. Chris was sup­port­ive of his brother’s de­ci­sion, not be­cause he viewed him as a com­peti­tor, but be­cause “I want him to have his own path, and not have to live in my shadow”.

The phys­i­cal re­sem­blance be­tween the two is ac­tu­ally not im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous, and cen­tres mainly on the pho­to­genic Lee fam­ily nose, thin lips, and what can cred­i­bly be called heroic-look­ing eye­brows. On Chris, th­ese fea­tures add up to a cer­tain strik­ing boy­ish­ness; on Fred, the re­sult is more mal­leable. He’s li­able to leave a dif­fer­ent im­pres­sion de­pend­ing on the role you see him in, which is why both agree he’s more of a char­ac­ter ac­tor com­pared to Chris. De­spite their dis­tinct dif­fer­ences,

how­ever, both broth­ers have funny sto­ries of peo­ple get­ting them mixed up. “One time, when I was on the set of a pro­duc­tion, an un­cle asked an­other ac­tor why Lee Meng Soon (Chris’ Chi­nese name) changed his name to Lee Meng Chong (Fred’s Chi­nese name) af­ter act­ing for so many years,” says Fred. “He thought we were the same per­son.” An­other time, a Malaysian aun­tie saw Chris in Thai­land and ar­gued with him for 30 min­utes be­cause she re­fused to be­lieve that he was not Fred. (The third Lee brother, an en­gi­neer, some­times gets mis­taken for them both.)

At this point in their well-es­tab­lished ca­reers, they are both com­fort­able an­swer­ing ques­tions about be­ing com­pared with each other. But for Fred in par­tic­u­lar, this form of scru­tiny took some get­ting used to when he was first start­ing out. “I felt some pres­sure in the be­gin­ning. It used to make me a bit un­happy,” he con­cedes. “But then I thought it’s also be­cause of him that peo­ple got to know about me much faster, so I should ap­pre­ci­ate that.” In fact, it was Chris’ un­ex­pected foray into act­ing that in­spired Fred to pur­sue the same pro­fes­sion. A ca­reer spent in front of the cam­era never even crossed their minds when th­ese Malacca boys were grow­ing up; even the idea of a ca­reer seemed some­what ir­rel­e­vant. A job was a job, some­thing you had to have in order to put food on the ta­ble.

“We never dreamed of be­com­ing ac­tors,” says Chris. “In our cir­cle, what ev­ery­one knew for sure was that when we grew up, we would have to earn a liv­ing. As for what job to choose, we didn’t think about that.” Their fa­ther was a book­keeper, their mother a house­wife. All four sib­lings took on odd jobs to earn pocket money, and were also taught to help out with chores rang­ing from mak­ing chicken coops to chop­ping fire­wood. “Our fam­ily wasn’t strict when it came to our stud­ies,” says Fred. “My grades weren’t good, so I couldn’t tell the younger ones off when it came to study­ing,” Chris quips. What they did take se­ri­ously was the im­por­tance of mas­ter­ing tan­gi­ble skills, be­cause that meant they could con­trib­ute to the run­ning of the house­hold and lighten their par­ents’ load. They learned how to give their home a fresh lick of paint, how to start a fire, how to cook a meal. “All four of us are very in­de­pen­dent,” Chris says, with a glim­mer of un­der­stated pride.

Dur­ing the years when money was tight, he took it upon him­self to tell his younger sib­lings to be more pru­dent. “I asked them to think about our cir­cum­stances when they were mak­ing de­ci­sions about what to buy. Once, Fred and I quar­relled be­cause he wanted to spend his sav­ings on a new bi­cy­cle,” Chris re­mem­bers sud­denly. He turns to his brother: “Do you re­mem­ber this?” Fred—blessed with the benev­o­lent am­ne­sia of­ten be­stowed on the youngest child—shakes his head. Chris had once spent his sav­ings on a brand-new bi­cy­cle, which got stolen not long af­ter he bought it. That loss was so painful that he stopped Fred from mak­ing the same choice. “I can un­der­stand why a lit­tle kid would want some­thing that be­longed only to him, but I would rather he saved the money for some­thing else, like his stud­ies.”

