Who’s the boss? Christopher Lee
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.”