Lim Kay Tong, one of Singapore’s most celebrated veteran actors sits at a couch surrounded by reporters after his big win at the 20th Annual Asian TV Awards, where he has just won best supporting actor for his role as herbalist William Li in HBO Asia drama Grace. He is the only Singaporean to have collected accolades at the awards this year.
He is surprisingly sedated despite the win, even admitting to turning up late to the awards ceremony fifteen minutes before the award was announced for his category.
Relaying his feelings over winning the award, Lim described it as a “bonus” for him, crediting the win partly to Grace director Tony Tilse due to the creative space he provided the cast during production.
“I’m gratified simply because I really enjoyed working with the cast. Director Tony Tilse gave us a lot of creative space within the scene. And all us actors really had a good time because we had the freedom to be creative.”
On playing his character William Li, a herbalist who (spoiler alert) turns his daughter into a Yuan Gui (Chinese ghost) to exact revenge on her lover’s family, Lim tells us that his performance in the role had nothing to do with luck, or Chinese superstition for that matter.
A non-believer in superstition, he says “it is just what actors have to do; you’ve got to find something inside yourself you can relate to. The rest-just trust your instincts”.
Lim weaves a few more choice quotes throughout the 15-minute interview that reflect his wealth of experience in the acting industry. He was particularly passionate in his advocating of local talent, mentioning how the bulk of the cast and crew of Grace were in fact Singaporeans.
“Most of the production team and most of the cast, most of the crew were Singaporean. And it’s really paid off. I think the fact that they were nominated for 8 awards, you know, showed the quality of the production, possibly the potential in the future to have Singapore-based projects with essentially Singapore creative talent and I hope this continues not in the sporadic way that I’ve been used to-30, 40 years-but in a more continuous way.”
Furthermore, the veteran acknowledges that there is still a way for Singaporean actors to go when competing on an international platform.
“There are people from China, Japan and Korea who have much bigger industries which means they are more developed… So I think it’s just maybe a way of pushing our actors to do better. They didn’t get it this time; ‘how am I going to make myself better in order to really compete?’ That’s what it’s about, it’s about competing with the rest of the region. And I think most of the region had a head start in respect to the industry. So we do have a lot of catching up to do…”
Nevertheless the established actor lauds young Singaporean actors’ abilities, naming a lack of opportunity as the main reason for their lack of prominence on global platforms.
“I was really taken by how good they were. They’re young, they’re professional, they deliver the goods, and they deliver a little more. The only pity is they don’t get more opportunities to show their talent on an international stage…”
But in between chatting with us about his grandchildren (his granddaughter apparently being a better actor than himself) and recommending great Singaporean food hangouts (Lollapalooza on Keong Saik road amongst others), the experienced actor has several choice words of advice for aspiring young actors:
“I always say persevere you know. Just keep going. And most important thing is to enjoy it… And also stay competitive. There’s a big world out there and you’re competing against the rest of the world so you’ve got to make sure you can deliver. That’s a lot of hard work.”
And Lim Kay Tong is certainly a man who leads by example. Several decades into the business, and acting is no less his passion than it was when he first began. Although life in the fast lane is no longer his thing, his perseverance for his art nevertheless shows. When asked how long he sees himself in the industry for, his straightforward reply “I don’t know, until I drop dead, I guess” although slightly morbid, reflects a lifelong persistence that any artist would do good to learn from.
Photograph by John Ivan Larin