Fred has no mem­ory of this bi­cy­cle that he ap­par­ently cov­eted. But he does re­mem­ber Chris’ stolen bike, which was lav­ished with all the ten­der loving care a bi­cy­cle could want be­fore it got pil­fered. “I re­ally treated it like a trea­sure,” Chris re­calls, the sting of its theft mo­men­tar­ily vis­ceral again all th­ese years later. Fred laughs, in wry com­mis­er­a­tion. “Yes, he pol­ished that bi­cy­cle ev­ery day,” he con­firms. Ul­ti­mately, he lis­tened to Chris and took over their fa­ther’s doughty old bi­cy­cle, which had been passed down from brother to brother be­fore it got to him. “It was al­ways like that back then. Ev­ery­thing got passed down, clothes too,” says Chris.

It’s not re­ally a hard­scrab­ble child­hood as much as the way things were for a lot of peo­ple a few decades ago. And, as it turns out, this do-it-your­self up­bring­ing gave the broth­ers a way to grasp the craft of act­ing. First of all, on a film set, “we never com­plain”, Fred says. Se­condly, all those chores they learned how to do turned out to be great train­ing. “It has to do with un­der­stand­ing the de­tails of day-to-day life,” Chris ex­plains. “He’s played an in­cense-maker, I’ve played a hawker. We take to th­ese man­ual tasks eas­ily be­cause we learned about the pro­cesses be­hind many dif­fer­ent things when we were young.” Be­ing a quick study is im­por­tant, be­cause act­ing of­ten in­volves mim­ick­ing cer­tain ac­tions in a con­vinc­ing way within a short pe­riod of time. “We are good at ob­serv­ing, be­cause, as kids, we would al­ways watch our mother to see how she cooked things, for ex­am­ple,” Fred adds.

To­day, watch­ing them pose in pris­tine leather jack­ets side by side as the pho­tog­ra­pher makes the kind of small talk de­signed to put celebri­ties at ease, it is some­what sur­real to think about how far they have come. The life they knew as chil­dren had its plea­sures mea­sured out in mo­ments like the gleam of a newly pol­ished bi­cy­cle. It’s prob­a­bly safe to say that Chris’ three-year-old son Zed will never know how it feels to yearn for a set of wheels in quite the same way. And things could very eas­ily have gone an­other way. Af­ter fin­ish­ing their fi­nal secondary school ex­ams, some of Chris’ friends de­cided to try their luck in Ger­many as il­le­gal mi­grant work­ers. They asked him if he wanted to come along. Back in the day, such trips were called tiao feiji in Man­darin—the lit­eral trans­la­tion is “jump­ing planes”, and the same phrase is also the Chi­nese term for hop­scotch.

Chris se­ri­ously con­sid­ered do­ing it. “I re­ally wanted to earn money. But I was wor­ried about get­ting caught, and I couldn’t bear to leave my fam­ily.” So, he chose to go to Sin­ga­pore in­stead, where he found work as a tech­ni­cian at an elec­tron­ics fac­tory. “Sin­ga­pore was so close, and even then, my mother cried so much when I left. If I had told her I was go­ing to Ger­many, it would have been so much worse.” Fred is, again, in­trigued by this, the rev­e­la­tion of yet an­other mem­ory that he re­alises he doesn’t share. “Did she cry a lot?” he asks. Chris nods with the ha­bit­ual equa­nim­ity of the older sib­ling who’s been there and done that. In Sin­ga­pore, a part-time mod­el­ling stint led him to Star Search, and then, just two years later, his first award-win­ning part in the 1997 TV se­ries The Price of Peace.

He played a Chi­nese traitor who col­luded with the Ja­panese dur­ing World War II in Sin­ga­pore. For Fred, watch­ing Chris in this role proved to be a turn­ing point. “I saw a com­pletely dif­fer­ent per­son on the screen, who was not like my brother at all,” he re­mem­bers. “It was a very strange feel­ing. I wanted to see if I could be­come some­one com­pletely dif-

fer­ent as well. It looked like a lot of fun, that chal­lenge of por­tray­ing dif­fer­ent lives and be­com­ing a dif­fer­ent per­son in each project.” Like Chris, he had briefly worked in Sin­ga­pore af­ter secondary school, as a ma­chine op­er­a­tor. Un­like Chris, he re­turned to Malaysia to con­tinue his stud­ies, and was work­ing as an in­te­rior de­signer by the time his brother be­came an ac­tor. When a pro­ducer asked him to join Malaysia Star Search, “I was afraid of gos­sip, of peo­ple say­ing I was copy­ing Chris”, he ad­mits. “I thought about it for a long time. Fi­nally, I de­cided to give it a try, be­cause it was some­thing I re­ally wanted.”

He did ask Chris for ad­vice, and his brother ba­si­cally told him: your life, your de­ci­sion. But he did cau­tion Fred that the in­dus­try had its own chal­lenges. Chris had been groomed as a lead­ing man right from the start, but not ev­ery­one’s path was so smooth. And even with all the sup­port he got, the lan­guage hur­dle was still very painful for him. “My Chi­nese wasn’t very good, be­cause in Malaysia, I stud­ied it as an ex­tra-cur­ric­u­lar sub­ject and never re­ally spent much time on it. So, when I sud­denly got thrown a 40-page script in Chi­nese, I couldn’t recog­nise half the char­ac­ters in there,” he says. A script for a sin­gle episode of a TV se­ries took him sev­eral days to de­ci­pher, be­cause he had to keep check­ing the dic­tio­nary. When he was pressed for time and re­ally des­per­ate, he even asked friends to read scripts and sum­marise plots for him. “I couldn’t get the di­a­logue out prop­erly when we were shoot­ing, be­cause while I was recit­ing what I had mem­o­rised, I for­got about per­form­ing as the char­ac­ter. I got scolded all the time.”

Fred freely ad­mits that his Chi­nese wasn’t great ei­ther. But there was one cru­cial dif­fer­ence be­tween them. Chris had stum­bled into this in­dus­try—his ini­tial mo­ti­va­tion was sim­ply to win some Star Search prize money, and it took six years in the busi­ness be­fore he started to ac­tu­ally en­joy act­ing. Fred, on the other hand, had made a con­scious de­ci­sion to be­come an ac­tor. “So, I de­cided to keep go­ing, and just meet each chal­lenge as it comes,” he re­calls. He started by do­ing what he was good at—ob­serv­ing. “I watched a lot of shows, and I would copy some man­ner­isms and ex­pres­sions from ac­tors like Lau Ching- wan and Al Pa­cino. I chose this path my­self, so I have to try my best. In the be­gin­ning when I didn’t feel con­fi­dent, I bor­rowed things from other ac­tors to cover my own short­com­ings. Then slowly, I started to de­velop my own style.”

The broth­ers seem to have a fairly lais­sez-faire at­ti­tude about keep­ing track of each other’s ca­reers. It’s partly a mat­ter of ge­og­ra­phy, since Chris is based in Sin­ga­pore and Fred in Kuala Lumpur, and the two cities don’t of­ten broad­cast each other’s TV shows. For Chris, who’s clocked more years in the busi­ness, there’s an­other con­sid­er­a­tion. “I don’t want to give him pres­sure, so I’m al­ways very care­ful about this. Even if I watch his work, I won’t men­tion any­thing to him un­less he asks me. I don’t want to in­flu­ence the way he ex­presses him­self as an ac­tor. I want him to find his own way.”

But he has tried to ad­vise Fred in other ways. Six years ago, when Chris was 40, he signed with Tai­wanese ta­lent agency Cat­walk and left the com­fort­able bub­ble of Sin­ga­pore to ex­plore the greater Chi­nese mar­ket in Tai­wan, Hong Kong and main­land China. The ad­ven­ture, which he had been pon­der­ing since his early thir­ties, went well— in 2014, he won Best Ac­tor at Tai­wan’s Golden Bell Awards for his role in fam­ily drama, A Good Wife. That same year, Fred nabbed Best Ac­tor at the ntv7 Golden Awards for his role in The De­scen­dant. He has since signed on with Cat­walk as well, and has been dip­ping his toes into over­seas pro­duc­tions. “I want him to get more ex­po­sure,” says Chris. “Com­pared to Sin­ga­pore and Malaysia, the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try in Hong Kong, Tai­wan and main­land China is more ma­ture. When you see how they do things, you will learn a lot, and it won’t be time wasted.”

For now, though, it’s a home­grown pro­duc­tion that is earn­ing Fred ac­co­lades. In You Mean the World to Me, he plays a char­ac­ter based on di­rec­tor Saw Teong Hin, and this Pe­nang Hokkien film lensed by ac­claimed cin­e­matog­ra­pher Christo­pher Doyle has res­onated with au­di­ences in Malaysia since its re­lease in May this year. Chris has seen it too, and lauds Fred’s per­for­mance as a break­through. This story about a dys­func­tional fam­ily was staged as a play be­fore it was adapted into a movie, and Fred was in the stage ver­sion as well. In fact, his act­ing ca­reer started in the the­atre, with a pro­duc­tion aptly named Start­ing from Zero. “The­atre is very ad­dic­tive, be­cause of that di­rect in­ter­ac­tion with the au­di­ence,” he says. The months-long re­hearsal process, though, can be tricky for him. “When a di­rec­tor asks me to give 100 per­cent emo­tion­ally right from the start, I will tell him I can’t do that. I have to ex­plore that char­ac­ter grad­u­ally. The in­ter­est­ing thing about the­atre is that each day is dif­fer­ent, even though you are say­ing the same lines. There’s al­ways a new dis­cov­ery. So, dur­ing re­hearsals, I will let the di­rec­tor know that I can’t cry now be­cause I haven’t found that emo­tion yet, but when the time comes, I will def­i­nitely cry for you be­cause I’ll be ready.”

There’s a cer­tain faith in the alchemy of spon­tane­ity that both broth­ers be­lieve in ar­dently. Chris has no de­sire to try the­atre, but the way he talks about act­ing in front of the cam­era is ac­tu­ally very sim­i­lar to Fred’s in­sights about per­form­ing. He’s mar­ried to Sin­ga­pore ac­tress Fann Wong, and the cou­ple re­cently started work­ing to­gether again, for up­com­ing Sin­ga­pore drama Dop­pel­ganger and Chi­nese thriller Yi Nian. But ask him a seem­ingly log­i­cal ques­tion about whether they ever re­hearse to­gether at home, and he ac­tu­ally gri­maces. “We’ve never done that,” he de­clares em­phat­i­cally. “I just don’t like the feel­ing of act­ing in that set­ting, it’s very strange.” For him, re­hearsals could mean walk­ing around the house think­ing about how his char­ac­ter might hold a cup, or run­ning through the phys­i­cal stag­ing of a scene with a fel­low ac­tor be­fore the cam­era rolls. But, like Fred, he cringes at the thought of amp­ing up to full emo­tion­al­ity be­fore the real deal. There’s some­thing about that ar­ti­fi­cial­ity that reeks of con­trivance to th­ese in­tu­itive, self-taught ac­tors. “We can spend months shoot­ing a se­ries, and each day, you find some­thing to add to the char­ac­ter,” says Chris. “I put my soul into this per­son, I start liv­ing with him, and I get more and more ab­sorbed with each pass­ing day. Each time the cam­era starts rolling, I feel like ev­ery­thing is within my con­trol. I re­ally like that feel­ing.”

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